A remembrance of love, joy, fear, and pain
written by Al Lohn
Liesel Halston sat in a rocking chair and stroked the image of a handsome young man with her gnarled fingers. Eighty-four years had put heavy lines into the fine-featured face of Liesel Halston and arthritis had crippled her hands, but her stylish silver-gray hair and clear blue eyes still showed signs of a remarkably beautiful woman.
As she gently rocked, her eyes wandered from the picture in her hand, to the photos on the desk. A sad smile appeared on her face as her eyes roamed from the photo of a young Captain in Marine blues to a young Major in a World War II uniform. With his service cap cocked to one side, the young Major smiled back at her. The dark hair, the same facial features, and the disarming shy smile showed a strong family resemblance to the Marine. With tears in her eyes, she lovingly caressed the pictures on the desk.
When she turned her attention back to the photo in her lap, two tears trickled down her face. She kissed her fingertips and transferred the kiss to the young man in the picture. A Major dressed in desert fatigues. Love emanated from the picture. She prayed silently, “Please Lord keep him safe.”
The horror of Liesel’s past haunted her during her dreams. A cynically smiling SS officer in a black uniform hunted her. She saw him holding a door open to an inferno on the end of the road. He motioned her with his finger to come, but before the flames could devour her, she saw Oma Rachel and Opa Samuel walking into the flames. The devil in the black uniform laughed aloud and held a swastika flag high above his head. He gestured Liesel again with his crooked finger to follow him. However, her Papa swept her up and carried her to safety.
Liesel lived with her daughter-in-law Kate in Bryn Mawr, a suburb of Philadelphia. The picturesque two-story colonial house surrounded by a white picket fence boasted a wrap-around porch and faced an oak-lined street. Lovely flowerbeds burst with a rainbow of colors in the front yard, bright reds, deep blues, bright yellows, and vivid violets. Clusters of birch, honeysuckle, and a lilac bush filled the air with an intoxicating fragrance. The flowers and trees reached upward toward heaven soaking up a gently falling rain.
A large, wooden, rocking chair held a place of prominence on the porch, as did a white swing suspended from overhead by hooks and chains, the late-summer breeze causing them to sway gently back and forth. In the backyard were signs of a child evidenced by a swing set and slide that stood next to a playhouse. The open door begged a little girl to come and play.
Kate, a widow and a real-estate broker by trade, owned the house. She and her late husband Tom had one son, Bill, a Major in the 3rd Infantry Division. He was currently fighting somewhere in the desert of Iraq. Since Bill left for Iraq, Sandra, Kate’s daughter-in-law, and her four-year-old daughter Christy had moved in, as well.
Christy walked quietly up to her and put her little arms around her Grammy. Nestling her tiny face against Liesel’s shoulder, she looked up with her large brown eyes, and said, “Don’t cry, Grammy. Daddy will come home soon.”
In the adjacent room, Sandra and Kate had observed the gentle assurance the little girl gave her pain-stricken Grammy. Despite doing her best to be strong, Kate couldn’t stop her tears from flowing. She hugged Sandra and gently stroked her back kissing her forehead. They’d not heard from Billy in two weeks. Officially, the US troops had defeated the Iraqi army, but Saddam’s loyalists and insurgent-terrorists were still attacking.
The photos on the bureau took Liesel down memory lane. She remembered when her sheltered childhood turned upside down and when the losses she’d endured broke her heart.
His life flashed by in front of her when she looked at her grandson’s picture. She saw that cute baby in her arms. His parents were the happiest people on earth. Billy grew up so fast. Before she could blink an eye, he’d entered kindergarten. Then came his first day of school. She remembered the tall cornucopia Kate and her had made for him. They had filled it with treats just as Liesel’s mom had done for her. His first day of school was such a momentous occasion.
