Beginnings

Beginnings

Chapter 32

April, 2015

I am sorry to tell you that on the fifteenth of April, I received an early morning call from Maria Davis, Otto’s daughter. She told me her aunt was quite ill and would I come as soon as possible. I dropped everything and sprinted for the airport, barely made the flight and drove like a maniac from the Twin Cities, but I was half an hour late. I had a few minutes alone with her and then the undertaker came and she was gone.

Maria said that she had been reading Robert Frost’s poem to her, and the last poem she head in this world was “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” a short but meaningful eight lines of verse.

            Nature’s first green is gold,
            Her hardest hue to hold.
            Her early leafs a flower;
            But only so an hour.
            Then leaf subsides to leaf.
            So Eden sank to grief,
            So dawn goes down to day.
            Nothing gold can stay.

Maria told me that Mata slipped down and down until she could not come back. She also said her last word was “Mama.” And that she smiled right before she took her last breath.

I don’t remember much about her funeral or what was said or what was sung. I do remember it was as simple, dignified and elegant as the life she led. And so I have just one sentence to sum up the extraordinary life of Mata Kerchner, I came to know her well and, yes, to love her. Let this be her benediction:

She was gold.

April, 2014–June, 2015

Manassas, Virginia

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The Ghosts of Christmas Present

The Ghosts of Christmas Present

Chapter 31

December, 2014

            I suppose you want me to talk about this past Christmas. Mata sighed and rubbed her eyes. I’m glad we’re doing this, but parts of it wear on me. Well, once more into the breach, good friend!

As you might expect, Christmas was about as sad as New Years, although the beginning of a new year always brings some sort of hope, no matter how feeble that flickering flame is. We sort of went through the motions you know, the sorts of things you do during that first month after a loss.

We left Betty’s chair empty as a reminder of her absence, as if we needed one. Our talk was subdued throughout the meal, and as I poured the last of the coffee to go with dessert, Maria stood up. “I have something to say,” she announced.

I was surprised at this. I would have expected Marion to say something, but not Maria.

Maria looked around the table. “We need to stop this now.”

Otto and I exchanged a puzzled look. “We need to stop what?” he asked.

Maria looked down at the table and, her voice barely under control, whispered, “All this moaning and moping around about Mom. She’s gone and we’ll miss her, but it’s not the end of the world. She would want us to carry on.”

We all held our breath and as one turned to look at Otto. His face was a mask of grief, and he struggled for something to say. I spoke while he gathered his thoughts.

“Maria, we are all dealing with this as best we can.”

She shook her head emphatically. “No, we are not. This house has been like a morgue since Mom died, and we need to start getting over it. There will always be a hole in my heart because she’s gone, but that doesn’t mean I have to stew about it the rest of my life.”

Otto finally spoke, barely able to choke his words out. “You didn’t know your mother as long as I did. When I was burned in the war, she and Aunt Mata brought me back from the edge of despair. Without their love, I wouldn’t be here and you wouldn’t be here either.”

Maria’s eyes filled with tears. “And that’s precisely why we need to get on with it.”

Otto lowered his head for a moment, and then looked around the table. “Maria’s right. I’ve been the worst, but God help me, I miss her.” He broke into sobs, and the rest of us looked at the table.

We continued on like that for about ten minutes, then wiped our eyes and took turns in the bathroom washing our faces. I fixed some more coffee, and I could sense a change in the family’s mood. With her uncharacteristic speech, Maria had shifted us from an emotionally catatonic state and put us on the road to understanding and acceptance. It’s perhaps a cliché to say that our loved ones live on in their children and our memories, but I believe this to be true. And although Maria is now in her sixties, once again this child did led us.

    We sat at the table for a while, just talking, when Maria, who had not said much during the meal, stood. I wasn’t sure what would happen next. Maria has always been full of surprises. She looked at each of us in turn and then said, “Do you remember that Robert Frost poem that Daddy recited to us? It’s not well known, I think. It’s called ‘Out, Out!’ and it’s about a boy who is cut by a power saw. He shouldn’t have died from his wounds, but he did. Anyhow the last few lines seem to me to apply to our situation.” She closed her eyes and recited

                                        They listened at his heart.

                                        Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.

                                        No more to build on there. And they, since they

                                        Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

“I think Aunt Mata was saying that, since we’re not the one dead, we need to carry on. What other choice do we have? I used to think badly of the people in the poem, that they weren’t honoring the dead boy by plunging back into their lives, but really that’s just what we need to do. That’s what we have to do, or we’ll tear each other and our family apart.” She sat staring at her lap.

Otto and I came over to her at the same time. “You’re absolutely right that’s what we need to do,” I whispered. We held each other for a moment and then stood up. “Who wants to play piano?” Marion called.

“Since I don’t play,” Otto laughed, I guess it would be one of you.”

“Since there are only four of us here, I’d say you’re right.”

I play piano, not well, but I get along. I taught the twins for a couple of years, and then they took with Mr. Parker who was the semi-official piano teacher in town. There were others, but like me, they could only take students so far, so they switched.

After that, we recessed to the living room. Marion and Maria played the piano beautifully. They had taken lessons until they went to college from Mr. Parker, a confirmed bachelor who introduced generations of Pioneer Lake children to Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, and considered anything past 1900 to be unworthy of his time and attention. I frequently picked them up, and one time Marion looked slyly at her sister and said, “Maria asked Mr. Parker if we could play some new music today.”

“I’m just tired of hearing music written by dead people,” Maria explained.

“So what did Mr. Parker say?”

“He said that wasn’t music. That was noise.”

“Oh.”

“I didn’t want to say anything back to him because I didn’t want to upset him. He is a nice man, even if he is stuck in 1890.”

“It could be worse.”

“How?”

“You could be stuck in 1580. The music wasn’t much then. You’d be begging for some Debussy or Grieg.”

“I doubt it.”

That’s my girl, I thought.

