I’m happy to say Ken had a great day yesterday. He felt strong enough to attend the club he enjoys twice a month. This group has a lot of Alzheimer patients, which are several decades older than he is, but he says he is making some new friends and likes the time away from our familiar surroundings at home. Participants are paired with a helper, so I can leave with confidence he will receive good care while he has lunch and plays games and does a craft project. The time away from each other is good for me too..
Yesterday on my “day off” I went to see my dear friend Marie. Her birthday was Saturday, and I didn’t get a chance to give her the orchid I got for her. Marie doesn’t talk about her age, but I estimate she’s several years past eighty (88?). I’ve enjoyed Marie’s company since my late twenties. Through the years we’ve discovered we are compatible, having the same interests–singing, writing, and painting. We always laugh together and enjoy each other’s company. Our age difference has never been a problem. She’s a person I can tell anything, and I know if I ask her to keep a confidence, she will take my secret to her grave.
Last year, she returned home to Racine to be close to her large family after living twenty years in Florida. Her holidays got empty as she out-lived her friends. Now they are full of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. She is surrounded by many old friends who are delighted she has returned. Marie’s an easy person to love.
But like many people her age, she suffers from ill-health, so I know I must see her as much as our time allows. Even on the days when she’s not in top form, she welcomes my visits. I’m lucky. Having a friend like Marie is a gift.
Paris, France, December, 1939—December in Paris brought magical moments to Marta. Snow fell from the heavens like confectioner’s sugar which transformed the city into a wonderland you might find in a snow globe. Marta viewed her first winter in Paris as the happiest time in her life. After her father’s nasty letter, she needed to make Paris dearer to her than her homeland.
After a long day at the Louvre, Marta picked up their mail and dragged herself up the stairs to their flat. Along with the monthly bills and advertisements, she found a letter from Leisel in the box. She ripped open the envelope and read news from home.
Many changes took place since I last wrote to you. I told you Franz and I dated a few times. What I didn’t tell you is in November he asked my father for my hand in marriage.
It was not surprising my father gave him his blessing with a big hug. Father is so impressed Franz is an SS officer. He told me I am lucky he enrolled me in bride school. That’s right. Instead of going to the university, my father made me take a six week course to turn me into a proper Nazi wife. Believe it or not, getting into this “special school” proved to be more involved than entering the university.
First, the SS Race and Settlement Office assessed my pedigree to make certain I carried no Jewish or mixed blood. They even measured my nose and upper lip to ensure my features conformed to the correct Aryan type. Finally, I needed to complete a number of forms detailing any family history of conditions such as tuberculosis. This process is so humiliating, Marta. How can a loving father make me go through such a demeaning process?
I must admit Schwanenwerder Island is quite romantic. The Grunewald area is named after beautiful white swans which swim on the sparkling clear lake. I stayed at a stately white mansion at No. 28 Inselstrasse. The house and grounds are most impressive not unlike all of the houses on the island, which are surrounded by high brick or stone walls. Many of the party leaders live in nearby villas, so I am quite at ease now as I rub shoulders with the likes of Albert Speer and Rudolf Hess. The twenty girls I am housed with are very nice, and luckily a girl named Gretchen Heinz reached out to me. She helped me find peace here and opened my eyes. My fate could be far worse.
As you know, attending this school is difficult for me because the course work is like a continuation of our BMD training. Sessions include how to polish your future husband’s boots and dagger, how to fatten geese and arrange flowers. They even teach us how to make conversation at dinner parties, change linen, polish a floor and, above all, how to exhibit proper obedience to a husband. Every bride must memorize the ‘Ten Commandments for the German Woman’, which included ‘Keep your body pure’ and ‘Hope for as many children as possible’. We also learned a prayer to teach our children after they are born. Here are the words: “Mein Frer, Ich kenn dich wohl und habe dich lieb wie Vater und Mutter’ – My Leader, I know you well, and I love you like my father and mother.”
All of this must seem strange to you, but I recognize becoming a Nazi wife is my only destiny so I must make the best of the situation. Thank goodness Franz came along. At least he’s a man I can love, and I escaped the embarrassment of being assigned to some other SS member. I’m resigned to the fact I will be a wife and mother and nothing more. I left all my dreams behind; carrying them is too hard.