The years passed by so fast. Before she knew it, Billy graduated from high school and entered West Point. Dressed in his uniform, he was such a handsome lad. He looked just like his father and grandfather; tall, slim with dark hair, and his beret always cocked to one side. He had that same wicked captivating smile on his face. Handsome Billy and Sandra with her beautiful blond hair, blue eyes, slender body, and only an inch or two shorter than Billy. Together they made such a stunning couple. “Billy, we all miss you so much. If only your grandpa and dad could see that beautiful little munchkin of yours, my little sunshine,” whispered Liesel. “Lord, you cannot ignore this sweet little girl’s prayer. She is asking You to protect her daddy. Please God, bring Billy home.”
Looking at the young WWII Major, Liesel drifted off into the twilight of yesteryear. “Lord, why did You take Tom away from me? Half my heart died with him. Then You took Tom Jr., and the other half died. Why? I lived so long with a broken heart; please take me; do not hurt Kate, Sandra, and little Christy. Gone are so many of my loved ones, Mama, Papa, Opa Friedrich, Oma Anna, Opa Samuel and Oma Rachel. Oma Rachel’s ashes are somewhere; only You, Lord, know where they are; I miss them all so much. I do not know why You allowed Hitler, this barbaric monster, inflict so much pain on so many people. Why did You let him destroy my beautiful country and my carefree childhood? Why? Why? There are so many painful whys.”
Composed now, Kate and Sandra watched Liesel as she sat in her rocker holding the picture of her husband in her hands. Her face was pain-stricken and her thoughts were far away. They walked over and put their arms around the old woman’s shoulder. They stroked her cheeks and Christy laid her head in Grammy’s lap. A tender smile chased away the pain in Liesel’s face. She looked down on Christy and said, “Thank you Lord for surrounding me with the gift of love. Protect them from all grief and pain.”
“Mom, why have you never gone back to visit Germany?” asked Kate.
“There are too many painful memories.” She shook her head, and said, “So much pain.”
“However, there have to be some happy memories too. Maybe a visit would bring closure to your grief.”
“Yes, there are also happy memories; but…I…I am afraid to open up old wounds,” the old woman whispered.
“Why don’t we go together? I’d love to see where you grew up. And it would be such a wonderful experience for Christy.”
The little girl looked up at her with those large round eyes. Grammy Liesel swallowed hard and caressed Christy’s hair. She said quietly, “I don’t know. Maybe it would help. What happens if it rips open all the old wounds? If it weren’t for those painful memories, I would like to see Meine Heimat once more.”
“Mom, if it becomes too difficult for you, we pack up and leave. But I think you should try.”
Liesel looked from one to the other and stroked Christy’s cheek. She had a difficult time deciding. Sandra said, “Grammy, I can make arrangements. You, Kate, and Christy can go, but I want to stay here, in case Billy calls. What do you say, Grammy?”
Christy begged, “Please Grammy; say yes, pleeeaaase.”
Liesel smiled and said, “Okay; let’s try it then. Sandra, Billy will call, and he will come home. We have to think positive.”
Sandra and Kate went to the office and started to arrange Grammy Liesel’s trip to Germany. They bought tickets for a flight from Philadelphia to Cologne via Frankfurt and made a reservation at the ArcagdeHotel in Grammy’s hometown Wiesdorf.
When Christy awakened, she was ready for breakfast. Grammy had made her favorite apple pancakes; she was all excited. The little girl spilled over with curiosity and fired questions at Grammy faster than she could answer.
“Grammy, will we go in a big airplane to Germany?”
“Yes, sweetheart, a real big airplane.”
“Will we fly like a bird, up, up, and away, high in the sky?”
“Yes, my darling; you will be able to look down at the clouds from the window.”
“I wish I could fly like the birds do.”
“But then you would have itchy feathers all over your body; and you would have wings.
If you had wings, you couldn’t have hands, and if you had no hands, you couldn’t paint pretty pictures for me. You wouldn’t want that, would you?”
“No Grammy, I’d rather not fly. Do you think it will rain all the way to Germany?”
