Authors: Patricia Reilly Giff
in memory of
Christina SchÃ¼tz Schaeffer,
and the Uncle,
Thank you to my dear editor, Wendy Lamb, who is always there to encourage and advise . . .
to Kathy Winsor Bohlman of the Westport Library, who cheerfully, and expertly, finds the answers to my many questions . . .
and, as always, to St. Jim, my dear children, and my grandchildren, who read and critique and make life worth living.
Outside was war. I could hear the pop-pop-pop of the cannons.
Inside was the sewing room. Gray cloth forms of Mama's clients stood along one wall, reminding me of the soldiers we saw on the streets outside, but without their spiked helmets, of course, or their splendid blue tunics with the gold trim.
War! How exciting it was. Our own German soldiers from the Fifth Infantry Regiment had swarmed into our sleepy little town, determined to take on the French who lived just on the other side of the Rhine River.
And that sparkling river flowed so close to our front door I could have tossed a stone from my window and seen the ripples it made in the water.
I didn't care two pins about our Otto von Bismarck and his determination to unite all of Germany in this war. What difference could it possibly make to me?
But I did love to think about those soldiers, who looked so fierce and elegant . . . and who wandered up and down the street so close to the sewing room that I was tempted to tap on the window with my thimble and wave to them.
Mama would have had a fit!
Being a soldier would certainly be better than sitting here in this room sewing buttons on Frau Ottlinger's winter bodiceâten brass buttons from collar to waistârunning the thread through the tallow to give it strength.
Frau Ottlinger, Mama's most important client, thought she was going to be a fashion plate this Christmas, dressed in the style of those infantrymen. She was more likely to look like a breakfast bun studded with raisins.
“Dina!” Mama said. Even with her back turned she knew my mind was wandering. And I knew exactly what she was going to say next: “Christmas is almost upon us, and we have dozens of orders still to fill!” As she spoke, she rubbed the already spotless sewing machine wheel with a soft cloth.
That sewing machine! It was like a cranky member of the family that had to be cleaned, and polished, and fed with oil whenever I turned around. And every two minutes it seemed we had to put a new piece of felt underneath to save the rose rug from being worn away.
Today there was a fire in the grate, and smoky lanterns for lightâsmoky because I had forgotten to wash them. Mama had swished the curtains closed in anger at the first burst of gunfire. “These dresses must be finished tonight,” she had said to my sister, Katharina, and me. “Pay no attention to those ruffians out there.”
Anyone who disturbed Mama was a ruffian.
Luckily the curtains were opened the width of one of Mama's business cards:
Frau Kirk and DaughtersâTailors
. I could see part of our little southern German town of Breisach nestled between the mountains and the river, and once in a while a cannon flash as our soldiers fired across that river at the French.
France would be defeated, we knew that. Someone had told Mama the French had no harnesses for their horses, no bullets, and, worse, they were fighting smallpox, a disease so terrible it made me shiver to think about it.
Poor Elise, my French friend for so many years. She lived on the other side of the river, and we had met at a fall festival in happier times, when we were less than ten years old. How often on early sunny mornings we rowed back and forth across the river to trade patterns, and cookies, and gossip.
Mama leaned over me now. “Those buttonholes look like cabbage heads.”
I looked down guiltily.
Mama took the bodice and my needle. Carefully she made invisible blanket stitches around the edges of the top hole, filling in the space to make it smaller. “You know how to do this as well as I do.” She patted my shoulder. “You are thirteen years old. Stop dreaming. We have no time for it.”
Stop dreaming. Stop thinking
. I stretched my cramped fingers. I remembered the first buttonholes I had made at the age of four, practicing on a piece of toweling, first Mama, then Katharina showing me patiently. How many buttonholes had I made since then? A thousand?
Mama was sympathetic. “I know it takes forever to do all those buttons when you'd rather beâ”
Reading the letter that's propped up on the fabric table
was what I wanted to say. “Having morning muffins,” I said instead so that I wouldn't be accused of having more curiosity than KÃ¶nig, our cat.
My eyes kept going to the letter that had arrived this morning: a tissue-thin envelope covered with stamps from America. Mama had said, “I'm too busy adding the braid to Frau Ottlinger's skirt to open it. It has nothing to do with you anyway, Dina.” But she smiled to take the sting out of her words.
And my older sister, Katharina! She didn't have as much curiosity as the piece of tailor's chalk on the table. With barely a glance at the letter, she had picked up a package of flannel sheets, neatly hemmed, and gone out the back door to deliver them to a family on Mettau Street.