Mr. Parker just disappeared one day, and nothing was ever found of him or about what happened to him. The sheriff tried to find relatives but couldn’t find any. It was as if he had dropped from the sky one day, dusted himself off and began teaching piano to local children. Maybe that was his purpose, and he finished with us and was able to move on. Maria told me that Mr. Parker touched her on the shoulder one day after she had played a difficult Brahms piece quite well, but I took that as nothing more than a gesture of congratulation. He was only eccentric, not malevolent, and this was in the days when such accusations were not taken as seriously as they are now.

Marion and Maria played carols, and we sang with as much joy and fortitude as we could muster. After about an hour of this, Marion turned and said, “And now a special number. The dance floor is open.”

Otto and I looked at each other.

“We’re the only two here not playing the piano,” I said. “You want us to dance?”

“Yes, please.”

We stepped into the center of the room. The girls started a song I didn’t recognize, but soon knew what it was and sang along with my brother. I could feel his whole body trembling as the music soared.

            Beyond the blue horizon
            Waits a beautiful day
            Goodbye to things that bore me
            Joy is waiting for me

            I see a new horizon
            My life has only begun
            Beyond the blue horizon
            Lies a rising sun…

I felt tears running down my cheeks as we danced and I could tell Otto was crying as well. We finished the dance, and Marion and Maria applauded. The grandfather clock in the hall struck 12, and Christmas for that year was over. We were still standing, and we would go on.

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A Christmas Apart

A Christmas Apart

Chapter 30

December, 2014

What do I remember about Christmases? I remember so much that if we both lived to be a hundred and ten, I would tell you one-tenth of what I remember. Christmas is such a glorious time, full of excitement, secrets, sharing, preparing, time with family, the coziness of being inside with colorful decorations while the world is frozen outside. I’m sure you have such memories as well.

Of course, Christmas can also be difficult at times. I think of that first Christmas without my Pete after he was killed by that car. Forgive me while I recover myself.

Ah, now that’s better. Then there was the year I thought I wasn’t going to speak to anyone the rest of the year after Pete died. I was just too angry, at what or who, I do not know, but thank goodness I recovered in time and didn’t spoil it for everyone, including myself. But one of the most difficult Christmases came during the war, in 1942, when Otto was coming home for the first time since he had gone into the service.

As I have told you, we lived south of town, and the train actually ran past our farm. I had to drive north to Pioneer Lake to the small station on the Milwaukee Roads line. Pioneer Lake was of course much small then, and all the shops had closed for Christmas Eve by the time I went through town. The day was overcast, with light fading fast as the sun sank behind the trees. I had to turn my car lights on the last mile or so.

I remember standing on the platform of the station, huddled against the cold in my cloth winter coat I had worn for ten seasons, turning my back to the frigid Wisconsin wind with my head down. We knew there would be no new clothing for us on the home front, or not much, so our motto was “Make it do, use it up or do without.” And we did.

 I raised my head briefly, blinking back tears from my eyes caused by the wind. The train wasn’t in sight. Silly girl, I scolded myself. It wasn’t necessary to see it. I would hear the whistle of the steam locomotive long before it arrived around the bend.

A handful of neighbors waited with me for the arrival of Milwaukee Roads Train Number 57, due in five minutes. Civilians rarely drove far because of rationing, and if they did travel any distance, they went by train if they could get a seat. All our resources and material went into the war effort. Anyone who didn’t live through this time can’t understand it. I rarely heard anyone complain, though. We all were having to make do, and we were all in the same boat. No use complaining and making it more difficult for anyone than it already was.

I quickly calculated how long it had been since I had seen Otto. He left for the Army Air Corps in March of 1942, and his last letter home came in early December. So that’s, what?  Eight months? It seemed longer. Time crept though those months, and I attributed the slowing of time to all the unfamiliar work I had to do, learning how to manage the family’s dairy med, negotiating prices, hiring what few men were available and capable of the hard physical work involved. Of course, I wasn’t alone. Millions of women were doing the jobs of men who were off to war. I couldn’t help but feel that this change would not only last for the duration but years and even generations in the future, and I believe history proved me right.

I peered down the platform to see if I could tell who the couple was at the other end. It had to be someone with a family member in the service. Almost all the trains carried troops or supplies. My eyes cleared for a moment, and I saw it was the elder Petersons. They ran a home construction business, but they couldn’t get materials or labor with the war going on. Oh, sure, the military was building military bases and factories, but our little town was too far away from everything to warrant either. That was all right with me. I loved the tranquil life on my parents’ dairy farm, although it bad been hard to enjoy it lately. I caught myself once again in these thoughts. Think of the poor people on the front lines and those who work under such difficult conditions. Think of Otto far away from home, I.  No, I had little to complain about. And business was brisk, with word that the Army would soon be coming as far north as our town. That would mean a tremendous boost to our business, although I could have done with it since it involved war and so much displacement and suffering. Ah, well, there was a job to be done, and I would do my part.

I wondered how our parents would seem to Otto. It didn’t seem to me that they had changed that much during his absence, but I knew it was harder to see someone change when you were around them all the time. I didn’t think Mama’s dementia had gotten any worse, although some days were better than others. And while his paralysis had slowed him down some, Papa was still in charge of the farm. He couldn’t do what he used to, but he didn’t hesitate to tell anyone else how to do a job. Fortunately, his mind was still sound. Occasionally I thought he was too abrupt with the workers and with me, but I had found over the years that if I talked to him gently, he soon calmed down.

A distant steam whistle sounded from the south, and I moved to the center of the platform so I’d would be able to get to Otto quickly. He had never been away this long before, and I had been mulling over the first words I would say to him. He seemed the same in his letters home, but again you never know. He could have changed in ways that didn’t show up in the letters. The wind blew harder, and I drew my coat collar over my head. That helped, but not much. Mrs.  Peterson came up to me with her husband trailing behind as usual. “Hello, Mata! Do you remember an old lady? I know you’ll be glad to see Otto. I’ve missed seeing all our young men around.” Pete was the eldest of the four brothers, and the only one old enough to serve.

