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.

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The Dancer, the Dead and the Madonna: Part 12 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

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Granma’s Madonna scares me. She says it will be ours one day, my sisters and mine; but I don’t want it. I want to want it but I can’t. In my heart I know it has to be my sisters because it can’t ever be mine. There is no explaining the Madonna. No way to understand it but through its history which reaches back further in time than any of us know.

The war brought the Madonna into our lives. Granma nursed hundreds of wounded and dying soldiers in the war. Granma bandaged men as they healed and held their hands as they passed giving what comfort she could. One of her soldiers was a French man. She’d nursed him for months. In gratitude for his life and all the care she had given him he gave her the Madonna, one of two he had found in the rubble of a bombed church.

Granma kept the Madonna with her throughout the war. When the air raid sirens howled she would take the Madonna into the bomb shelters. The Madonna’s hair and robe are shined to a polish with all the hours Granma spent running her hands over the folds of her plaster robe, waiting for the siren that would announce the all clear.

But when I look at the Madonna I don’t see Our Lady, the Queen of Heaven-the Mother Mary. I have been raised to love Our Lady but I don’t see her when I look on Granma’s Madonna. Instead I see the bombs, the wounded, the dying and the dead.

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Her robe is the yellow of aged plaster with traces of the sacred blue paint she once wore, caught in the folded grooves of her robe. Her gown too is worn of color; its white paint only visible in a few deeply etched places. Once, the rose at her feet was a soft shade of red. I know this because a touch of color sits between the petals. Granma’s Madonna is lined with cracks, broken and repaired, her head repositioned onto its neck, her torso and base re-sculpted with glue and plaster chips. Yet it wasn’t the bombs that smashed her.

My family fought in both the world wars and only lost one man in battle. Yet we lost two women during those wars and both died at home. The first was my Granma’s sister Eva. On hearing of her fiancé’s death at Verdun, France she fell ill and died of a broken heart. The second was my Granma’s sister-in-law, a beautiful American actress who died suddenly of pneumonia during the second war. Her name was Jackie.

Jackie was a movie actress and vaudeville dancer who supported the troops by keeping them entertained. She was healthy and young and beautiful, too filled with life to die. Our family mourned her in the same sitting room where all our dead were mourned. Granma took leave from the Portland Royal Naval Hospital to sit vigil beside her coffin. Flowers filled the sitting room surrounding Jackie’s coffin and the Madonna was placed on a table at Jackie’s head. On the final night before the funeral the room was darkened and the mourners went to bed. (This part is strange to me because the custom of our family is to sit with the lost one until the funeral.) The house was still, everyone was asleep when suddenly… “Smash…”

Granma reached the downstairs sitting room, her brother, Jackie’s grieving husband beside her while all the rest of the family made their way down behind them. Opening the door they saw the Madonna in pieces on the floor, a huge hole in the wall where she had struck it. No one was in the room. No one had flung the statue at the wall. Jackie lay as she had, stilled by death, quiet and cold in her satin lined coffin. So who had smashed the Madonna? No one knows.

No, I do not want Granma’s Madonna. Just to think of it gives me chills. When Granma places it in my sister’s small hands I am filled with an ancient, haunted kind of fear.
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Attributes of a Magical Grandmother: Part 5 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

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Granma is probably my most favorite person in the universe. She dresses up at Halloween, throws banquets at Christmas and takes me bowling on Saturday mornings. My Granma is different from other girl’s Grandmothers. She bakes and cooks and does things other Granma’s do but not for the same reasons. She doesn’t take care of people or baby people. Instead she makes them strong. She teaches them how to navigate the world by being fully and perfectly alive. She is alive. Every day she finds things to do that I find magical.

Magical Granma Attribute one would be her incredible tackle box. Imagine opening a box filled with every fishing lure you can imagine. Note the smell of salmon eggs and other assorted fish bate. Together we cast, reel and become patient while full size rainbow trout circle near by.

Magical Granma Attribute two would be her sewing box. From the contents of that sewing box I have learned to embroider, bead and do needle point. During the war Granma embroidered in air raid shelters while other people counted the seconds between explosions, controlling their fear by trying to predict where the next bomb would hit.

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Magical Granma Attribute three are these stories of life and death that haunt my young mind. She begins,

“During the war…” and the room falls silent. Her words are spoken matter of fact but their meaning makes pictures so rich with color and scent that they are a part of me.

“During the war the bombs fell…” thousands of them rained down on her life as they did so many British lives.

There was the time bomb that slipped silently into the wreckage of a bombed out nurses ward. Granma and her fellow nurses had returned to the area to gather what supplies could be salvaged. They worked quickly and efficiently in the wreckage at Portland Bill, until a voice yelled out. “Look up,” the voice called. “You silly girls. Get the hell out.” And there it was, swinging above them on the ropes of its parachute. When I imagine the bomb it always looks like a giant deadly watch, its long arms spinning towards death. Granma says it didn’t tell time that way. It just counted down on its own, never telling anyone when it would go off.

Magical Granma Attribute four is her garden. I love her garden. There I find a purple eggplant the size of a football. Granma says I shouldn’t pet it but its smooth purple skin is too beautiful not to touch. The air in the garden is filled with the scent of roses, huge beautiful carnivorous roses, their thorns gleaming sharp and deadly in the bright Utah sun. They are carnivorous because they scratch me when I get too close and they eat our fish, at least all the bits we don’t eat. I walk behind Granma with my little trowel and help her dig small graves below each bush. This is why her roses are the largest and most beautiful. It’s because of the fish.

Magical Granma Attribute five is time. Time moves slowly around her, it smells of ham and roses, fat lap dogs and long stories. I sit beside her on the steps of her front porch and listen to the birds in her cherry tree. Here there is time to remember, to watch, to notice the butterflies, count the tomatoes and just be together. There is no rush or hurry because there is no one else in this world who can stop time like Granma. A day lasts a week in her garden, so filled with food and story that I don’t grow tired and I never want to go home. Through brightly colored memories, we walk her father’s farm in England and drive her pony and trap down through the fields to bring lunch to the men. Closing my eyes I feel the English sunlight. I see the endless green down lands stretched before us, their curving flanks dotted with sheep. Somewhere over the next rise men plow with draft horses, harvest timber and gather watercress. Just over the next hill our people work the earth and they are hungry for their lunch.

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