A Page From My Book

Or more than one... 

Because I don't think just one page can summarize what my book is about.  If it could, I would have written a short story and not a three hundred plus page novel that took ten years to write.  There are pages of writing of which I am especially proud, and these I can share here and hope these few pages spur the readers onto buying the whole thing. 

"So, what's your book about?"  It's a legitimate question I get asked all the time and I always struggle to answer. The plot is that an elderly man loses the distinction between his past and present, starts to see people he lost decades before, and believes he has one last chance to save one of these victims of war.  Only his daughter understands what has happened, but even she may not be able to save him from his own good intentions.  That's my book in a nutshell, but the better answer is that my book is about love and loss, regret and atonement.  That's the hope, anyway. 

Heinrich’s ghosts came only at night for the longest time, until the very end of his life. They left the black forest when he did, crossed the ocean with him, and settled down to shadow him in his new American life. For years, these dead Germans haunted his dreams. Heinrich grew up and grew old; his ghosts never did.

He would dream of Helmut, who once was exactly Heinrich’s age, but remained fourteen while Heinrich had said goodbye to sixty. He dreamt of Josef, his older brother dead over fifty years, pitching baseballs to the nephews his brother never lived to meet. Sometimes, this was enough to wake him, his certainty that his ghosts had no place in this time. They were anachronistic, speaking German at his Thanksgiving table, marching Russian POWs down Main Street in the homecoming parade.

When he woke, sweating and disconcerted, Heinrich would repeat to himself some version of the same words he always used to chase away the nightmares: “They can’t be here, they died a long time ago. Silesia doesn’t even exist anymore, not as it did. And I was just a boy.” Then, the lie: “I didn’t do anything wrong.”

For fifty years, he chose to forget the past. When he thought of his life before at all, Heinrich would picture his life in fragmented pieces: in Silesia, in Hamburg, and finally, in Iowa. These pieces did not belong together; did not seem to share the same man. He could remember this and fall back to sleep when the ghosts came, when he still believed that the past and present could not meet. In the last months of his life, that changed.

So, that is the first page of my book.  Further into it, Heinrich's daughter Anna Maria is taking care of him and has the first inkling of a family secret, in her father's attic...

At the very bottom were photographs, bundled together with a dry, frayed ribbon that fell apart when Anna Maria touched it. They were all the sepia tones of old black and white photos, mostly studio poses with unsmiling faces, but a few later candid pictures of Tante Brigitte and Uncle Fred, painfully young in his Army uniform. There was another of Heinrich smoking, or pretending to, and leaning against a long, shiny two-door car with fins. Heinrich and Tante Brigitte must have taken First Communion at the same time, for there was a picture of them together, Brigitte in all white, looking very young and very stiff. This, like other photos in the suitcase, had been turned into a postcard by the photographer. Weird.

All the pictures were in good condition but one, a creased and fingered photo of a young girl. Hers was a face that belonged to wartime Germany; she wore short blonde curls pulled to one side by a bobby pin. She was smiling, showing two missing front teeth. She had the Warner square forehead and straight brows and Anna Maria guessed this was a very young Aunt Renate, who was otherwise unrepresented in the collection of photos.

If Tante Brigitte was Old World, Aunt Renate was pure New Jersey. She could barely remember Germany, never spoke German when her siblings did, and embraced her adopted country as thoroughly as Tante Brigitte clung to the old one. Just as Heinrich had long ago rejected Anna Maria’s assumption that he was Polish because he lived inside its current borders, so had he just as determinedly lived as a German in America. Heinrich and Brigitte chose their national identity, and it was German, but Renate was so thoroughly American, it was as unthinkable to call Renate “Tante” as it would be to call Brigitte “Aunt.” It was hard for Anna Maria to reconcile her modern, suburban aunt with this photograph of the girl with the long-ago face.

... and again when she quoted words overheard from her father's nightmare...

“Greg, I keep remembering Oma sitting in her chair rocking and talking to herself when I was a little girl and sometimes she would call me something. It was like Lois and Lucy, but there was a V in there, too. Dad said the same thing one night, soon after he moved in, but he was talking in his sleep. Do you remember what she was saying?”

“Vois. Vois Lucy. I remember because she used to call me that, too.”

“Vois Lucy,” she repeated and Heinrich, coming into the kitchen, heard her.

Nothing could have prepared her for his reaction.