My parents and Franz attended my graduation ceremony where I received my certification to become a Nazi wife. As graduates, we all stood and pledged four things. (1) Loyalty to Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler and Nazi Party superiors ‘unto death; (2) Remain a “Sustainer of the Germanic Race; (3) Promise to become proficient in cooking and housekeeping, sewing, washing, ironing, childcare, nursing and home design; (4) And finally, promise all children born in the marriage will be raised in accordance with the ideals of the National Socialist German Worker’s Party.
Other than the bride school, the other news is Franz entered the Academy for Officers in September and will graduate before Christmas with the rank of Second Lieutenant in the great Nazi SS organization.
After his graduation, we will marry. The ceremony will not be held in a church in front of a priest like I always imagined. Instead we will stand before an altar bedecked with SS runes and oak leaves. We will exchange silver rings engraved with mystical runes, and receive a copy of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” A little sugar figurine of Hitler will sit on the top of our wedding cake. Sometimes I don’t believe I’m doing all of these things, but if it means Franz will impress his superiors and advance him sooner, I am willing to go along without any protest.
My only regret is that you and Heidi are not here to be my bridesmaids. Gretchen agreed to be my maid of honor and Franz enlisted one of his SS comrades for his best man. I don’t even remember his name.
Now I live in a very nice house near my parent’s place. I look forward to the day we will add a child to carry on the Great Fatherland.
Germany conquered the Poles since I wrote last. Franz wrote and said the Poles attacked us in twenty-one campaigns so we needed to retaliate. I wonder if that is true. I cannot imagine any country picking a fight with our modern army. After the invasion, Franz is assigned to police Jewish activity. That is good. I cannot think of him in battle. I worry someday a bullet will take him away from me, and I will be alone again.
I hope you and Emma will enjoy a good Christmas. With the churches closed here, we will celebrate the winter solstice with Aryan traditions. Such celebrations are so foreign to me. But then again, I barely recognize my life these days.
Merry Christmas, Love Leisel
Marta sat down in the overstuffed chair. She read Leisel’s letter twice and cried. Clearly Leisel didn’t stand a chance to follow her dreams, so with no other choices she gave into Nazi ideology. Worst of all, she married an uncouth brute like Franz.
Lacrosse, Wisconsin – December, 1939—Josie and Anna lived through final exams without any more altercations, and they left campus without knowing their final grades. Grades were always mailed sometime in January. Their winter break would last six weeks, and the two girls never imagined saying goodbye would be so difficult.
Silence hung like wet laundry as the two girls stuffed their suitcases with dirty clothes.
Anna broke the silence. “I never dreamed going home would be so hard.”
“Me neither. I guess we’ve done a good job living together in this dinky room, huh?” Josie forced a grin.
“I guess.” Anna paused. “Merry Christmas, Jos,” Anna faced Josie and handed her a gift wrapped in bright red paper.
“What did you do?” Josie smiled as she reciprocated and handed a gift to Anna.
They both laughed and in tandem yelled, “Boy do we think alike or what?”
Josie shook the box.
“Do you always need to be a smarty pants?” Anna said. “Just open the gift.”
The girls sat down on their beds and tore open the wrapping paper.
When Josie gazed at the contents inside the box, she laughed out loud. She pulled a new pair of handmade knit socks.
Anna joined her in laughter as she opened the same gift.
In tandem they yelled, “Socks!” Then they hugged each other.
Josie smiled broadly. “Merry Christmas my friend. Now I’m certain you are the brightest and most terrific girl I ever met! A mere mortal never read my mind before!”
“Ditto.” Anna said.
They picked up their luggage and dragged their heavy suitcases down the three flights of stairs, still chuckling at their private joke. Anna’s boyfriend Tommy waited outside to take them to the train station.
Tommy opened the front passenger’s seat for Anna and the backseat door for Josie. “What are you two laughing about now?”
The girls looked at each other and said together, “You wouldn’t understand.”
Josie rode the train from Minneapolis to Lacrosse for the first time. Butterflies churned in her stomach like they always did when she tried something new, but she calmed them with the thought she would be with her friends and family faster than if she went home in a car.
Her brother Johnny stood on the platform as Josie’s train approached the station. When she found him in the crowd, she ran to him as snowflakes drifted down. “Oh, Johnny, I’m so glad to be home. Thanks for picking me up!” She hugged him.
“No problem Sis. I missed you. I didn’t have anybody to tease!” He put his arm around her shoulder and led her to the car. “I hope you’re hungry. Mom’s prepared a feast for you. Hell, somebody might think your homecoming is an event to celebrate.” He teased.
