The Nazis Next Door: Part 13 of Rain on Cloudless Day

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Granma lives on 5th south in an old home that was once converted into a duplex. It has two kitchens and two living rooms, two bathrooms and two bedrooms. Daddy had to knock down a wall just so Granma didn’t have to go outside to enter the other half of her house. Granma’s house is magical. Like Alice’s Wonderland, it is all topsy-turvy and back to front. It has two different front doors with different shaped door knobs. All the sun floods into the south side of the house, the side with the yellow kitchen where we bake bread and make pudding.

From every window on the sunny side of the house I can watch the Nazis. From the living room I see the ancient grandmother push her push-mower in the front yard. Through their kitchen window I can see her daughter who is Granma’s age. In the backyard I hear the young daughter playing with her son, a boy my age.

Granma is in the garden pulling up weeds and gathering vegetables. When the basket is filled with food we walk over to the Nazi’s house. I feel a chill go up my spine every time the old grandmother looks at me. I’m so filled with the stories of war that I’m always a little afraid she might want to shove me in an oven. The click, click, click of her old black push-mower comes to a stop when she sees us. Her toothless smile and the black scarf she wears tied tightly under her chin, draw the wrinkles and folds of her face into a new symmetry. She wears an old black dress that reaches to her ankles. On her feet she wears black leather boots. Her fingers grip the push-mower and are gnarled and twisted from almost a century of hard work.

She only speaks German. Granma says she’s too old to learn English and doesn’t need to. I hear the creak of the front door as the old grandmother’s daughter comes to greet us. She takes the basket from Granma and welcomes us into her garden. She picks apricots and peaches, apples and tomatoes, placing them into a second basket that she gives to us. Looking around, I see the boy wants to play. We think up a game while Granma and her friend talk. The click, click, click, of the old push mower picks up again and the hours slip by in the easy flow of a long hot summer day.
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When the sun casts long shadows I am thirsty with running and pretending. Going into the house I walk behind my friend who fills two glasses of water. We wander into the small front sitting room to rest. On a table beside the old Grandmother’s chair sit two pictures, one of a very young man in a World War I German uniform and the other of an equally young man in a Nazi uniform. Both pictures are black and white but as crisp as the day they were taken. These pictures remind me of the black and white picture we have of Granma. In it she is twenty-two and wearing her ATS military uniform.

“Who are they?”

“This is my grandfather,” he points to the Nazi’s picture, “and this is my great grandfather.” He gestures to the World War I soldier.

“Where are they now?” I look for other pictures of the two men but don’t find them.

“They were killed. Great Grandfather died when my grandmother was a baby and Grandfather died when my mother was a baby.”

I nod my head, thoughtful. Looking up at my friend I realize that he has his grandfather’s large dark eyes.
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It’s late when we walk home. I’m thinking of all the men my Granma nursed throughout the war, of all the suffering and death. Looking up I ask,

“How come our enemies are now our friends, Granma?”

“Those ladies were never our enemies. They were farmers like we were.”

“But their men fought in the wars. I saw the pictures.”

“Yes they fought.” She’s silent for a moment. “It was a terrible time but it’s in the past now. Let the past be the past, let the dead bury the dead.” Smiling she adds, “and let’s you and I make a pie.”

I smile, my thoughts turning from loss to the light crusty joy of hot peach pie. I realize in that second that Granma isn’t angry or sad anymore because Granma is too alive, too busy living, too alight with life to waste time being angry. Angry isn’t fun so it isn’t worth her time.

We make a pie and we talk about everything we loved about the day. My heart glows happy even as my eyes grow heavy because I see life, I see living, and I understand what it takes to truly thrive. When Granma tells us to have, “no regrets,” she is really telling us not to let our past ruin our present. Let the dead bury the dead, share food and friendship with old enemies, and turn all life’s peaches into magnificent pies.