“No, we’ll have beautiful sunshine; and the clouds below will look like sheep bathing in the sun.”
“But Grammy, how can we have sunshine when it’s raining?”
“Well, sweetheart, the clouds make the rain, and the rain falls down to earth. But we will fly high above the clouds.”
“Why does the rain fall down and not up?”
“Because, there is a big magnet inside of the earth that keeps us from floating away, it pulls everything down to earth, so that your cuddly teddy bear doesn’t fly up to heaven.”
Christy’s questions kept coming and her patient Grammy kept answering. She gave her Grammy a big hug. Liesel had to smile. She remembered when her Opa Friederich had all the answers to her questions. She thought he was the smartest man in the entire world. Patting the little girl’s behind, Liesel said, “But now it is time for you to finish your breakfast, so we can get our stuff ready for the trip.”
“Yes, Grammy, I’ll eat real fast, okay?”
After breakfast, they started to pack. Of course, Christy was a big helper. She took all her clothes out of the drawers and put them on the floor for Grammy to pack.
Time passed quickly; the day to leave had arrived. Kate and Sandra loaded the car while Liesel readied Christy. She told Christy to get her favorite doll. When she came down the stairs, she had all the dolls and stuffed animals she could carry, and had even kicked some down the steps.
“Oh, sweetheart, I don’t think they’ll fit all into your backpack. You have to pick your most favorite doll. We’ll put that one into your knapsack. Okay?”
Christy tried to negotiate, as they painstakingly eliminated what would not fit into her backpack. “Grammy, if I keep Samantha on my lap, can we still put my favorite kitty in the backpack?” Samantha was her treasured American Girl doll and had to go wherever Christy went.
Finally, they were ready. They got into the car and Sandra drove them to the airport. There still was no word from Billy.
When they arrived at the airport, Kate and Sandra checked in and took care of the luggage while Liesel took Christy over to the window. The large building and the many people rushing about overwhelmed the little girl. All excited, she looked out of the window and exclaimed, “Look, Grammy, there are so many airplanes. Which one is ours? The big one over there?”
“No, that one will go somewhere else. Our plane has United written on the side of his belly.”
“Like united we stand?”
Liesel laughed, “That’s right, united we stand. You see, there is one coming in.”
“Yes, Grammy, I see, but there are so many planes how do we know which one is ours?”
“You see the big board up there? That tells us where we need to go and which plane is ours.”
“Grammy, I am sure glad you can read. When will I be able to read like you and Mommy?”
“You will learn how to read as soon as you go to school.”
“I can count to twenty, and I know my ABCs.”
She proceeded to count to twenty and sang her ABC song much to the amusement and pleasure of the travelers listening.
It was time to board and they said good-bye to Sandra. The little munchkin, always the observant little girl, saw her Mommy’s tears and said, “Mommy, don’t cry, we’ll be back in a jiffy. When Daddy calls, tell him I said hello, and I love him.”
“I sure will, sweetheart,” Sandra replied with a tearful smile. After a last kiss for Mommy, they boarded the plane. When they lifted off the ground, Liesel heard Christy say, “Here we go, up, up, and away, just like the birds. Look, Nana, the people, and the cars are getting smaller and smaller. Is that what the birds see?”
“Yes, darling, that’s what the birds see,” answered her Nana.
All excited, Christy shouted, “Whoa, we’re in the clouds! Look, Nana and Grammy, the clouds are watering the flowers below us and we have sunshine.”
“That’s right sweetheart,” said Kate.
Watching the clouds bathing in the sunlight was a beautiful sight. Christy called over to her Grammy, “I see the sheep bathing in the sun.”
Looking out the window, Liesel drifted off into the world of yesteryear. In her mind, she saw her dad, a tall handsome man with dark wavy hair and green eyes. He’d been a professor of physics and one of the youngest at the University of Cologne. Professor Bernhard Von Werter had high values and standards.