“And I know you’ll be glad to see Pete again.”

Ja, we have missed him as our son, and he was such a good worker, although he would probably have had to go to Minneapolis to find work if he hadn’t gone into the service.”

“We’re all glad to have our boys back for a while.” Could you say anything more obvious? I thought. The brilliant white headlight of the locomotive cut through the onrushing air. It was right on schedule, which was unusual these days. The loco’s boiler loomed nearer and nearer, until seemed to fill my field of vision entirely. Then the huge black machine slid by, brakes squealing, venting steam down the line of coaches. The train strained to a stop, and the engineer blew off the excess steam. The conductor climbed down the steps of the first coach, holding a small wooden box in his right hand. He carefully put it in place and then stood by as the passengers came out. None of them needed help since they were all young men with a smattering of women. I counted ten people, but none of them was Otto. What could have happened to him?

The train crew clambered down from the locomotive, and I watched as the relief crew took its place. I walked over to the first coach where the conductor looked up and down the line. He apparently was about to call “All aboard!” when he noticed I striding toward him. He tipped his cap to me. “What can I do for you today, Miss?”

“Has everyone who’s going here gotten off?”

“Yes, m’am, I had six passengers for Pioneer Lake, and they all got off. I count them as they get on, don’t cha know and I count them again when they get off. On some trains, they’re not awakened or called at our stop, but not on my train.”

My face fell. “Oh.”

“He’ll likely be on the next train. I’m sorry.”

“But today is Christmas Eve, and there’s no train tomorrow. The earliest he could make it is the 26th.”

“I am truly sorry, Miss. But now we have to leave. I have to keep to a schedule. I’m sure you understand.” He tipped his hat to me and called, “All aboarrd!” He swung up the steps, and the train pulled out, slowly at first but then with increasing speed,, and it was gone as if it had never been there, vanishing around the bend. I heard the whistle blowing for a grade-level crossing to the north of the station.

I watched it vanish from sight, put my head down into the wind and fought my slow way back to the car. Once in and glad to be out of the weather, I laid my forehead against the steering wheel and felt my tears come, freezing as they slid down my cheeks. After a few seconds, I straightened up, started the engine and picked my way back home among the black ice patches on the state highway.

The sun set early that time of year, and by the time I pulled up in the driveway of the old farm house, night had spread its inky cloak over all I could see. I thought that phrase came from something we had studied in my senior class, Hamlet, perhaps. I turned my face to the sky, thinking how cold and distant the stars were that night. If I had to go to tend the cows at night, I always saw those distant points of light as warm, even inviting, but not this evening. Christmas was just a few hours away and my brother was not there.

I opened the door and wondering how my parents fared. When I left for the station an hour earlier, I felt filled with hope and expectation, but the bright flame of that hope and that expectation had gone out. I hoped I would be able somehow to keep that fire alive.

I stopped in the kitchen because I heard someone, no, two someones, singing an old German carol Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen.

I thought it was the radio at first, but as I went into the living room, I saw that it was my Mama and Papa, singing the old, old words with conviction. I have never heard it sung so beautifully before or since.

Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen.

Aus einer Wurzel zart.

Wie uns die Alten sungen,

Aus Jesse kam die Art

Und hat ein Blümlein bracht,

Mitten im kalten Winter,

Wohl zu der halben Nacht.

Das Röslein das ich meine,

Davon Jesaias sagt:

Mama ist’s, die Reine,

Die uns das Blümlein bracht:

Aus Gottes ewigem Rat

Hat sie ein Kindlein g’boren

Bleibend ein reine Magd.

I paused in the hall. Mama could go for days without talking, and when she did, I could not make out most of what she was saying. But there she was, singing a clear harmony with Papa. Maybe there are no more miracles, but as I bowed my head in the cold kitchen I knew I had witnessed one, truly a Christmas miracle. I prayed, “Thank you, Lord,” and lifted my head. Tomorrow was another day and more importantly, it was Christmas Day. I felt something a warm glow in my heart, hope and expectation burning brightly there against the piercing wind and bitter cold of war and winter.

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Black Friday

Chapter 29

Black Friday

December, 2014

            Let’s see now—where were we? Oh, that’s right. I’m glad you take notes and don’t use one of those recorders like those other reporter fellows who come around sticking their microphones in my face. I wanted to bite it off, but I never do…What’s that? You’re recording me with your phone? Did I know that? Oh, I did. Thank you. Old ladies forget sometimes.

            So, I was ranting about the excesses of Thanksgiving, and really, being trampled by crowds eager for bargains is not the worst of it. No, that would be what I call Christmas Creep, where the beginning of the Christmas selling season is sliding inexorably back toward Labor Day. Before we know it they’ll have Christmas trees up in Home Depot for the Fourth of July. I suppose all that helps someone, especially the retailers. Now I’ve been a retailer myself—I opened a pilot shop long ago, which sold crap for pilots. You think women shop a lot, and they do, but they don’t buy crap like men do.

            The pilot shop did well, and I noticed we were having increasing numbers of lady pilot as time went on, so I added a fiction section to our flight manuals and other pilot stuff. We already sold newspapers and news magazines, so that was an easy step.

            My favorite book? There are so many good ones I cant’t choose. Sorry.

            Then about 20 years ago, the girls came to me and asked about starting a coffee shop. Well, we are all good bakers and love coffee, so that seemed the right thing to do. Both twins played guitar and sang, you know, unplugged folkie-hippie songs. At one point, I thought “If I hear that sappy song one more time I’m going to throw this coffee maker at those girls!” Of course, I never would, but we all entertain thoughts of what we’d like to do. Thanks goodness most of us don’t follow through on them.

            So, we had this coffee house which we started in 1994, and before long people started coming and we added a small book store at the back (With all the projects we’ve undertaken, I am so glad my family runs a construction firm. We wouldn’t have been able to half of what we did were it not for them. They’re good fellows. We were devastated when Verner was killed by a drunk driver a couple of years ago. He crossed the center line and hit him head on, the fool, and doncha know he didn’t have a scratch after the accident. Hah! I shouldn’t call it an accident. It was murder using a deadly weapon. Oh, don’t get me started!

