I smirked and took my shoes off. No holes in my socks, and so, my legs comfortably stretched out, my feet on an ottoman, I said: "I think you have just acquired a permanent houseguest."
She opened the manuscript box and took out a neat stack of pages, leafing through them aimlessly as if she were not yet ready to give them to me.
"I should, probably, give you a little background so it all will make more sense to you, because the story of my mother and your father begins on the night my Aunt Hannah fell in the door. "
"My mother's sister. Two years older. Anyway, that was in the spring of 1948, and we, that is, my mother and my sister Eva, lived in an attic room that my father had somehow organized. Most everything in Germany was bombed, of course, and people lived wherever they could find a hole with a bit of a roof over it. My mother was a refugee from a village at the border between Germany and Poland. When soldiers marched into her village after the war, driving everyone of German descent out and herding them west, she grabbed us, that is, my sister Eva, who was a baby, seven months, I think, and me, and, yes, her silverware." She stopped. "I don't want to get into the politics of it all. Besides, you probably know the history as well as I do."
I didn't, though I had a vague memory of millions of refugees overrunning the scarce resources of Western Europe after the war. But where that bit of history came from, I couldn't remember. And so I just nodded and she continued.
"Mercifully, I was barely out of diapers and remember little. But she told me that we walked most of the way. Sometimes, a farmer gave us a ride. Sometimes, we were able to catch one of the few trains that still ran and that took us along for a short distance. I remember that we hid in barns, deep in the hay. Sometimes, a kind farmer's wife would bring us something warm to drink. I will never know just how she got us through. My father was in a prison camp. Somewhere in France, I think, and so she came west alone, with us children and the clothes on her back. And her silverware."
She held the manuscript out to me with something like a determined resolve and I reached for it. I realized that her previous hesitation had more to do with her having written it than with the contents of the story.
"You are sure about this?" I therefore asked.
She nodded eagerly, forcing the stack into my hands.
"Only one more thing. I began writing it as a memoir. Of course. But somehow it didn't work and for the longest time, I couldn't figure out why. I finally realized that I kept writing the story from my point of view, and all my judgments against her kept creeping in which was wrong. And so I began writing it as a novel, in the third person, calling her by name, Ruth. Because it's neither my mother's story, nor your father's. It's the story of a man and a woman. If I had told it as if she were my mother, I could not have done it. She wouldn't be a woman then, but my mother. It would have been an entirely different story."
"I don't see the difference," I said.
"The difference is that I saw my mother only in relation to myself. Of course. She was my mother. It had simply never occurred to me, until I began writing, that she was a human being in her own right with all her dreams and failures and emotions and her laughter and her losses. She didn't live only in relation to me."
I remembered my father's words, I am a parent. But I am also a human being with feelings and desires and faults and dreams.' I wanted to get up and get the letter that I had left in the car. But I decided against it for now. Though the coincidence in what she tried to do and what he expressed was uncanny.
"I thought that, as you read, you could hand me the pages and I'll just sit here quietly and edit with my pencil here," she said. "This wouldn't bother you, would it, while you read?"
Copyright Ursula Mandel 2001. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this excerpt please contact http://www.ursulamandel.com
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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