She saw her mom, Marianne Steinberg Von Werter, with her beautiful blue eyes, blond hair, and her petite figure. Before Liesel was born, she’d been a Studienrat at a girl’s Gymnasium. She chose to stop working and tended to her baby daughter. Every night she would read a story to Liesel from the many Märchenbücher with all those colorful illustrations; like Der Struwwelpeter, Ashenputtel, Rapunzel, or other Grimm’s fairytales and she loved her mom’s Pflaumenkuchen and rhubarb strudel.
After Liesel’s mental stroll, she drifted into a deep sleep until Christy shouted, “Grammy, Grammy, wake up. The lady says we’re landing.”
“Indeed we are, sweetheart.”
After a smooth landing, they went through the usual Immigration and customs clearance, and boarded their connecting flight to Cologne. In Cologne, they picked up their luggage and waited for a bus to Wiesdorf. While they waited at the bus stop, a woman, speaking German, said to Christy, “Hi there, are you a sweet little girl. What’s your name?”
Liesel answered in German for her. “Her name is Christy. She doesn’t speak German.”
“Ah,” said the woman.
Christy asked, “Grammy, what did the lady say?”
“The lady said that you are a very sweet little girl. She wanted to know what your name is.”
“You and the lady speak funny. I couldn’t understand what you were saying. Why did you speak like that?”
“The lady speaks only German, so I answered her in German.”
“Can’t they speak like we do?”
“Some people can.”
“Why don’t all the people speak like we do?”
“Remember the story from the old testament about the tower of Babel?”
“Oh, yeah; that’s when God punished the people and made them all speak different, so they couldn’t understand each other.”
Christy’s curiosity was satisfied, but the satisfaction was short lived. Later, when they were on the Autobahn, Christy wanted to know, “Grammy, do you see the sheep over there? Did they come on the plane, too?”
“No, honey, they were born here.”
“But they look the same as ours and so do the trees and the flowers, Grammy.”
“That is right, Christy. Germany has the same trees, flowers, and animals as we have at home.”
“So…why don’t they speak the same?”
“Well, you see sweetheart, when our country was born, we picked English for our language, instead of German.”
“Was Germany born before our country?”
“Yes, that is right, darling.”
“Oh, yeah, just like you were born before Mommy, you came from Germany.”
Liesel was glad that they were getting close to their destination; she was running out of answers. She thought her great-granddaughter should become a lawyer. She was capable of maneuvering anyone into a corner with no way out.
When they entered Wiesdorf, nothing looked familiar. Liesel tried to recognize streets and landmarks, but no matter how hard she tried, she could not find her way around. This city was no longer her old homestead.
The bus dropped them off at the hotel located on the Hauptstrasse. However, the street no longer looked like the Hauptstrasse that Liesel used to know. The stores were different, and so was the hotel. She didn’t dislike what she saw; it just was not what she remembered. It reminded her of a song by Peter Seeger. Where have all the flowers gone…
Where have all the memories gone?
Long time passing on
Where have all the memories gone?
Time has picked them every one.
The hotel was small but charming with a pleasant restaurant and a traditional Biergarten outside. Trellises, covered with climbing grapes, enclosed the outdoor seating area. Although the building looked as if it backdated a few years, it had been totally renovated. Liesel mulled it over and thought, “I can’t remember what used to be here…I think it was a tavern…or was the tavern next-door? I feel like a stranger here.”
When they got to their room, Kate said, “I’m tired; I think I’ll rest for a while. Christy can use a nap, too.”
“I am too wound up. I’ll take a walk,” Liesel said.
“Grammy, are you going to see Vater Rheine?”
“Will you tell him please that I said hello?”
“Of course my darling, I will do that.”
“But you better say it in German. He might not understand American.”
“I will sweetheart. But, you know, our language is called English, not American.”
“Why? We don’t live in England. We live in America.”
