Tuesday, May 12, 2009

grandmother stories (part two)

As Thomas King said "The truth about stories is that that's all we are."

I am a first generation Canadian. My parents arrived as children, with their parents, at a time when European families were brought to this country to provide necessary farm labour. I'm lucky enough to have a grandparent still living, a grandparent who could, up until two years ago, tell me the stories of her childhood, my mother's childhood...when you pack up your life and move across the ocean with seven children, there is not much space for family heirlooms. These stories are my legacy.

I wrote this almost seven years ago. I showed it to one person (my ex) who heartily criticized it, and I stuck it in a file, vowing never to work on it again. At the time, the fact that he read no fiction, and had little to no clue about fiction writing in general had no bearing. I learned not to show him my work - he really didn't understand that sentence fragments were sometimes necessary, that dialogue needed rough edges, that in order to describe something perfectly, one occasionally relied on imagery and imprecision. Whatever....

Read it and judge for yourself.

Oma, this is for you.

In the cellar, familiar objects were recognized by touch alone. No light were permitted, lest their brightness seep through their only source of ventilation, a small, narrow window. She had memorized the distance between the bed and the wall, and could only walk with hands outstretched tentatively in front of her body as she felt her way through the darkness. Two weeks ago, when they were forced to move their beds downstairs, Theo had used a crowbar to pull the casement from the window frame, allowing a marginal purchase of cool, spring air into the musty cavern. Now the elements were free to enter: the wind, the rain which streamed down the stone walls and puddled on the floor, and sunlight in the form of a single, narrow bar that cracked the darkness only during the day, when the cellar was unoccupied.

Slaap kintje slap
Dar buiten lopt in schaap
En schaap met witte voetjes
Dat drink zijn milk so soetjes
Slaap kintje slap.

On the makeshift bed, Johanna rocked baby Nada and sang, her hesitant, tuneless voice punctuated with ominous whines, and deep explosions that sometimes shook the very foundations of the house. The village and surrounding farms were built on a hill, and each dwelling was blessed with a cellar. Because of this, only three lives had been lost since the Occupation, a miracle, considering the hundreds of lives forsaken elsewhere. With the shelling so close, her relative safety was little comfort for Johanna, alone in the cellar with her two small children. Nada was a year old, and Joop almost three.

She rocked and sang continuously, repeating the words over and over until her voice cracked and broke. Nada was already fast asleep; her head lolled in Johanna’s slight, strong shoulder. As the words to the lullaby left her mouth, she silently prayed.

“Heilige Maria, Moeder van God. Bid voor ons zondaars, nu en in het uur van onze dood….Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” The hour of her death may have been upon her, but strangely, she was not afraid. Her fears were for her children, too young to experience the pain of loss, the trauma of injury. Too precious. Hers. Johanna thought of her husband, away from home, his location unknown.

Johanna had been alone at night upon occasion, both before and after the Allied invasion which had brought the fighting to her part of Holland. For the first time since the Germans had marched in and declared Holland to be their territory, the war had now reached the Acterhoek. The original siege had taken three days, more or less, before the small Dutch army had given in to defeat. But through the occupation, the work of the Underground had remained constant, but remote. A strategic bridge or railway car bombed here or there, a few rounds of sniper fire lobbed from a well-hidden position.
Messages were delivered, “packages” smuggled across checkpoints and into safe areas; a brisk trade was conducted in black market ration books, and fresh food was withheld from demanding soldiers.
She allowed herself to think of Theo for a few minutes. His bicycle was his means of transport. In order to avoid conscription into the German army he had taken a job selling insurance on behalf of the German government, which was the only insurance scheme available. His brown cardboard pouch, German government issue, had been painstakingly altered to create a secret compartment that held ration books, papers, and new identities. Delivered messages were always memorized, never written down, and all was transported from one farm, one village to another by bicycle. Johanna worried every day, every hour that a suspicious movement, a moment of hesitation would give him away. She could not bear to think about the camps with their armed guards, barbed wire, and rumored atrocities. Too many people she knew had disappeared already. Three priests from their parish vanished after speaking against the Jewish expulsion by reading a letter from the Dutch Bishop during mass. Everyone knew where they had gone. Worse than death by firing squad, it was a slow, stifling execution.