            The girls were in their mid-40s when we started the shop. Maria had had Amelia and Rose by that time while Marion met her partner when she came in and spent hours sitting, drinking coffee and writing. She wrote poetry, mostly, and honestly, it was some of the most lugubrious stuff I’ve ever read. And that girl is the age of the twins!

            Still, I can’t complain. Number one, it wouldn’t do any good, number two it’s none of my business and number three, Alyce is awfully good to Marion. They’re do cute together. It just makes me smile.

            Anyhow, more to the matter. It was about this time in 2000 when the door opened and five of the most serious-looking young men in overcoats walked in. No, it was more like they barged in as if they owned the place. Then an older gentleman came through the door, same somber dress, same dead serious expression. I was in the back of the shop, but I saw all this and also heard Mr. Older Guy ask our late afternoon cashier, Katie, as sweet a high school junior as you’ll ever find, “Where’s your manager?”

            I think he scared the fool out of the child because all she could do was point mutely to me.

            They didn’t scare me. We’ve dealt with worse, I figured they were either law enforcement or undertakers, although undertakers don’t travel in packs like this bunch. So, I waltzed right up to Mr. O.G. and said sweetly, “Hi and welcome to Grounds Central Station (Clever name, no? Maria came up with it.) May I help you?” I think I batted my eyes at him. I just don’t remember.

            He drew himself up to his full height and fished inside his coat. I thought he was going to pull a gun on us (later I found he did have one) and took out the biggest badge I’ve ever seen anyone carry.

            Our regulars, as you might imagine, were transfixed, uncertain as to what was going to happen next. So was I—no, not transfixed. Just uncertain.

            “I am special agent Walters of the Secret Service. We’ll be bringing a Very Important Person in here in a few moment, so we need to secure the place.” I could hear the capitals in his voice. Then he stopped for a moment and his face took on a softer look. “With your permission, of course.”

            I figured he would shoot me if I refused, so I said yes and went about my business. The rest of the customers took off. They didn’t want to find out who the V.I.P was. I was kind of interested, in the same way that a rabbit is mesmerized by a snake, so that only left Marion, Maria, Katie and me to meet our mystery guest.

            The big boss stepped outside on the sidewalk, and his minions put their hands inside their coats as if they expected an ambush. I heard some commotion outside, and then, preceded by more young men whispering into their cuffs, Bill Clinton walked in. Yes, it was the man himself. Now, I’m not crazy about some things he did, especially his affair with that Lewinsky woman. She set the fight for women’s rights back about a hundred years, if you ask me, and you did, so that’s what I have to say about that. Oh, Lord, now I sound like that movie with that poor special lad, what was the name of it? Oh, thank you. Forrest Gump. Yes, that’s it. Tragic and touching and wonderful with a terrific sound track and characters. Wasn’t Lieutenant Dan in that one? He was? That would be a good nickname for you. Oh, it is already. OK, Lieutenant Dan, let’s get back to the matter of time, although these fishing trips are my fault. You’re very quiet and patient, and I thank you for that. I suppose that being in a house with three women you learned to do that very quickly, ha ha.

            So, President Clinton stepped up to the counter. Katie just sort of squeaked, so I gently moved her aside, and in my best barista manner, said, “Good afternoon, Mr. President and welcome to our shop. What can I get for you?”

            “That’s easy, darling’. We’ll take five black coffees. And how about the same number of slices of that good lookin’ apple pie over there?” He and his minions went over by the back wall, probably for security and to get away from the faces pressed against the glass. One of the agents stood at the door, and while I never heard him say a word, no one made a move for the door. It was curious, too, that Clinton didn’t have any staff with him. This was probably one of those turkey trots he was famous for.

            We all bustled around and served the pie and coffee. The men tore into it as if they had never seen food before. Maybe they were just enjoying some ordinary coffee and pie after existing on pate de foie gras for weeks. I don’t know.

            They finished quickly, and Clinton came over to pay. He patted all his pockets, pulled a face and turns to the Big Boss. “Frank, can you take care of this? I left my wallet at the hotel.”

            Frank gave the slightest of eye rolls, which made me think this had happened a number of times before. He paid, and the entourage swept out of the shop, as if they’d never been there.    

            I’ve met a few somewhat famous people in my time, but never a President. Otto told me a couple of years ago that Charles Lindbergh landed at our little airport a long long time ago and even gave him a pair of gloves, and I believe him. As I told you before, Otto doesn’t lie. In fact, he’s honest to a fault. And I’ve never told this story to anyone, but use it as you wish. And if Otto doesn’t like the fact that I told you about his encounter with Lindbergh, too bad. He could have talked to you himself, so he forfeited that right.

            So, we both have met a famous person, both under somewhat odd circumstances. They blew into our lives and then blew right back out again, and we all went back to our lives, and I think that’s the way it should be.

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Gratitude

Chapter 28

Gratitude

November, 2014

You asked me to tell you about the Thanksgivings I had with my family. We had so many wonderful celebrations through the years, with our little family of four, but the one I remember best is the last one I celebrated with my husband Pete Peterson, in 1953. I have told you about Pete and his family’s construction business and our wedding and our happy life together, which all vanished with his senseless death at the hands of the mob who ran over him because our baseball team was winning too often. That’s right—he lost his life over a game. I was so angry for such a long time I didn’t speak to anyone, even my family—especially my family—for months afterward. But that’s another story for another time. Here’s what happened at Thanksgiving, one of the last holidays we were together on this earth. Oh, I know I will see him in heaven, and to tell you the truth, I am so tired of waiting. Now, I’m not going to take my own life, but if the Lord should call me home tonight, I’d go happily if for no other reason that I would once again be with my dear husband. I know the Bible said that marriage in heaven is not like marriage on earth, but whatever it is like, it has got to be better than this loneliness and this grief. But I digress once again. It’s what an old woman does, Mr. Verner, and I hope you will forgive me.

