It was a cold, gray day, the first Christmas after my mother died. I decorated the apartment, but my heart wasn’t really in it. We couldn’t find a real Christmas tree this year, so Max pieced one together from things he found around the house. It didn’t look too bad once it was covered with a lot, and I mean a lot, of garland and tinsel.
We have one new ornament this year. When we cleaned out Grandpa Nick’s apartment, we found a box of family photos. Luckily, Father had seen them before and helped us identify each one. I organized them into a photo album which I find myself browsing through at least once a week, looking at photos of Mother when she was younger. Max made a copy of one photo for me, a professional sitting with my mother and her parents. She must have been about two years old. I made the copy into an ornament, hanging it where it’s visible from everywhere in the sitting room and kitchen.
Peter arrived about an hour before we were to leave to go to Uncle Jozef’s house. Aunt Rose was kind enough to let me invite Peter and his father. Peter's father will meet us there. He wanted to keep the liquor store open until at least noon for the last-minute Christmas shoppers. Many of the German soldiers don’t have their families with them, and they apparently try to drown their loneliness by drinking themselves into a stupor. At least that’s what Peter’s father said.
A few days after we buried Mother, the Russians pulled out of town, and the Germans reclaimed it. Peter’s father made a point of letting both know that he would offer them special prices, which, of course, Peter sees as a form of collaboration with our enemies. His father figures that a drunk soldier is a stupid soldier, and we might all be better off. That’s a nice theory but we haven’t seen it proved yet.
Peter and I rarely have time alone together. Father and Max had gone out to take care of something, so Peter and I were able to relax on the sofa and talk. Talking quickly led to kissing and, just as Peter slipped his up under my sweater, I heard the key in the door. Max stepped through the door first, grinning as Peter finished his leap to the far end of the sofa.
“Well, well, look who’s here,” Max said with a smirk on his face. “And what have you two been up to?”
I shot a nasty look in his direction.
Peter jumped to his feet as my father walked in. “Hello, sir,” he said nervously, extending his hand. “It’s good to see you again. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas to you, too, Peter. I’m glad that you and your father can join us today. Is he here?”
“Thank you, sir. He’ll meet us at Jozef’s house a little later. It’s been a long time since Christmas Day has been more than just the two of us, so this is a treat. We have some gifts for all of you,” Peter said as he reached for the bag near the front door. He handed my father a bottle of brandy and gave Max and I small boxes.
“Oh, Peter, not jewelry!” Max exclaimed, jokingly. “You shouldn’t have.”
“Wise ass,” I said. “Just open your gift.”
It was a beautiful pen. “Thanks, Peter. This is really nice.”
My turn. I wanted to tear into the wrapping paper but it was too pretty. I carefully pulled back the tape, set the paper aside, and opened the little box. It was a beautiful necklace with a heart-shaped locket. “Oh, Peter, it’s beautiful,” I said as he took it from me and fastened it around my neck. I gave him a kiss and hug.
“Open it,” he said. I opened the locket, and inside were the faces of my parents on their wedding day. My tears started flowing and I hugged him again.
“Thank you so much. I couldn’t have asked for a more meaningful gift.”
“Max helped me with the pictures,” he said.
Max got a big hug, too. I went to Father to show him. “Lovely. Good job, Peter,” he said and gave me a kiss on the cheek.
I put my arms around Peter. “It’s like she’s with us.”
“Helena, Max, I need to speak with you in my bedroom for moment. Peter, please excuse us.”
I gave Peter another kiss and followed Father and Max into the bedroom. Father closed the door.
“I’m sorry to do this on Christmas Day but I need to show you something, and then we’ll hopefully never have to mention it again.” He opened the paper bag he'd been holding and pulled out a pistol.
“A gun!” I said. “Why do we need a gun?”
He handed the pistol and bag to Max, kneeled down on the floor, slid some items on the closet floor forward, and used his thumbnail to pull up one of the floorboards. “This is why.”
There were bundles of cash in the hole, as well as Mother’s jewelry and the pocket watch that Grandpa Andrej gave Father for his eighteenth birthday.
“I’m placing the gun in here to be used only in case of emergency. The gun is loaded. The safety is on, see here, and this is a box of extra ammunition. The rule applies to both of you. You are only to open this in case of a real emergency. If there’s one thing the past few months have taught us, it’s that there are a lot of things in this world that we can’t control. Hopefully we’ll never need this cash, never need to sell these valuables, and certainly never need to use this gun, but they’re here just in case. Okay? Any questions?”
Max and I shook our heads as he concealed the hiding place. “Ready to go celebrate Christmas?”
We bundled up to walk over to Uncle Jozef’s. The streets and sidewalks have snow and ice on them from the last snowfall, but this is usually their condition until the first warm days of spring. There are a few others out, probably on their way to visit family. If the Catholic churches hadn’t been closed indefinitely, there would be more people outdoors, but the Germans won’t allow the churches to be reopened.