Years before, Anna Maria had enrolled in a German language class in high school, secretly hoping her father would help her study and this could bring them together over the silent dinner table, when her brothers had all gone and it was just the two of them. But, she had no aptitude for languages, couldn’t master the masculine, feminine and neutral der, die and das (three words which all meant “the”) couldn’t remember to use a v sound for her w’s, and Heinrich was no help. He would not speak German with her, did not want her to learn to speak it, and Anna Maria dropped out at semester’s end, having perfected only one phrase, “Ich verstehe Sie.” She used it to send away her hovering teacher and it meant “I understand you”, ironic since she understood nothing else.

Heinrich turned white, bolted from the kitchen, hands over his ears. She dropped the phone, Greg still talking, and ran after her father, found him in the bathroom, shaking and beating the floor with his fists. “Dass weiss ich nicht,” he insisted, again and again, with growing urgency. “Ich weiss nicht!”

“Okay,” she told him, “okay. Ich verstehe Sie. Ich verstehe Sie.” She repeated those three words, the only German she knew, until he quieted and let her hold him, rocking on the bathroom floor as if he were her child. There was a deeper irony to the words she used. She had never understood him, this father who saved her long ago from his own fears, and she doubtless never would. She could no more get inside his head and understand the man than she could understand the words he repeated, pleadingly, as he wept on the bathroom floor. “Ich weiss nicht.”

I don’t know.

Anna Maria's German is appalling, she can't understand her father when he has a breakdown over three little words. Her poor German is one of my better plot points, because if she could understand what he was saying, and why, my book would only be a short story.  But, like all plot points, it must be resolved...

“I almost forgot. I want to tell you that the phrase your grandmother used is not a name, not entirely. It’s a question: Wo ist Lutzi?” Gerhardt enunciated the words she had slurred together, took her back to those days Oma Warner would pull her sleeve, wanting something, and he translated what her grandmother had said.

“Where is Lutzi?”

And my last shared bit of story to entice you and all my blog readers to buy my book next month is the moment Anna Maria puts the clues together and understands the gravity of this family secret her father and aunt have been hiding... 

It took fewer than five minutes to drive the remaining blocks to Cedar Village and walk Heinrich inside. Anna Maria could smell supper cooking, and the nurses were setting the round tables in the main lobby. In Heinrich’s locked ward, no silverware was set down without a nurse nearby to watch and help the residents if needed. The usual nurses were not there to greet Heinrich home when Anna Maria disabled the security doors, but a red haired nurse with a soft, kind face approached them.

“Hein-rick, you’re just in time for dinner. You must be his little girl, all grown up. He talks about you all the time,” she told Anna Maria. “I’m Susan. I’m new on second shift.”

“It’s so nice to meet you,” Anna Maria shook the lady’s hand. “I’m glad I got him back in time for supper. We were at Dad’s sister’s and lost track of time.”

“Easy to do, when you’re gabbing,” Susan said cheerfully. “I’ll help him with his coat unless you want to stay for dinner, too. You’re always welcome to, you know.”

“I know. I have eaten with him before, but tonight I think we’ll pass.” Anna Maria glanced down at Caitlin, who was sucking her thumb, as she did when she was tired. She hugged her father and left him in Susan’s capable hands.

Caitlin wanted to say hello to the birds, so they stopped at the aviary in the lobby and Anna Maria asked Caitlin their ritualistic question, which was her favorite? Caitlin was still deciding when Susan caught up to them, out of breath. “Your dad came back with this in his pocket. I would’ve put it up on the bulletin board, but it’s not laminated and Wilbur Lucas eats paper.”

“I know he does. I didn’t send anything with Dad,” Anna Maria said, taking the square paper from Susan. “Thank you so much.” She turned it over in her hands and was just registering that it was a black and white photograph with scalloped edges, probably pilfered from Brigitte’s album, when Susan, halfway down the hallway, called back, “You’re welcome, Lootsie.”

Anna Maria froze. She heard other voices saying that name, Gerhardt translating, Greg remembering aloud, her grandmother long ago, saying that name over and over, searching the faces of the children who came to see her. Her inner clock stood still while the rest of the world moved on: Caitlin was tugging on her hand, wanting to see the picture, Susan was hurrying away. Anna Maria raised her voice to a near shout, to be heard over the clatter of the residents gathering for dinner, “What did you just call me?”

Susan turned around, confused. “I called you Lootsie. I told you, your dad talks about you all the time. ‘I don’t know where Lootsie is.’ I know he’s got just one daughter and you’re the only one who ever comes to see him. Isn’t that your name?”

It all happened at once, Susan’s mistake, Anna Maria’s discovery that her father was still repeating those same words Oma Warner had used until she died, and Caitlin’s exclamation, “Oh! That girl looks like Erika. Can I play with her?”