We gathered at the Kerchners’ as we always did. Pete and I had had been over to visit his family that morning for a nice brunch that his dear mother fixed for us. I helped her in the kitchen, and I don’t think there has ever been such a close relation between a daughter-in-law and mother-in-law as I had with her. She passed on shortly after Pete did, partly from grief I think, and I miss her about as much as I do Pete.

We all went to the Thanksgiving service at 11 as usual. In those days, that’s what people did. Nothing was open on holidays, and that was so much better than stores not only being open on days like Thanksgiving as they are now and adding on to their hours to make more and more money. And those poor people who get trampled by others who can’t wait to save a few dollars. It’s a sad and tragic way to treat each other, I tell you.

The service was always somewhat the same, but it gave me a warm reassured feeling to sit there among familiar faces in a room I had been in at least once a week ever since Pete and started going together. It gives me a sense of stability and place, and I believe we all need that. The service concluded about noon, and we all stood outside and talked for a while, and then went off to our own homes. If someone was going to be alone for Thanksgiving or otherwise had no place to go, someone invariably invited him or her to be a part of their gathering. I never knew this to fail.

We went directly home and I bustled around with Betty and the girls to finish the meal so we could eat by 3. I’ve told you how special my nieces are to me, and that began with their births. I remember holding those little twins and thinking I could not love anyone any more than I loved them from the first moment I saw them. We had a lot of adventures and good times together. I believe you met them last month when you were here, and I know you’ll agree with me.

We put the meal on the table and the men came in from the living room where they had been talking and joking in that way that men do. There were six of us—Otto, Betty, Maria, Marion, Pete and me—a small gathering compared to all the Peterson brothers and wives and children. I tried counting them that morning, but couldn’t. The small kids kept flopping around and I wasn’t sure who some of the new ones were. Children at that age look pretty much alike, don’t you think? It seems to me that this is true anyhow. I think there were about 25 all told, but I wouldn’t count on it.

So perhaps by now you’re wondering why this particular Thanksgiving stands out among the 90-plus I’ve been here for. My answer is that its very ordinariness made it special. It was one of the last times I felt whole. That sounds extreme, but perhaps you do not understand how losing Pete tore my world and nearly myself apart. As I told you, I didn’t say much go anyone, not even my family, for months after I lost him. And that’s my story. It’s not very long or very special, but as I said, that’s what makes it special. I know, I sound like I majored in philosophy or something. No, sir, I got my degree in industrial design, thank you very much. Now Otto has a natural bent to philosophizing and always has.

That’s something to remember, young fellow—that the extraordinary can come out of the ordinary. That’s what some fellow wrote about the war—the ordinary people accomplished extraordinary things. That’s so true, and this ordinary woman is proud of the extraordinary things we all accomplished under difficult circumstances.

Now, if it’s all right with you, we’ll stop for today. I need my nap and I’m sure you have something useful to occupy yourself with as well. An idle mind is somebody’s something, I’m sure you agree.

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Losses

Chapter 27

Losses

October, 2014

            At first, we had a grand time that night visiting all the beautiful houses and having so much fun. Everybody knew everybody in those days, so people welcomed us with a bounty not only of candy. They had other treats and had decorated their houses so well that our eyes bugged out with the creativity and wonder of it all, and every other family wanted us to come in and have hot cider or bob for apples or play Pin the Hat on the Witch. Otto and I had bought burlap seed bags that held about a quart, while Betty had a special Halloween sack decorated with crescent moons and ghosts and skeletons which the maid had sewn for her. Otto and I soon filled up our bags, but while we took the largest candies we could carry (Otto began his life-long love of Hershey bars then. He said the best thing about serving in the air corps was the free chocolate), Betty took one piece at each stop. She had eaten that way since she was a baby, according to her mother, which is why she continued to be so slim through the years, even up to the end.

            We saved the doctor’s house for last. Dr. and Mrs. Carter didn’t live in the largest or grandest house in town, but it was a pleasant white two-story house with large rooms on the ground floor and four bedrooms on the second story. The Carters had one son, John (whom they called ‘Jack) who was killed during the waning days of the Great War. Jack flew for about a year with Rickenbacker and the other members of the Lafayette Escadrille. On a November morning in 1917, one year to the day before the Armistice was signed, he was jumped by four Fokker triplanes after his Sopwith Camel developed engine trouble and fell behind the rest of his flight. The other aircraft were low on fuel and had to land. Troops in their trenches observed Jack trying everything he knew to get away from the swarming Germans, but he was overpowered by superior numbers and took a bullet through the heart. As sometimes happened in these instances, he either lived long enough to glide the Sopwith to a smooth landing, or the aircraft landed itself, much like Richthofen the next April. We will never know.

            The Carters were never the same afterward. I had heard Mrs. Carter had come to terms with her loss as well as she could, but Dr. Carter blamed the military for glamorizing such a dangerous undertaking. He was our doctor, and a good one, but he and my father often exchanged harsh words about the war. My father fought for the Germans after being drafted before he married my mother. They came to the States in 1920 where Otto was born. I arrived two years later.

            Dr, Carter and my father never resolved their differences, although he took good care of us until his death many years later. Even today you can visit the War Memorial in the center of town and see Jack’s name at the bottom of the list of those who died in the Great War. I suppose I should call it World War I, but old habits die hard with this old lady. I have walked by the memorial countless times and watched name after name added to those who made the great sacrifice through war after war after war. They are so numerous I cannot tell you how many there are.

            It is a quiet and beautiful place, but it is so very sad.

            In truth, we were growing tired at that point, and perhaps secretly glad that our first night trick or treating was drawing to a close, so we walked slowly up the long flagstone walk and knocked on the front door. Dr. Carter himself opened the door, smiled at Betty and me, and then his eyes settled on Otto.

            I have seen a lot of shocked looks from people before, but none like the one that crossed Dr. Carter’s face. He quickly recovered himself, and I wondered what he had seen. I turned to look at Otto and he was frozen, whether in fear or what I do not know. Dr. Carter shook his head, drew himself up to his full height, and called to his wife, “Becky, come here, please.”