“Because, before America was born, it belonged to England.”
“Oh, you mean like Mommy’s name was Franklin before her name became Halston?”
“That is correct. Christy you are sooo smart.”
“I know, Grammy.”
“Okay sweetie pie; I’ll see you before dinner; okay?”
Out on the street, Liesel wondered where she should go first. She decided to walk down the street where the old church used to be. It was still there. Only now, a Fuß Gänger Zone with modern stores, cafes, restaurants, and taverns surrounded the church. It looked nice, but Liesel wanted to find her lost youth in the small town where she knew every nook and cranny. This was a hustling, bustling city-center; it could just as well be a city in the US.
Liesel went into the church and said a prayer for Billy. From there, she walked to where her parent’s apartment used to be. It all looked so strange; all familiarity had gone. She strolled through the streets and headed down to the river. High-rise apartment buildings had replaced the grassy meadows that had once lined the river’s edge. There were no more pastures for sheep to graze. As she walked along the embankment, she wondered, will I find anything that is still the same as it used to be?
After climbing up the embankment, she detected an old bench. “Oh, Opa, our favorite bench is still here,” she whispered. The bench still faced the river and looked as it had years ago, old and weathered; with initials carved into the wood by lovers and youngsters. She found the lovely heart that her Opa had carved into the backrest with the words Opa loves Liesel. She traced the heart with her finger relieved that there was still one piece of solid memory that had not changed. Opa Friederich and she used to sit on that bench and watched the barges go up and down the river. They used to speak to Vater Rheine, the old man river. Liesel sat down and rested her back against the heart.
She saw that high-rise buildings had also replaced the meadows across the river. “Oh, Vater Rheine, where are the shepherds that used to herd the flocks? Moreover, what did the people do to your water? The river’s edge is full of debris; your water is dirty and full of oil slicks, and trash is floating in it. What happened to your clean water? People used to swim in it and paddle their canoes on it. Would you still inspire the old songwriters to write songs like? If the water from Rheine were golden wine, then I would like to be a fish.” She remembered Heinrich Heine’s poem. Und als ich an der Rheinbrück’ kam, wohl an der Hafenschanze…
Liesel escaped into another world as she remembered a time long, long, ago. Reality around her, faded. She saw Opa sitting on the bench with her and reverted to a little girl, she whispered, “Vater Rheine, it has been a long time since Opa took me here for the first time. Do you remember?”
She heard the river’s response, “Yes, my child, I remember. It has been many years. A lot of water has flown downstream. I remember the time when you sat with your Opa on that bench. You were an inquisitive little girl with blue eyes and blond curly hair. For every answer, you had a new question. I still see you walking up to the bench asking your Opa, ‘What do the carvings on the bench say’? After your Opa told you, you said, ‘Opa, I love you. Can you carve our names in there’? Your Opa carved the heart and your names into the wood as a sign of love.”
“Yes, I still remember Vater Rheine. Remembering makes me miss Opa.”
Liesel remembered the time she had asked, “Opa, are you going to take me to the river?”
“Yes, Liesel, get your jacket, and we’ll go to see Vater Rheine.” They walked up the embankment and sat on the wooden bench. “Opa, father Rheine is really old isn’t he?”
“Yes, he is very old.”
“Older than you, Opa?”
“Yes, he has lived as many years as you can count stars in the sky.”
“If he could talk, he could tell many stories, right, Opa?”
“Yes, sweetheart, he will talk, if you ask him. But to hear him, you have to sit still and listen hard.”
“Really, go ahead and try it.”
“Vater Rheine, can you speak?”
She heard from deep inside the riverbed, “Yes, my child; what would you like to know?”
“Tell me where you were born; and how you got so big and old.”
