I’ll never forget that summer night. Our last vestige of normalcy. One evening we sat down to dinner, and by the time we finished, our lives would never be the same.
It was a beastly hot night in early July, 1945. We were celebrating William’s seventh birthday with his favorite dinner: hot dogs and baked beans.
“You’re not eating, Louisa. I hope you’re not sick,” Aunt Martha said, peering at my face to discern an ailment, probably worried it might be contagious. Aunt Martha belonged to my husband, Robert. It was whispered among the church ladies that she hadn’t smiled since the Hoover Administration. Just the other day, I overheard one woman asking another if the preacher’s aunt had been baptized in pickle juice.
“I’m just not very hungry tonight,” I told her.
“That’s certainly not like you, Louisa,” said Robert, glancing up at me, looking a bit concerned.
It was true. I wasn’t one of those women who scarcely ate. I never missed a meal. I brushed Robert’s cheek with my hand then deftly changed the subject. “Time to open the presents.”
William ripped off the newspaper wrapping of the present I had handed to him. “Junior Spy Kit,” he read slowly, in his thick sounding pronunciation, pressing his small finger along the lettering.
“A spy kit?” Robert’s eyebrows shot up. “Why on earth would you give a spy kit to a boy already blessed with an overabundance of curiosity?”
“Exactly because of that, Robert,” I reassured him. “He can practice his reading, his writing, his observation skills, his attention-to-detail. He’ll be learning as he plays. I’ve been reading a book that encourages deaf children to develop their awareness of life around them. It’s a good thing for him.”
“He’ll be spying on everyone in this town!” complained Aunt Martha. “No one will be safe.” She pursed her lips in that way I deplored. “You’ve been telling him stories again about being a resister.”
“A Resistance Worker, Aunt Martha,” I corrected her, frowning. She had never fully understood the role I played working with the Resistance Movement in Germany. To her, it seemed like child’s play. But I took my experience as a Resistance Worker very seriously. Very, very seriously. It was a dangerous but important job.
Well, mostly, I delivered messages to other Resistance Workers. Written messages. In sealed envelopes. While on assignment, I wasn’t even permitted to talk. My colleagues seemed to be under the impression that I was too outspoken. Dietrich, my friend and mentor, often remarked that he was sure I would get myself shot if I dared to open my mouth.
So I didn’t.
Even still, the Gestapo started following us, tapping our phones. Everywhere I went, an agent watched me, not caring if I saw him or not. Over my objections, Dietrich decided I should leave Germany, at once, and wait out the war in the United States. Before I knew it, Dietrich whisked me off in the dark of night to the Swiss border. After a rushed goodbye, I was in the hands of Resistance Workers, passed like fragile baggage from contact to contact.
One month later, I had arrived in Copper Springs, Arizona, to stay indefinitely at the home of Reverend Robert Gordon, courtesy of our mutual friend Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The two men had attended the Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1931 and became friends. They had kept in touch over the years. When Dietrich asked if he would sponsor someone for safekeeping, Robert readily agreed, assuming it would be a young man. The surprised look on his face when I stepped off that train will forever make me smile.
Once or twice I have wondered if Robert would still have agreed so readily had he known all that decision would hold for him.
William was studying the bubbles in his root beer bottle. He looked up at Robert. “Mom was brave.” Even though William wasn’t really my son, the bond between us was as strong as any between a mother and child.
“You’re right, William,” Robert said. “She was brave.” He stole a glance at Aunt Martha and noticed she was peering into a pot on the stove. Satisfied she was preoccupied, he leaned over and kissed the violin curve of my neck before getting up to refill his glass of iced tea.
Was I brave? Not really. I never felt very brave. But I never doubted I was doing the right thing. I was a Resistance Worker because I couldn’t help myself. The war had to be stopped. Hitler had to be stopped.
Just then, someone knocked on the door. Robert went to open it and found Ernest standing solemnly on the porch. “Come in and join us! We’re celebrating William’s birthday.”
“Thank you, but I’m here on official business, Reverend. I have a telegram for your missus.” Ernest handed the telegram to Robert and abruptly left. I looked at Robert, puzzled.
He shrugged. “Open it. It’s for you.” He held it out to me.
I tore open the envelope, not having any idea about its contents or who might have sent it. But as I pulled the thin yellow paper out of the envelope, our lives irrevocably changed.
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