            We heard a quiet bustle as she came to the door. “Would you give these children some candy? I have a sudden headache and must lie down.”

            Mrs. Carter nodded and reached behind the door for some candy. She leaned over as she offered it to us, whispering, “You must excuse the doctor. He hasn’t been feeling well all evening.”

            I recognized her excuse as one of those lies adults tell children so they won’t be upset. I saw in an instant that Otto’s costume had set something off in Dr. Carter, something about his son and what he never became. We were innocent, of course. Maybe our parents could have done something, but they in their own way were equally innocent. And it is always the innocent who seem to suffer the most.

            We picked our way back to Betty’s house where we waited on the porch for our parents to come pick us up. We didn’t say much, and not even the prospect of gorging himself on chocolate seemed to lighten Otto’s mood.

            The model T came into sight, and we said our good-byes and climbed in.

            “So, did you have a good time?” Mama asked.

            “It was all right,” Otto mumbled.

            “Only all right? What’s wrong?”

            “Nothing. I want to go home and go to sleep. I’m tired.”

            Otto fell asleep on my shoulder before we got home, and as we drove straight toward a setting moon, I wondered what lay ahead for him, and for me. All around us, the darkness grew deeper, and the moon had no answers.

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Süßes oder Saures

Chapter 26

Süßes oder Saures

October, 2014

            Otto and I jumped out of the back of Papa’s Model T truck. He could have afforded a fancier, newer model, but he said it was good enough for farm work and that he didn’t want the trouble and expense of keeping draft horses, although many farms in the area still did. He was frugal and opinionated, my papa, and I miss him still today. I hope I’ll see him soon.

            We were dressed in our costumes as I have told you, and Otto did look so much like a young Charles Lindbergh. That’s not surprising because he was ten years old, ha, ha, clad in a little leather flight jacket Mama bought him with her egg money at Petersen’s Department Store, which is still there on Main Street in town. And I, I looked the part of a young German girl. Forgive me for chuckling at myself. I do find it amusing so many years later, and I trust you caught my joke.

            The kids at school had told us to go trick or treating in the richest part of town, out toward the lake off East Sawyer Street, where the doctors and lawyers and bankers lived. We planned to meet up with Betty Ross, Otto’s little girlfriend, although he threw things at me if I called her that. “I don’t have a girlfriend,” he huffed. “Betty is my friend!”

            I would smile and say, “Sure she is, Otto,” and wink at him, which made him even madder.

            “Be careful, meine Kinder!” Mama called, while Papa looked ahead impatiently. He planned to take Mama over to Main Street, where they would see their neighbors who had also brought their children in for an evening of trick or treating. They wouldn’t go to a movie or a restaurant or do frivolous shopping. Mama and Papa were typically German: frugal and serious almost to a fault. They could have fun, Mama more so than Papa, but even that usually involved something practical. Mama said she enjoyed snapping beans, but just between us, I didn’t. I forced myself to do so, thinking I would be a good wife for my husband some day and practice all the womanly household arts. Of course, none of us could have foreseen the radical changes that were soon to be thrust upon us in the next decades.

            We waved and ran off toward the lake. Otto always commented on the electric lights. I had to agree that their golden glow made that area of town look like a magical fairy land. We did not get power at the farm until 1935, although it was available. Papa said oil lanterns and manual tools were good enough for his father, so they were good enough for us. The tribes who lived out by the railroad tracks didn’t get power until after we did. In retrospect, I can see that there was an incredible racial prejudice in place that denied them what we had much earlier. This was acceptable in those days, but we learned the error of our ways after harming and even killing so many people with our horrible policies. My, don’t I sound like one of those radicals I see on television?  An old lady is entitled to her opinions, I suppose, and I have a lot of them. Thank you for listening to me talk on and on.

            We saw Betty coming toward us dressed as a princess in a blue gown with a beautiful translucent cape made from sheer white cotton. The light from the lamps overhead made her glow, and I heard Otto suck in his breath. “Your girlfriend looks so beautiful tonight,” I whispered so she couldn’t hear.

            He kicked me. “Don’t say that to her,” he hissed, “or I’ll put spiders in your room.”

            I decided to be quiet. I was so afraid of spiders in those days. But Otto was equally terrified of snakes, so I glared back at him. “And I’ll load your room with huge poisonous snakes!”

            He sneered. “I’d like to know where you’d get them. We don’t have poisonous snakes around here!”

            “I’d get them from the zoo in Minneapolis.”

            “How would you do that?”

            I sniffed. “I’d take the train.”

            “And where would you get the money?”

            “I have some Mama gave me for helping with the chickens.”

            “Awwww—I’m going to tell Papa!”

            That made me furious. “You do that, Otto Kerchner, and I’ll put a double load of snakes in your room!”

            “They won’t let you take them on the train.”

            “Shush. Here’s Betty.”

            She glided up to us like a real princess. I have told you before that her parents were some of the richest people in town, and it looked to me as if her costume had been hand-sewn by one of their maids. Their help doubled and tripled their jobs–maids not only greeted visitors at the door: they also sewed and mended, served at parties, organized the household, chauffeured, gardened, and all the rest of the things that must be done to keep up a grand house. And their house was grand, as I have told you. Forgive me if I repeat myself. I am doing that more and more of late.

            She put out her hand and for a moment I thought Otto was going to kiss it. “Umm, hi, Betty. G-g-g-gosh, you look swell!”

            She smiled that perfect smile of hers. I felt dumpy and ordinary in my homemade dress, blouse and jacket, but Mama always told us to be proud of who we were and where we came from, so when she turned to me and smiled, I took her hand. “You do look just like a fairy princess.”

            In the light I couldn’t tell if she blushed, but I think she did. “Thank you Mata.” Her voice reminded me of water trickling over rocks in the stream behind the barn back on the farm. “And you look so charming. Is your outfit from Germany?”