The picture Anna Maria turned over in her hands was of the same girl she had first found in the attic suitcase months ago and thought was Renate, but this photo was taken later. The blonde curls were longer and escaped from the barrette meant to hold them back, the same way Anna Maria’s hair slipped from her pigtails as a girl. The little girl was still smiling, but her mouth was closed in this picture and Anna Maria guessed her permanent teeth had come in large and would take growing into, just as hers had done. A few years had passed since the attic picture was taken and the girl looked more like a Warner and less like Renate. There was a letter and a date written on the white border at its bottom: L. ‘44.

Renate was born in 1945.

And then, she was out the door and running. Caitlin had been scooped up as an afterthought and bumped against her chest, as they ran from the nursing home, ran past the nurses yelling at her to slow down, watch out. In the yard, Anna Maria skipped the slippery sidewalk and ran in the snow, as she had as a child, running late to school. It occurred to her, too late, that there were more than two people she could have called, to ask about the war. Brigitte knew. In fact, Brigitte was the only person who knew the answer, now that Anna Maria knew the question.

The streetlights shone on Caitlin’s scared face when Anna Maria turned her head to back out of their parking space and she saw her daughter’s small hands gripping the sides of her booster seat. She took a breath and said, “It’s all right, honey, we don’t need to hurry anymore.” There was no hurry, after all. Someone was missing from her family, kept alive only in their archives and their memories, but she had been missing for a long time. When the Warner family arrived in America, Lutzi had not been with them. She had already disappeared.

There was a light on upstairs at Tante Brigitte’s when Anna Maria quietly let herself into her aunt’s home and motioned Caitlin to follow with a finger to her lips. The photo albums were still laid out on the coffee table, waiting for her, and Anna Maria went straight to the oldest one at the bottom of the pile. Sure enough, when Anna Maria flipped the black pages in a cracked leather album, the attic girl beamed back at her in picture after picture. “Lutzi, 1936”, “Brigitte und Lutzi 1937”, and one family photo of all the Warner children, before Josef went to war: “Josef, Brigitte, Heinrich und Lutzi 1939”.

Anna Warner had never forgotten her child, even while her other children tried to. Lutzi had lived at least until 1944, but she had not been with her family when they came to American ten years later. Anna Maria knew from her reading what might have happened, what must have happened to the aunt she never knew existed.

Caitlin leaned on the sofa’s armrest as she waited for Anna Maria to explain why they were at Taygeeta’s; she looked with absolute trust at the woman she called mother. It was the most unthinkable thing in the world, to lose a child. Why was Lutzi never mentioned? Where was she? And why the mystery surrounding her name?

Brigitte had changed while they were gone into a housecoat and slippers; her long dark hair shot with gray fell down her back as Anna Maria had never seen it. Her aunt jumped when she came into the room and saw them, turned white when she saw what Anna Maria was doing. “Why did you come back?” she asked. “Where is Heinrich?”

“He’s at his nursing home. He took home with him a souvenir the nurse found in his pocket.” Anna Maria waved the picture at her aunt, who betrayed herself by looking first at the opened photo album and then at the door, as if to escape. But, Brigitte rallied surprisingly quickly.

“Little one, would you like some cake?” she asked Caitlin, who looked to Anna Maria.

“She hasn’t had supper yet.”

Brigitte waved this aside, for perhaps the first time in her life, and ushered them both into the kitchen to cut Caitlin some poppy seed cake.

Caitlin looked at it dubiously. “A fly pooped in it.”

“Those are the poppy seeds which give it flavor. Ach, kids today don’t know what’s good,” Brigitte said as she always did, but her heart wasn’t in it. She turned on the black and white kitchen television, so Caitlin could watch a program and the adults could talk in peace in the living room.

They sat in the semi-dark in silence, each waiting for the other to start. Anna Maria crossed her arms in front of her chest and cast back at her aunt the same disapproving stare she’d been on the receiving end so many times. Tante Brigitte had so many opportunities to tell Anna Maria what was bothering her father, what her grandmother had been trying to ask. Anna Maria had asked leading questions, had come close, but not asked the right one.

“Taygeeta.” She leaned forward. “Where is Lutzi?”

Heinrich's sister answers that question as best she can, and in more ways than one.  This was a super condensed snapshot of the book in its entirety and I've included nothing from the last half, because I didn't want to accidentally give anything away that would make it less fun to read.  I hope to sell enough copies through Amazon, to people who have Kindles, Sony Readers, and the Kindle app on their PC, as an ebook, to maybe later justify making print copies and sharing those with friends and family. 


9/14/11:  And now you can.