“Well, my child, many, many moons ago, at the end of the ice age, I was but a small trickle in the Paradise Glacier of the Alps. The ice kept melting and fed me until I grew bigger and bigger and was able to run down the mountain into a gigantic hole. The sun kept melting away the ice until only the mountains up high, had ice on it. It got nice and warm; the sun made the grass, the trees, and the flowers grow. Fish started to swim in my water, and the animals came to drink. Then people came and settled on my banks. They used me for my water, and rode my waves in boats. Soon I filled the enormous hole and the people called it Bodensee. Then the Lord said to me, ‘You have to serve my people and go on a long journey. I will feed you with rainwater; I will give you sons and daughters, so you can grow. You will become successful and travel until you reach the ocean.’ I left the Bodensee and went on my journey. My daughters, the Mosel and the Ahr, joined me. When I journeyed further down, I had a problem finding a bed. Seven giants appeared with large spades and dug a bed. After they had finished, they scraped the dirt off their shoes. They left seven mountains behind and called them ‘Das Siebengebirge’.”
After the story, Opa said, “Sweetheart, Vater Rheine worked all day very hard; he is tired now. Look at all the barges he has carried to the ocean. Let’s go home.”
“Opa, can we come back so Vater Rheine can tell me more stories?”
“Of course, sweetheart; we’ll come back soon.”
“Good night, Vater Rheine; I love you.”
“Good night, my child,” the river said. “Come back again.”
“Opa, that was nice for the giants to build a bed for Vater Rheine.”
“Yes, it was. You see, sweetheart, when strong people help the weak people, the world becomes more beautiful, just like das Siebengebirge.”
“Opa, when I grow up and become strong, I will help people to make the world real pretty.”
On the way home, Opa said to her, “There is no greater love than to lay down your life for a friend.” At the time, Liesel was too young to understand the meaning of Opa’s words, but she certainly learned it later.
One day, Opa did not feel well. Papa called the doctor who put him in the hospital. Liesel ran to the river. She knew Vater Rheine was wise and would know what to do. She called out to him, “Vater Rheine, my Opa is very ill. I do not know what to do. Please help; you are old and wise, you have answers for everything.”
But, there were no words coming from the depth of the riverbed; only the murmur of the rolling water. “Why don’t you answer me?” she called out. “Please, Vater Rheine, help my Opa.” However, no sound broke the stillness. There was no compassion to heal her wounded heart. “Vater Rheine, where are your words of comfort?” she cried.
Liesel ran home and cried in her mother’s arms. “Mama, I asked Vater Rheine to help Opa, but he did not answer.”
“Sweetheart, the river can’t talk. He can’t answer you.”
“But, Mama, he always told me stories; ask Opa.”
“It was not the river that told you stories, it was Opa. He is a ventriloquist; he can speak without moving his lips and make you believe it is coming from somewhere else.”
She was not sure that her Mama was right. She had heard the words come from deep down in the river, but she knew that Opa was very wise and knew all those stories, too.
Her Mama took Liesel to see Opa and when they arrived at the hospital, Papa sat next to Opa holding his hand. Opa looked so pale, so helpless; Liesel took his other hand and brought it up to her lips. He opened his eyes and smiled. “Hi sweetheart; I love you, but, I have to tell you something. You are a big girl; can you be strong?”
Liesel nodded her head, and Opa continued. “Soon, I have to go to heaven. Everything is beautiful there. There is no pain, only happiness. Don’t cry for me, my darling. Someday, we will see each other again. Now, go home, sweetheart. I need to rest.”
Liesel kissed him goodbye and left. She turned around at the door and saw her beloved Opa lying there with a tear trickling down his cheek. That was the last time she saw him alive. For the first time in her young life, she experienced the pain of losing someone she loved.
The ringing of the church bells woke Liesel out of her reverie of yesteryear. It brought her back to the reality of the moment. She did not know how long she’d been sitting there reminiscing, but dusk was approaching. It was time to go back to the hotel. When the bells rang for the evening prayers, her Opa used to sing a song by Felix Mendelssohn
When the day is at its end,
And the evening-clouds move on When fog settles down and stars begin to glow, I start to dream of you. When on the day’s end, the wind rustles in the trees, I long to listen to the dreams with you, You are my happiness as I think of you, When the day ends, and the evening-bells ring, I yearn to walk with you as we once did, Happiness is you for me when thoughts embrace my memories.