            It was my turn to blush. “Yes. This was my mother’s when she was my age.”

            She smiled again and I thought Otto was going to explode. He pulled off his helmet and fanned himself. I thought his eyes were going to come out on stalks like the cartoon characters we saw when Mama let us go to the movies while she and Papa shopped along with everyone else in town on Saturdays. “And you look just like your hero, Otto.”

            Then he blushed. “T-t-t-thank you, Betty. I made this up from pictures in the newspapers.”

            “Well, shall we get started?” Betty sounded excited and happy.

            “Let’s!” I exclaimed. And we linked arms and set off.

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Remembrance

Remembrance

Chapter 25

October, 2014

            Every October I remember the first time Otto and I went trick or treating. That was Halloween of 1930. I was eight and Otto was ten. He was a typical big brother with a younger sister: teasing, impatient, but also protective and caring. And if you’ve been around him for more than five minutes, you know that he is crazy about airplanes and aviation and that Charles Lindbergh is his biggest hero. But our first Halloween night when we were out trick or treating we found out he could not protect me from everything.

            Mama told us, as she did about everything else, how it used to be in the “old country” in the Hartz Mountain area where she grew up. When she found out our plans to go trick or treating, she sat us down at the kitchen table and spoke to us in her warm, firm way. “Mein kinder, in the old country we did not go door to door begging candy from people we did not know. But we had other times we dressed up and received sweets.” She leaned back in her kitchen chair and smiled. “Halloween for us was a religious observance, the evening before Allerheiligen, or All Saints Day, when we remembered all the saints.”

            “You remembered the saints?” Otto asked. “I thought we were Lutheran.”

            Mama smiled again, somewhat wistfully. “I was Catholic until I married your pater?. I almost became a nun before I met him. If I had, I would not have had you two wonderful kinder.” Otto dropped his head, embarrassed but pleased to be so complimented. I reached over and took Mama’s hand and held it.

            “And we are so lucky to have such a wonderful Mutter,” I told her with a slight catch in my voice. Mama patted my hand. “I am so pleased when you use words from your first language.” She caressed my hair, which was long and red then,r and then put both hands in her lap, studying the ceiling for a moment to recall her story and then continued on.

            “If we had had Halloween then, we wouldn’t have said—what is it? How do you ask for candy when you go out?”

            I smiled faintly. My dear Mutter could be so cute at times. At other times she could be not so cute, in fact, strict if she needed to do so, which she didn’t very often–with me. Otto, however, was another story.

            “Children here say, ‘Trick or treat,’ Mama.”

            “Ah, well then. We would have said, Süßes oder Saures!’ Do you know what that means?”

            She looked at us expectantly, but they only shook their heads. “It means—trick or treat!” She laughed heartily and slapped her knee while we looked at each other, bemused. Our mother didn’t make many jokes, but when she did, they were like this one—unexpected and droll.  “Ah, but later on, just a few days later, came Fasching and St. Martinstag.

            I wrinkled my brow. “What do those words mean?”

Mama looked perfectly at peace. “We started celebrating on der eleventh of November at 11:11 AM.”

            “That was the time the Armistice was signed ending the Great War,” Otto murmured.

Mama nodded. “Jawhol, and that is why that date and time was chosen to end that horrible war.”

            “Fasching is a wonderful occasion with parties, parades, bonfires, celebrations, gifts, marvelous food and sweets, costumes and dress balls. Everyone wears a costume during this time. Also several guilds are elected to form a pretend government, and they make fun of those who plan the carnival festivities.

            “Now, this is also a religious festival, marking the season before Lent when people enjoy themselves as much as possible before they deny themselves starting on Ash Wednesday.”

“Like Mardi Gras in New Orleans and other places,” I mused.

            Papa came in from milking and sat at the table. “Why are you talking to Otto when I need him to help me?”

            I sat up. “Mama was telling us about Halloween in the old country.”

            Papa snorted. “Humph! No doubt she was telling you about those heathen practices by the papists. You tried to entice us into your false religion by giving us sweets on Reformation Day.”

            Mama brought him a cup of coffee and set it down. “Papa, you know that was all a long time ago.”

            Papa took a sip. “Yes, and who knows what would have happened to you if I had not come along and rescued you.”

       Mama looked down demurely. “I would have become a nun. Then we would not have had für diese wundervollen Kindern, these wonderful children.

            I had never seen my father look chagrined before, but he did, this time. He looked away for a moment. “Das heißt wahr,” he murmured. That is true, I translated in my head. And it was.

            Mama bustled around the kitchen for a moment, and then made the same motions that she used to shoo her chickens into their little house. “Go! Go! Get on your costumes! We will drive you to town!”

            “Und was werden Sie tragen warden?” Papa asked. “And what will you be wearing?”

            “I’m going as ein junges Mädchen gergman,” I answered. “A young German girl in traditional dress.”

            “Und Otto?”

       I smiled. “You might be surprised to know that Otto is going as Charles Lindbergh.”

            Papa threw his hands in the air. “Well, of course, I should have guessed! That boy is going to turn into an airplane!”

            Mama laughed. “It’s the coming thing, Papa. Our Otto will be rich and famous one day.”

            Papa sat down heavily. “He will if I don’t kill him first.”

            Mama went over and kissed him on the top of his head. “Don’t worry, mein Schatz. I’ll make sure you don’t hurt each other.”

            “And I couldn’t ask for a better Ehefrau.

            My father wasn’t tender with my mother very often, so this is the memory I treasure most of our time growing up. They are gone now, but I think of them often and I remember them well.

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Another World

Chapter 24

Another World

September, 2014

I think we were going to talk about schools and education since most schools start back after Labor Day, but I got off the track, as usual. Otto called it “chasing rabbits,” which run one way and then another without warning. Sometimes I’d go off the subject of whatever it was we were talking about, and he’d just say, “Rabbits, Mata,” and I’d know to get back on subject. I think all families have secret words or certain looks they use to communicate privately with each other, even with other people around. If one of us was on the phone with a telemarketer who kept trying to sell us something we didn’t want and another member of the family was in the room, we’d draw our forefinger across our throat and that was the secret symbol for the other person to yell, “Help! The cat’s on fire!” We didn’t even own a cat, but the person on the other end knew something was on fire and got off quickly. It worked every time.