One Brave Ham: Part 9 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

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I can’t sleep. I could if I tried but trying would be boring. Mommy looks tired tonight. If I were smart I would go to sleep but smart doesn’t equal adventure and I need an adventure. Ali sleeps in her crib. I lay tucked in bed listening to the night. Even our old house is quiet tonight. Maybe all the activity of the day tired it out the way it has my sister. I slip out of bed, feeling the cold green linoleum under my feet. My silky green night gown glows pale green in the diffused light. The window that leads to the ally is shut tight. It’s a fun escape but Mommy would kill me if I opened it and went out. Sadly, the window to the back garden is out of reach. If I’m really quiet and careful, I can sneak out of the nursery and across the hall into the sun porch where the dogs sleep.

Quietly, I open our door and step into the hall. The old floor boards creaking out an unmistakable alarm.

“Eleanor Eva what are you doing?” Mommy sits at the kitchen table, her eyes locked on me.

“I can’t sleep. I need sleepy tea.” I look down at my bare feet, my hand resting on the nob to the sun porch. Sadie and Arrow look up at me expectantly, their tails wagging through the glass.

“So why were you going to see the dogs?”

“They looked lonely.” Dropping my hand I walk to the table and sit down.

Giving me a look that should scare me back to bed she asks, “I suppose you’ll need toast with your sleepy tea.”

“And butter and honey.” I add, carful that nothing is missed. I watch Mommy take the scissors from the drawer. We slip into sandals and walk out into the starlight, Arrow and Sadie running ahead. I love our garden. It’s magical. All gardens are magical but ours has fairies. I haven’t seen one yet but it’s just a matter of time. We walk to the fence where a giant mound of mint grows. It smells like heaven, its heavy scent drifts towards us on the hot summer breeze. We cut enough for a pot but before returning to the house Mommy pulls three green onions from the dirt.

Inside I watch her wash the mint and the onions. Mommy sets a saucepan to boil, sprinkling the fresh mint into the water. We watch it turn green. Then we slice the onions length ways and soak them in a glass of cold salt water, their green tops hanging over the side of the glass.

I squeeze honey from the honey bear onto my toast as Mommy pours tea into our mugs and we sit down together. The tea is hot, so hot that I move my face into the steam letting the sweet fragrance bathe my face. I hear the crunch of onions and looking up I see my mother with her green onions and a thick slice of cheddar cheese.

“I used to live on these during the war,” she says, holding up the green onion. “We lived off our little garden. The government rations were so small that we were forced to live off what we grew.”

“Were you always hungry?”

“Yes. We were surrounded by farms growing mountains of food but everything they grew went to feed the men and the country. Everything was rationed and shared but there was never enough. I used to steal condensed milk from the pantry. My Grandmother Eva would get so angry but I just couldn’t help myself. Condensed milk is still one of my favorite things. I can eat it with a spoon.”

“That and strawberry jam,” I say with a laugh. I’ve caught my mother several times eating jam from the jar with nothing but a spoon. “What other things do you love to eat?”

“Snickers bars and Coca-Cola?”

“I like Ham sandwiches and black tea with Granma and toast and mint tea with you.”

“I love ham.” Mommy looks suddenly so hungry she could eat a pig. “I still remember the first time I had ham.”

“Was it the brave ham?” I ask with a smile.

“Yes. Your great uncle Frank knew the villagers were starving. He went to Bovington Camp and he asked the Americans if he could have their food scraps for his pigs. They brought out a huge barrel of food waste and just gave it to him. He loaded the barrel onto the back of his milk cart and drove it into the village. Inside they found whole hams with just a few slices cut off and potatoes that had only a few black spots. The barrel was filled with food. We ate like kings off the food the Americans were throwing away. We fed a whole village.”

“And that was the first time you ate ham?”

“Yes. It was American ham, brought across the Atlantic on a U.S. convoy.”

“That was one…BRAVE…ham.” I laugh. It’s an old joke that’s been told many times. It’s our joke and our history all boiled down to a one liner that never fails. It’s why we’re here smiling over mint tea in the middle of the night. We’re here because of smart old uncles, because of brave sailors who ran convoys through Nazi subs, because of solders who fought for hearth and home and also, because of one brave ham.