The Old Lady and the River – A remembrance of love, joy, fear, and pain.


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Chapter One

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.

Chapter Two

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.

Chapter Three

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.”

Chapter Four

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.”

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