There would be no sleep tonight. Even if the shelling and gunfire stopped, Johanna would be unable to rest without the comfort of Theo’s arms around her shoulders. She knew this already. The children had settled, oblivious to the sounds of an army’s final desperation. She laid her head on the pillow and pulled the sheet up to her neck, careful not to disturb the children. Her wedding linens, meant to last a lifetime, were soiled and grey, with no soap or bleach to restore their former, crisp brightness. For the last two weeks she and the children had been virtually confined to the house, leaving only for brief moments during a lull in the fighting to feed the animals. Once had she been able to hurry to the neighbour’s, for whispered exchanges of the latest news. Only the most necessary things were washed in the kitchen sink and left to dry overnight. Baby linens, underthings, house dresses. Theo kept up the pretence of working, when he could. There were moments in each day when he could slip out. He would fling his satchel over his shoulder and pedal away, on the pretence of selling useless insurance.

Johanna heard the creak of the solid door being opened upstairs. The footfall was authoritative and heavy, the step of regulation Army footwear. Either Werner or Schwarz had returned from wherever they had gone. Soon she would hear him ascend the steps into the attic. For several weeks now the house had been occupied by two German soldiers, who slept in her father’s attic workroom.

Besides Werner and Schwarz, other soldiers would take up temporary abode, bunking in the sitting room, the kitchen, or in the workshop. They ate the family’s food, and drank their fill until long after midnight. Some were pleasant, some silent and gruff. Johanna and Theo had no choice but to provide them with meals and shelter. Johanna’s father had left to stay with cousins in another town, and had urged her to take the children and join him. She refused, not wanting to leave the house with so much work ahead. The gardens needed to be planted, the animals needed tending, or the family would starve next winter.

She could live with the two soldiers. After all, they were just people like her. Werner was nice enough, a farmer back in Germany and very sympathetic, but Schwarz was clearly Hitler’s man. Neither was to be trusted. There were moments of panic when her children were toddling around a house full of soldiers. A kind-looking officer had once given Joop a piece of chocolate. He took it in his chubby fist and turned his innocent blue eyes towards the soldier.

“Dank u, vuile Duitse mens,” he had said. Thank you, dirty German man. Johanna had frozen to the spot, her face drained of colour as she waited for the whole family to be shot where they stood. But the soldier had laughed warmly and patted Joop on the back, admiring his pretty blonde curls. So close.

The presence of the soldiers had brought the family into direct danger. Certainly the increased activity around the farm would be noticed by the Allies, if it had not been noticed already. The Allies were advancing, beating the Germans back little by little. This quiet countryside, which had seen almost no action in the past five years, was now a dangerous place. The roads were nearly deserted. Travelers avoided main roads and open spaces, afraid of being caught between the enemy and the enemy. Families moved their beds to the cellars and slept in the security of stone foundations and earthen floor, sometimes narrowly missing death as their houses collapsed on top of them. Jurgen van Pels, a neighbour, had been killed by sniper fire as he walked along the road to the village three weeks ago. A German soldier, hidden in a foxhole, panicked and shot recklessly, not caring whom he killed.

In the countryside, food was much easier to obtain than in the larger cities. Most goods were earmarked for the German cause, but there were ways of providing for one’s family. When a pig was killed, supposedly by disease, it was inspected by the Germans and then buried. Later it was unearthed by the light of the moon, butchered and preserved, hidden in the secret places that families created to store their illicit, life-giving food. Johanna’s father, a carpenter by trade, had devised a pantry with an inner and outer shelf. With a push of a button, the outer shelf swung open, revealing hidden jams, preserves, dried foods: whatever had been procured through saving, subterfuge, and the back market. These were the subtle, illicit means by which the Dutch bested the Germans daily. A matter of survival for oneself, for the children. A soldier could confiscate whatever food he desired, and although some were conscious of the hungry-looking children that ran barefoot and ragged, many did not care, and divested families of their entire, visible hoard.

Johanna succumbed to sleep in the grey light before dawn as the birds began to raise their voices from the low bushes surrounding the red brick house. The children showed signs of wakening first, stretching and yawning, twisting themselves in their bedclothes. Usually Johanna was awake and dressed at this time, cheerfully chatting with the babies as she prepared for the day’s work. Today she woke slowly, stretched her arm across their restless bodies, and filled her nostrils with the scent of their warm childhood.

With brisk, forced good humour, she sat up, tickled Joop under the chin to tease him into wakefulness, and began to dress. Using a small mirror and comb, she rolled her hair neatly back behind her ears and washed herself with a damp cloth, brought from the kitchen the night before. The last few years had taken some toll on her body, grown lean from hunger and hard with labour. Trained as a seamstress, there was nothing to sew except clothes remade and reworked, the worn places patched. But a family must eat, and the gardens must provide for both summer and winter. Her small hands, long-fingered, had grown calloused and hard. Tiny lines had appeared around the bright blue eyes and in the corners of her mouth. Frown lines, lines of worry and watchfulness.