I don’t think I’ll talk about schools. I did that in the June section of our talks. I don’t want to talk about this, but I can’t think about September without thinking about September 11, 2001. I think most people of age in this country do the same thing every year. After all, it was the first time our country had been attacked since Pearl Harbor, and those who did it used our system against us. It was a horribly unforgettable day, and I think we haven’t been the same since.

It was about 8 AM on an extremely clear morning—people in aviation call it “severe clear.” Otto had taken the Cub up, which was his way of relaxing. He said it flew itself, and I think that was a reflection of his pilot’s touch, which he never lost. I was in the office doing my usual work when Betty called. “Mata,” she said. “Something horrible has happened in New York City.”

“What’s that?”

“Someone has flown an airplane into one of the Twin Towers.”

At first I thought she was talking about one of the light aircraft which ran up and down the Hudson and East Rivers below the top levels of the towers. “Don’t worry, Betty. A Cessna won’t do that much damage.”

“No. It was a passenger jet. The tower is burning and—oh oh oh!”

“What’s the matter?”

“The other tower has been struck. Call Otto and get him down. No one knows what’s going one.”

I got on the radio. “Four-seven Bravo, this is Olson base.”

After a few clicks and pops I heard Otto’s familiar voice. “Olson, this is Four-seven Bravo. What’s up, Mata? Over.”

“Otto, someone has flown two passenger jets into the World Trade Centers. I think you should land immediately.”

Otto was silent for a moment. “I’ll be right down.”

I think that was about the only time neither of us used proper radio protocol. I think we were both so upset we forgot about it. It didn’t seem to matter much. By the time he got down, the FAA had started declaring ground stops on the east coast. Eventually the whole system came to a halt and flights didn’t resume for two days. Otto said he felt trapped being unable to fly, although he of course understood the reason for it. We simply didn’t know what was going on or if there would be more attacks or anything, really. It was a prudent thing to do.

I think that one event changed our world more than any other in my lifetime. Or maybe World War II did. I don’t know that I could choose between them, now that I think of it. It seemed to take the wind out of all our sails, and nothing has been the same ever since.

My, that’s a somber note to end our series of little chats on, isn’t it? I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed these and I hope to see you soon again. I might even think of some tangents to go off on. You take care and stay in touch. No, no, the pleasure has been all mine. Good bye for now.

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The Lady of the Lake

Chapter 23

The Lady of the Lake

September, 2014

Let’s get started, shall we? The story I told you yesterday is true, as I said—we not only have the version that was passed down orally, we have documents—diaries and letters and even a passage in a sermon to verify what happened. This next one may or may not be true—you can decide.

As you know, the aviation campgrounds is right beside a lake—not a large one, but a lake nonetheless. Sometimes we would sit in the evening enjoying the cool air and beautiful sight of pines across the way rustling in the wind and listen to the calls of loons and ducks and the sibilant sounds of deer and fox prowling through the underbrush.

One such evening, with the moon reflecting in the placid surface of the lake, I thought I saw something move through the woods about 100 yards down from us. It didn’t look like a deer and it wasn’t big enough for a bear. “What’s that?” I asked.

Tom peered through the gathering darkness. “It looks like a person.”

“Do you have your gun?” Otto wanted to know.

“Yeah. I always carry it with me.”

“Betty, you and Mata take the girls and get back to the assembly hall. If you hear shots, call Charlie Draper.”

I went with Betty and the twins and suggested they go on to the office where they could call Charlie if necessary. And then, since I was never much on doing what I was told, I crept back to the lake shore. The mysterious figure was between me and Tom and Otto, so I saw her first. Yes, it was a woman, ghostly pale, and dressed in a dark flowing dress of the type widows wore in the 1860’s. I knew that among the casualties of that war was a man who lived nearby. He and his wife had just married, and he lasted through most of the war, but was killed at Petersburg in the last days. It is said of her that she never recovered from her loss, but wore mourning clothes the rest of her life. At the end, unhinged by grief and taking enormous doses of laudanum, she walked into the lake one evening much like the one we were enjoying. I had heard stories of her appearances, although I had never met anyone who had seen her.

If this apparition were a ghost, I figured she couldn’t do me any harm, so I edged closer to her. When I was about twenty feet away, she turned and fixed me with the saddest eyes I had ever seen. “Where is my husband?” she whispered in a paper thin voice.

I came within three feet of her. “Come no closer,” she cautioned. I didn’t ask why.

“Your husband is resting in the same place you are. Go to him now.”

“I can’t find him,” she moaned.

“Keep looking,” I said. “Love always finds what it needs.”

With those words, a kind of smile played on her lips momentarily. “I will. And I thank you kindly.” With that she turned and walked toward the lake, but she did not sink into it. She seemed to walk above the water until she was lost to sight amid the gathering mist. I stood there for a few seconds, not believing what I had seen and heard. Was I dreaming? Was I dead? Or hallucinating? But when I was talking to her I felt a kind of supercharged sense of reality, and to this day I have no doubt that I saw the spirit of that poor widow.

Tom and Otto had come close enough to see who I was and walked up. “Mata, I told you to stay with Betty and the girls,” Otto chided.

“If you’ve noticed, I don’t always do everything you say.”

“Now that’s true. Who were you talking with?”

I thought for a moment. “Let’s just say it was the Lady of the Lake. I’ll tell you all about it when we get back to the house.”

We went back and I shared what had happened, and to their credit, they believed me. I never saw the ghost again or heard of any sightings. I wonder if she needed my words and direction to be able to rest in peace. And so, one of the things I’m most proud of is something I haven’t told many people. I don’t need for everyone to know. Being able to help that poor dejected soul is all the reward I need.

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