I was on the fifth button, holes newly drawn in, when at last Mama stood up, arching her back and running her hands over her waist as she left the sewing room for the kitchen. I'd have about three minutes alone while she stirred the soup and added the marrow balls she had prepared an hour ago.
Out of my chair in an instant, I picked up the letter, which crackled in my hand, and tried to read the words through the envelope.
In my mind was a picture of the uncle who had sent it: Mama's rich older brother, who lived in luxury. No wonder! Everyone who lived in Brooklyn, New York, probably did. After his first wife died, he had married again and sailed immediately for America. How romantic it was. I hadn't seen him since I was a little girl, but I imagined him handsome and funny, and the young second wife, Barbara, slim and lovely.
I held the letter up, turning it one way and then another. The name
jumped out at me. “Katharina,” I said aloud. “What is he saying about Katharina?”
And I was caught, of course.
Mama plucked the letter from my hand.
“Well, what do you
it says?” I asked.
“I know what it's about,” Mama said, “and Katharina does, too.”
“Why don't I know? Why is it that everything is kept from me?”
Mama shook her head impatiently. “Nothing can be kept from you for very long.” She sighed. “My brother is offering Katharina a place with him and his wife.”
I sank down on the chair, my heart thumping in my chest. “And I? Will I go with her?”
Mama shook her head. I could see she felt a little sorry for me. “Only Katharina.”
Katharina to go to America! I loved my older sister; she was my best friend. Katharina to go, and not me?
Katharina to go!
I would never see her again. Never. Not unless somehow I could go, too, years from now. We'd be old. And even though Mama's brother and sister were there, Mama had never thought of going. “My home is here,” she had said. My eyes burned.
Dear sister gone forever
Mama picked up Frau Ottlinger's bodice. In fine thread she began to stitch under the collar:
Frau Kirk and Daughters
“Why do you bother with that?” Bitterness rose in my throat as I thought about Katharina going away, even though I knew how selfish I was. After all, it had been Katharina's dream first. How many times had I heard her talk about the great world across the sea! But to stay here without her! Bent over a piece of fabric, a needle in my hand, for the rest of my life!
“My name?” Mama asked. “Because I'm proud of our work. That's the most important detail for me.”
I had my own dreams of America. Hadn't I pored over the pictures of New York I'd found in a magazine: elegant women with their hair clipped back behind their dainty ears, wearing hats with feathers and ribbons that dipped down over their eyes? Hadn't I turned the pages to see ladies wearing faille gowns in the great ballrooms of Madison Avenue?
And wasn't I the one who had studied all those English words:
I thought of the Uncle then, and Barbara; I thought of Aunt Ida, Mama's sister, who was the cook in a great house. Soon she would go west and live on the prairie with her husband, Uncle Peder. Why couldn't I go to America, too? That huge young country across the ocean. I said it aloud: “Mama, why not?”
Mama took the letter from my hand and tucked it into her belt. She sat down and picked up the coil of braid, taking several stitches before she answered. “There is more than one reason, Dina,” she said around a row of pins in her mouth.
“First, he didn't ask for you.”
I bent over Frau Ottlinger's buttons. What could I say?
“And even if he had,” Mama said, looking at the large dark portrait over the sofa, “I have money enough for only one passage, and that has taken years to get together.”
Papa's portrait. I knew she was thinking of him and how little we had to spare now that he was gone.
The cathedral bells began to toll: twelve, almost lunchtime. My younger brothers, Franz and Friedrich, were playing on the stairs, pounding each step in time with the bells.
Those bells always reminded me of Papa with his soft beard and great dark eyes; Papa, who bent down and listened to each of us sympathetically. I closed my eyes, remembering the day the bells had announced the arrival of the new bishop. Papa, the master locksmith in our village, had opened the great cathedral door with the gold key he had made for the occasion . . . and allowed Katharina and me to hide in the choir loft to see the ceremony.
If only he were here, still alive, he would understand how much I wanted to go to America, how much I hated sewing.
I thought of a night two years before, misty with rain. Papa had gone out for a walk, returning to cough and cough. He had died days later as we sat at his bedside, Mama saying, “His throat was always weak. Always!”
How different everything would be if he were still here,
Oh, Papa, I miss you!
Without thinking I ran the needle into my finger and quickly sucked the stab of pain away.
Mama finished the last of Frau Ottlinger's braid before she spoke again. She took the scissors that hung from a loop around her neck and carefully snipped the thread.
“Sometimes in life there are no choices, Dina,” she said. “It's hard, but sometimes it's easier than having too many choices.”
Before I could say anything the front door opened. It was Katharina back from Mettau Street. Mama's eyes were on me. I brushed my tears away and took a deep breath, ready to tell Katharina how happy I was for her.