One thing I noticed as we walked along was the absence of armbands. The Jews are staying indoors. When the Germans reoccupied the city, they ordered all Jews still living in the center of town to wear armbands identifying themselves as Jewish, and later to begin relocating to the Jewish district. We live just beyond what's considered the center of town. When the order took effect, we realized for the first time that some of our neighbors were Jewish. I counted four Jewish families on our block. Even my father was surprised.
A new order was issued last week requiring that every Jew in the town move into the Jewish district by the end of the year. Max’s friends have received news that the Germans have assigned Jews to begin building a wall around the district to fence themselves in. Father told me not to worry, that it was just a wall, and that it might even keep them safe from daily dealings with the Germans. Something doesn’t sound right with his logic, but for now, I accepted it.
As we walked along, I read the posters, warnings, and orders that the Germans have posted all over town. After I got past the initial grief of losing my mother and grandfather, I became very angry, wanting to seek revenge against the Russians for their deaths. I begged Max to let me join his "study group." When the Germans reoccupied the city, they closed all of the schools above the middle school level, and I was bored. I needed a project, as well as an outlet for my anger.
Max explained to me that he and his friends weren’t out there shooting our enemies. They’re involved in gathering and sharing information, and making plans for a more active revolt in the future. He spoke to Uncle Jozef, and they decided to assign me the task of learning German. They needed someone who could read German and translate it into Polish, and who could also understand spoken German to help gather information. Max brought me some books from the university library. At first I was bored, but little by little, I came to enjoy it, especially the first time I was able to translate a stolen document into Polish. I felt like a secret agent. Peter and I never speak about what each of us is doing for the resistance. We didn’t want our relationship to be about that.
Aunt Rose had placed a few decorations in the window. She prefers to overdo it, but Uncle Jozef warned her that they didn’t want to draw attention to themselves. When we entered their house, I subconsciously took a small step backward as everyone descended on us.
“So good to see you.”
“You’re looking well.”
“Max, Helena, you both look like your mother.”
I just smiled, and replied in kind, letting Peter guide me through the mass of people. The party was larger than past gatherings. As Rose explained to me later, a lot of people couldn’t travel to visit family because of the war so she started inviting everyone. She couldn’t go all out on the decorations, so she was going to cook and entertain instead.
Peter noticed that his father had already arrived, so we went to say hello. After that Peter and Max disappeared, probably to have some top secret meeting with Uncle Jozef, so I went to the kitchen to see if I could help. Rose put me in charge of decorating the cookies, probably thinking that I had inherited my mother’s flair for all things baked. She couldn’t help but giggle when she saw how inept I was at frosting cookies.
“Don’t worry, Helena. No matter what they look like, they all taste the same.”
The party turned out to be a lot of fun. It was our first real social outing since Mother’s passing. If we can survive this, we can survive anything. Rose loaded us up with leftovers, still worried that we’d starve without her.
I invited Peter to come over for lunch the next day. I was so excited when he gave me the locket that I forgot to give him his gift. Father had to work, and I was hoping Max would give us some privacy. I knew he wouldn’t make it easy, but he strangely disappeared just before Peter arrived for lunch. I asked Peter if he knew where Max had gone, and he told me that Max had a lunch date of his own. “Her name is Kate,” he said.
Interesting! Now when Max teases me about Peter, I can tease him about Kate. Peter and I had a very nice afternoon. I still find it amazing that after almost three months we still have so much to talk about. Of course, we don’t spend all of our time talking. I feel very comfortable with Peter, but when I felt his hand sliding up my skirt, I stopped him.
“Wait, Peter, no. I’m not ready for that.”
“Ready for what?” he asked, his hand still on my inner thigh.
“You know what I mean,” I said as I removed his hand and pulled my skirt back down. “I’m not ready.”
“I don’t mind waiting because I know it will be worth the wait, but do you have any idea when you will be ready?” he smirked, sliding his hand up my thigh.
“I don’t know," I said as I blocked his hand again. "I’m only sixteen. My mother would want me to wait until I’m married.”
“Is that what you want?”
“Again, I don’t know. This is all new for me. That little voice in my head, the one telling me to slow down, sounds a lot like my mother’s voice. Until I figure out what I want, it’s probably a good idea for me to listen to it. I do know that I love you,” I said, taking his hand.
Peter put his arms around me as we lay down next to each other on the sofa. “I love you, too.” He pulled me close.
“I promise, you’ll be the first to know when I am ready.”
“Well, I certainly hope so.”
Peter and I were asleep on the sofa when my father walked through the door. I opened my eyes to see him standing there, looking at us. I looked at my watch.
“Oh my goodness, it’s that late already?” I exclaimed.