Johanna quickly dressed the children and took the narrow stairs into the kitchen, holding Nada in her arms while Joop cautiously climbed alone, one step at a time. Once upstairs, she took down the blackout blinds and permitted the morning light to fill the kitchen. She lit the stove, carefully feeding the precious fire with paper, kindling, and bits of coal. Just enough heat to cook the meal and no more, not even for a morsel of extra warmth on this cool, spring morning. Nothing could be wasted, not the food scraps, nor the coal in the bin, nor time spent worrying.

There were four eggs in a bowl on the counter, eggs meant for Werner and Schwarz, who still slept, and had their breakfasts carried up to them each morning. No doubt, they had been pilfered from another farm. She stood at the counter and turned one over in her hand; warm, brown and smooth. Her children were hungry and the officers feasted on eggs. Milk was scarce, the last cheese had been eaten, and there was no meat for anyone, except the Germans. She could add a bit of water and scramble three eggs; they were large enough that one would not be missed. It was wrong. But she would do it anyways, steal the egg which had been stolen from some hungry farmer. Someone she very likely knew.

There was no mishap, no foundation for the anxiety which had robbed Johanna of sleep. Theo arrived home after breakfast. He looked tired and said little, which was not unusual. So many things went unsaid when life was spent on tiptoes, straining to embrace and love while surrounded by strangers. Their nights in the cellar were the only moments of privacy they had.

“Where were you?” she asked.

“I was helping Jan van Broste on his farm. It was too late to travel, so I stayed.”

“How is the business?” Johanna questioned, referring to the insurance work, knowing there was no other business that could be openly discussed.

“Insurance is a tough sell these days,” he answered, rolling his eyes towards the attic. I’m happy to be home again.”

Both Theo and Johanna knew that there was no more insurance to sell, that soon the policies held by Dutch citizens would be useless. Johanna laid a quiet hand on the inside of his arm. As she caressed him, she felt the solid muscle beneath his sun-browned skin, and absently rubbed the inside of his wrist near the fraying shirt cuff. She looked into his beloved face with intensity as she spoke quietly.

“It is good to have you home.”

The officers did not go out that night. Instead, overly jolly, they brought down their flasks of Geneva and suggested a game of cards. There was no way for Theo and Johanna to refuse their kindness gracefully.

It was an unusually quiet evening. No distant shelling, no gunfire. Where birds might sing at eventide, or dogs might bark at passing motor cars, there was silence. The sunset against the hills filled the west with ominous red tentacles that reached out and stroked the darkening sky above the house.

The children were sleeping downstairs and a euchre hand had been dealt. For the first time in two weeks, the electricity was on. It should have been a blessing to go without candles, but the overhead lamp seemed too brilliant, angrily reflecting off the polished surface of the kitchen table. Johanna felt uneasy in the unnatural calm, under the bright light which shone like a beacon. The blackout curtains were well-made, and she knew that the lights could not be seen from outside, but she imagined that the light’s essence could travel right through the curtain, to alert and beckon both Allies and Germans alike. She suppressed her fears, picked up her cards and played her hand.

No one was at ease, but they played several games and shared small jokes as the officers filled their cups with Geneva again and again. Johanna sipped her drink carefully. She was no drinker, and she did not want to lose her ability to respond in an emergency. The air in the house was filled with the odor of cheap cigars, produced and proffered by Werner for the enjoyment of Theo and Schwarz. Johanna wished desperately for an open window, a taste of fresh clean air in the stale farmhouse. She could not risk going outside, not with the lights burning so garishly overhead. Too much noise inside, too little outside. Both Schwarz and Werner laughed loudly, too loudly, telling bawdy jokes in German, guffawing with red faces until tears rolled down their cheeks. They slapped each other on the back, sometimes giving an additional friendly punch on the arm. Their words began to slur, the pretence of a card game was forgotten. Johanna was sure that morning would find them slumped over the table, snoring loudly, with playing cards scattered all over the stone-tiled floor. Always, she thought, they drink to hide their fear, to have an excuse to show their emotions.

In a moment of silence they heard the wheels of a car, or a cart, being pushed along the nearby road, too ominous in the unbroken quiet of a temporary ceasefire. Theo turned his face to the window.

“Turn out the light!” he commanded suddenly.