Liesel walked slowly back to the hotel. She wanted to continue her trip down memory lane. The river could not speak, but he gave her peace and serenity. She would return tomorrow.
When she entered the hotel room, Christy came running, bubbling over with excitement. “Nana took me to the Fußgänger Zone. We had hot chocolate, cake, and an ice cream Sunday with all the stuff on it and Nana bought me a real German doll. Look, Grammy.”
“That is beautiful, Christy, a Black Forest Doll.”
“Yes, I know, Nana told me. Do you know where Nana is taking me tomorrow, Grammy?”
“No; where is Nana taking you?”
“To the Fairy-Tale-Land; Snow-White and the seven Dwarfs, Red-Riding-Hood and the big bad wolf are all in that forest. Are you coming?”
“No, sweetheart, Grammy has something she needs to do. But you’ll have lots of fun. Now shall we go and eat something?”
“Yes, Grammy, I want sauerbraten with dumplings and pudding and apple strudel and ice-cream.”
“Oh, sweetheart, I don’t think all that food will fit in your little tummy.”
“Okay, Grammy, maybe no ice-cream. I had that already this afternoon.”
Turning to Kate, Liesel asked, “How did you do with your German?”
“Actually, not bad at all. I remembered more than I thought I would.”
“Well, your grandparents spoke only German at home, right?”
“Yes, they did.” Kate continued with misty eyes, “By the way, Sandy called. There’s still no word from Billy.”
Liesel took Christy and Kate to the bus in the morning. All excited about her trip to the ‘Märchenwald’, Christy hopscotched and sang all the way to the bus stop. Liesel remembered the Fairy-Tale-Forest well. Her Opa Friedrich had taken her there many times. When the bus pulled away, she felt guilty that she’d stayed behind. However, she had to work her way through some more memories.
Liesel went back to the familiar bench. She sat down and looked out at the water as the river rolled along. She whispered to her old friend, “Vater Rheine, you can’t speak, but you’re the best listener. I always told you my innermost secrets, joys and fears, and you always gave me peace. When Opa died, I came to you and cried bitterly. I couldn’t understand why he had to die.” Closing her eyes, Liesel drifted back in time. She was that little girl again that trusted her innermost secrets to the flowing waters of the river. She remembered her conversation with the river when her Opa died.
“Vater Rheine, I love Opa so much. Why did he have to go to heaven? Oh, you are a wise river, and I wish you could speak. Will I see Opa when I go to heaven? Will he still know me when I am old? Opa and Oma Steinberg said they would come and see me more often. They are taking me to Cologne on the weekend. I will come and tell you all about it. You won’t mind if I come without Opa, do you?
Good-bye, Vater Rheine; I’ll see you next week.”
A week later, Liesel came back to the river. “Hello, Vater Rheine, I’m back. I also love Opa and Oma Steinberg very much, but I miss Opa Friederich. He was always there. Opa and Oma Steinberg took me to Cologne. We had a good time. We went into the Dome and climbed the many steps up to the top of the bell towers. Oma and Opa were out of breath. Even I had to slow down when my legs started to hurt. It was like climbing a tall mountain. It was a clear day. I saw you carry ships on your water downstream from way upstream and moved them past Wiesdorf. Opa told me that the clouds in the distance were the mountains from Siebengebirge. We could see all the streets of Cologne and Opa pointed out the zoo. We could even see Bonn where Oma and Opa live. When we walked down, Oma said, she wanted a cup of coffee, so Opa took us to the ‘Dom-Café’ where I had hot chocolate and a piece of strawberry torte, with lots of whipped cream. Vater Rheine, I have to go home now; I shall see you again real soon, okay?”