“Well put the pedal to the metal my dear brother, I’m starving!” Josie laughed.
The next morning Josie phoned Donna Jean and Rosalie. They agreed to meet at Joe’s Diner later in the afternoon. Josie left the farm in the family truck and as she drove along, the buildings along her route remained the same, but for some odd reason they appeared different. At that moment she realized her four short months at the university changed her and life at home went on in her absence. She pulled into Joe’s parking lot and walked inside. Donna and Rosalie were waiting in the corner booth.
Hugs and kisses went around. Then Josie scrutinized Rosalie. “Oh my god! What happened to you, little girl? I go away for a few months and you get yourself in trouble?” She laughed.
Rosalie blushed. “What can I say? I’m a good Catholic.”
Josie slid into the booth. “So tell me when the baby is due?” Josie said.
“March 10-on your birthday.”
Josie laughed, “Good planning! You are an expert on how to spring a wonderful surprise! Why didn’t you tell me in your letters?”
“Getting used to being pregnant isn’t easy. I wanted to surprise you.”
“Well, you certainly did that!”
They ordered root beer floats for old times’ sake as they caught up on the latest news of the past few months. Donna Jean, Rosalie, and Josie remained the same girls who grew up together and shared everything. Life changes didn’t mean a thing when it concerned their friendship.
“So, Josie, tell us about college.” Donna leaned closer to Josie.
“I wrote to you every week. So you must understand I study, walk from class to class, and study some more.” Josie said. “I seem to remember you said my letters are boring.” She sipped her root beer float.
“I never said anything of the sort!” Donna protested. “But I believe you need to explore the campus more. After all, aren’t there any good looking guys at U of M? You never write about that subject.”
“I’m at college to get a nursing degree, not an MRS degree, Donna.” Josie laughed.
“But surely, somebody must pique your interest. Come on! Where’s the fun?”
“The good looking boys play sports, and they don’t even look at me. I’ll probably get my degree, come home, and marry a farm boy.”
“Over my dead body!” Donna said. “You’re going to do better than that!”
“Are you saying farm boys aren’t good enough?” Josie teased. “Danny’s a farm boy. You seem to be keen on him.”
Donna blushed and stayed silent.
Josie turned to Rosalie to change the direction of their conversation. “Did you and Angelo pick out baby names yet, Rosie?”
“A few. We’re not locked in on anything yet. Angelo wants to name the baby boy Giovanni, but I say our baby needs an American name; we’re still discussing this topic.”
Donna said, “What if the baby turns out to be a girl?”
Rosalie answered, “We both agree on Mary-after the Blessed Mother.”
“Ah-another Catholic girl named Mary! How original.” Donna laughed. “Didn’t our grade school class include six girls named Mary? Anyway, I hope the baby is a little girl,” Donna said. “Then I can buy frilly pink dresses and tiny patent leather shoes for her. This Armani child will possess a sense of style from the very beginning.”
“I don’t think Angelo would agree with you. He’s already talking about going to baseball games with his son.”
Josie said, “You tell him girls like baseball, too!”
Everybody laughed and dug into their burgers as the conversation went on.
Rosalie left the diner at ten o’clock. She promised Angelo she would be home to kiss him goodnight before he went to bed. Lately, he worked a lot of overtime hours.
Donna and Josie hugged Rosalie before she waddled to her car.
Donna Jean said, “I don’t understand how she does it. She’s a baby herself.”
Josie said, “Lots of girls her age are married with babies. She’ll be all right.”
“Maybe. Having babies right now wouldn’t be my choice.” Donna Jean said.
“Mine either. I want to enjoy work as a nurse before I tie the knot with anyone.”
“I do like sex, though.” Donna said under her breath.
“What?” Josie gasped. “You can’t be serious.”
“I’m dead serious. Danny and I are lovers.” Donna whispered. “Sex is fun.”
“But aren’t you afraid you’ll end up like Rosalie? The only difference is she’s married and you’re not! Donna, really, you do some of the dumbest things. Why would you take chances?”
“Don’t they teach you how not to get pregnant in nursing school? ”
“Well, sure, but-
“But nothing. Danny and I like to make love, and we’re doing it-safely.”
“So you love him?”
“Love? What’s love got to do with anything?”
“Can we please change the subject?”
“Sure.” Donna saw Josie didn’t want to discuss sexual matters any more. “Let’s go ask if those guys want to dance.”
“Fine.” Ordinarily Josie wouldn’t ask a stranger to dance.