Johanna stood up and flicked the switch, just as something whizzed by her ear, something hurtled with tremendous force and heat, so hot that Johanna felt as though her face had been burned. She had heard no sound, no loud retort; but, when she ran her fingers along the wall, she was not surprised to find a bullet hole, a perfect circular pocket in the smoothness of the painted plaster.

It was time to leave.

In the candle’s faint glow, Johanna knelt on the bedroom floor and pulled open the bottom drawer of her bureau. Inside were precious things, memories, mementoes of a sweet existence before and even during the war, lovingly gathered and stored. Her mother’s wedding ring. Her grandmother’s hat pin, from the days in the last century where wealth and status were displayed on the peak of starched, white cap. A dried corsage, worn on her wedding day. Her wedding photo, as she walked to church on the arm of her beloved. Birth announcements for both her children. A ribbon from a tiny, knitted cap. She pulled out her engagement photo and studied it carefully, squinting in the faint light. How young she looked, how fearless, with her stylish hat tipped over one eye, her secretive smile. The picture had been taken only five years ago.

The satchels were filled beyond their capacity already, bulging with undergarments and baby things, a change of clothing and a nightdress. There was no room for sentimental objects. Johanna’s hands caressed the long, white christening gown that she had made for Joop from her own wedding dress, satin and lace from one sacrament fashioned lovingly for another. How tiny it was, how precious each careful stitch, each bit of lace, the linen underskirt. It must stay behind, even though Johanna longed to snatch it up and carry it close to her body. In two months there would be another child, and perhaps no finery to clothe a new infant on its baptism day. Her fingers journeyed beneath the satin to the cards and letters collected, stored, and treasured. She took the birth certificates, the identity papers, the ration cards, and their marriage certificate. She left everything else behind except a faded photograph, a picture of her mother, who had died more than ten years earlier. The human lives were the truly valuable things.

In the morning, during a lull in the fighting, she would pack the satchels onto the sides of the bicycle, strap Joop into his carrier seat, put Nada in the front basket, and pedal the few miles to her cousin’s house. It was a crowded place. Her father was there, her sister, other relatives who had fled their homes. Theo would stay behind to care for the house and the livestock. It was a risk to travel, but there was greater risk in staying. Perhaps the sight of a woman on a bicycle, alone with two children, would be enough to arouse pity in the hearts of the soldiers, and they would stay their guns.

Johanna thought about the day the first Allied troops had landed close by, in the early autumn of the year before. She had been digging up turnips in her garden, once used only for pig feed, now a family staple. Joop played with a wooden toy by her side, and Nada slept in a sling tied around her shoulder and fitted snugly to her waist. It was the clearest of days, and she could look beyond their small holding to see similar farms, and rolling hills, miles in the distance. The day was warm and she worked vigorously, her small body bending to clear the earth and shake the roots free from clods of dried earth. Her hair was pulled away from her face with a kerchief, and her dress was covered in earthy stains. Johanna had heard the drone of aircraft and looked up, expecting to see another German plane. A formation of Allied warplanes flew overhead and began to fan out, becoming distant and small in the cloudless skies. She had watched the paratroopers jump out, falling, opening their parachutes to float softly and gently to the ground, like the fluff of a milkweed pod ripped apart and carried by the currents into the soil. She heard it then, the rat-tat-tat of machine gun fire as one by one; the Germans hit their floating targets. As she had shaded her eyes against the sun’s glare, she whispered a soft prayer, a prayer that ripped her heart, for the safe deliverance of the soldiers to the ground. She knew that there was little chance of survival, even for those lucky enough to land.

Who would be left to pray for her, if everything was lost?


Avril Fleur said...

I read this yesterday but had to wait a day to comment to digest it. Again, I realize that this story is fictional, but I am guessing it is based on stories from your Oma. I don't know your Oma well but I have seen and spoken with her sporadically throughout the years and even though she is a such a tiny little lady, she has always struck me as a woman of quiet strength and grace. The kind of quiet dignity gained by raising a large family despite living through untold horrors and troubled times. This is a very powerful story and your writing made me feel a real connection with what this woman went through and her feelings and fears in the midst of a situation that seems almost unreal to one who has never lived such a thing. I've read plenty of second-hand accounts of people who have been through war-time situations but have always had a hard time feeling what it must have actually been like. I didn't have any trouble connecting to the character's feelings in your story.

I think the story is a fantastic testament to your Oma's experience. And the fact that she is still with us well into her 90's certainly speaks to her strength of will and character.

Anna said...

I'm so glad that I took the time to write them down - they're the best legacy that she could have left me.