A week later, Liesel came back to the river. “Hi Vater Rheine, I do not have much time today. I just wanted to let you know I won’t be able to come for a while. Today was my last day of school; we have six weeks’ vacation. I am going with Opa and Oma to their house in Bonn. They will take me to lots of different places. I will miss Mama, Papa and you. When I return, I will tell you all about my trips and what I saw.”
After Liesel returned, she went straight to the river; she had to talk to her old friend. “Vater Rheine, I promised you that I would tell you all about my trip. So, here I am. I had a wonderful time. Oma and Opa’s house is neat. It’s a small brick house with black tiles on the roof and ivy climbing all over the outside walls. The garden is full of all kinds of roses and other flowers. Their garden is so colorful, red, peach, yellow, purple, and blue Forget-Me-Not.
Opa planted grapes in the backyard; they climb on lattices and grow across the walkway. The grapes are real sweet. He let me eat as many as I wanted, and Oma told me a story every night. It was a terrific trip Vater Rheine, but I am glad to be home again with Mama and Papa, and I can sit on this bench and talk to you. Here, I feel Opa sitting next to me
I have to go home now, see you soon. Good night, Vater Rheine.”
Awakening from her walk down memory lane, Liesel whispered, “Oh, Vater Rheine, during those years, I sat many times on this bench and talked to you. I told you about my first crush, the romantic novels I read, and the pain I had felt when the kids turned away from me, because my Mama was of Jewish descent.”The nightmares of that time became as vivid to Liesel as if they were happening right there and then. “I remember Dad and Opa talking about politics. They were afraid the many small parties, fighting each other, were tearing the fragile democracy apart. The left was pulling one way and the right another. Mama, Papa and my grandparents, worried that the social discontent would intensify. Germany was on the brink of civil war. The Nazi party’s membership grew and gained power. Then, Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Day by day life became scarier…”
Liesel stopped recalling the nightmares. She did not know whether she could continue to relive those horrible years. She abruptly stood up and walked back to the hotel. She hoped to continue the next day. Passing by the church, she felt the urge to enter and say a prayer. The tranquil surrounding wrapped her in a blanket of peace as she sat meditating for some time. On the way out, she passed an elderly priest. He greeted her with a warm, gentle smile and a strange feeling came over her, as if a common bond existed between them.
When she came out of the church, she saw Kate and Christy walking to the hotel. Christy had a whopping Gingerbread heart hanging around her neck with a Red Riding Hood scene on it. She came running and called from far away, “Look, Grammy, look what I got?”
“Ah, that’s pretty, and you know what, I bet it tastes good, too.”
“No, Grammy, it’s too pretty to eat. I’ll take it home and show Mommy…and I want Daddy to see it when he comes home.”
“How did you make out? Did you have any problem getting around?” Liesel asked Kate.
“No problem, we found everything we wanted to find, right Christy?”
“Yeah, Nana talked funny, too.”
“She did, yeh?”
“How are you doing, Mom?”
“I’m all right. You were right though; I need to work my way through those memories. So far I have gone through my happy childhood, now comes the hard part.”
Kate gently stroked her back. “You’ll be fine. It will give you closure.”
When they walked into the room, the telephone rang. Kate picked up the receiver. Seeing her expression, Liesel knew it had to be unwelcome news. She whispered, “Oh no! Oh no, Sandra!”
After she had hung up, she stood there with tears running down her face. “Billy’s missing in action. They believe he’s wounded and the insurgents took him captive.”
“Oh… my… God…, not again!” cried Liesel.
Christy asked, “Why are you crying, Nana?”
“Sweetheart, Daddy’s been captured.”
“You mean the bad people took Daddy? What will they do to him?”
“He’ll be all right, sweetheart. We’ll pray for him.”
“I know,” said the optimistic four-year-old. “Jesus promised me that he will bring my Daddy home soon,”