Peter sat up and fumbled for his shoes, very aware that my father was still staring at us.
“I’m sorry Father. I’ll get dinner started. Peter, would you like to stay?”
My father finally spoke. “I think Peter should leave. You two have seen enough of each other for today.”
I was stunned.
“Father, no. Nothing happened. After lunch we were talking and must have dozed off. We weren’t --,” I search for the right word. “Intimate. That’s the truth.”
“I think Peter should leave anyway, so we can talk.”
“Not a problem, sir. My father is probably wondering where I am. He expects me to help him with the year-end inventory count.”
I handed Peter his coat. He whispered a thank you for the leather gloves I gave him and hurried past my father out the door. I rushed to the kitchen to start dinner.
“Where’s Max? I thought he had the day off from work,” Father asked
I didn’t want to get Max in trouble by saying that he had a secret date. “I don’t know. He’s been out most of the day.”
He placed his coat and hat on the coat rack, set his briefcase next to the door, poured himself a drink, and sat in the arm chair. We were having the Christmas leftovers for dinner, so it didn’t take long to reheat them. Father didn’t say a word until we finished eating. I wish Max had come home to take the pressure off of me. After I cleared the table, Father told me to sit down.
“Helena. I know you’re a young woman now, and I wish your mother was still here. She could handle this situation better than I can. I know she already told you about the intimate relationship between a man and a woman. Peter is older than you and may already have some experience in these matters. I don’t know. I do know that I can’t lock you away. All I can do is hope that we raised you to respect yourself and you won’t allow yourself to feel forced to do things you’re not ready for. Also, I hope you know that I’m here if you need to talk about anything. If you’re more comfortable speaking with a woman, I’m sure Aunt Rose will be happy to help.”
I took his hands in mine. “I know you’re here if I need you, and you and Mother did instill me with good values. I swear, nothing inappropriate happened between Peter and me today, or ever.”
He squeezed my hands and smiled.
“Peter and I had a talk about the physical part of our relationship and he understands that I’m not ready for, well, that. If he ever tries to force me, he’ll be out the door before he knows what hit him.”
Father smiled and kissed the top of my head tenderly as he walked to his bedroom. I know that wasn’t easy for him. Mother usually handled the more personal conversations. As he gets to know Peter better, he’ll see that Peter is a good man.
The door opened, and Max walked in with a big smile on his face.
“Great, now you come home,” I said.
“What? What did I miss?”
Father poked his head out to confirm that it was just Max arriving home.
“Where have you been?” he asked.
“Just out with friends.”
“Uh huh.” Father raised his eyebrows and shook his head, going back into his room.
“So, how was your secret date?” I asked.
“Date, what date?"
“Don’t play coy with me. Peter told me about Kate.”
“Damn Peter. He’ll get his. Kate’s a girl I met at the office and we’ve gone out a few times. It’s nothing serious, not yet anyway.”
“What’s with all the secrecy?”
“I don’t know. I guess I just want to see how things work out first before I bring her home. You’ll meet her next weekend. She invited all three of us--well, I guess four with Peter if I don’t kill him first--to a small gathering for New Year’s Eve.”
“Good. I look forward to meeting her. And leave Peter alone. If you hurt him I might have to hurt you,” I said, shaking a fist at him.
“Ooh, I’m scared,” he said, practically sticking his nose into the baking dish I pulled from the oven. “So what’s for dinner? Ah, Christmas leftovers. Yum!” He stood in the kitchen grinning, eating from the baking dish. Typical!
I wanted to bake something special for the New Year’s Eve party, but I wasn’t able to purchase any eggs this week. I got to the market at my regular time but they were either sold out already or didn’t receive a supply this week. There were some nice vegetables, so I decided to make a vegetable tray with dip. We usually eat all of our vegetables cooked, so I think this will be a nice change. Plus, it won’t get cold on the walk to Kate’s apartment.
Peter came by our apartment with two bottles of wine and walked over with us. Kate answered the door and her face lit up when she saw Max. She’s very pretty, with skin and hair darker than I’d expected. Max told me later that Kate’s paternal grandparents are Italian and had moved to Poland for business reasons shortly after her father was born. She had a lot of family back in Italy.
“You have a beautiful home,” I said to Kate. “If you have some time later, I’d like to know about some of the antiques.”
“Thank you. The apartment is small, thanks to my father. It’s just the three of us and he’s too thrifty to splurge on a larger place, even though he can afford it. My mother decided that if she’s stuck with a small apartment, it might as well be nicely decorated. My father has tried to get her to stop spending money but decided the best thing to do was to give her a decorating allowance. No exceptions. If she spends all of the money in January, that’s it for the year. So far his plan has worked well.”
Kate isn’t shy at all. I like that, and I already like her. Max has good taste.
“Where can I set this down? It’s a tray of fresh vegetables and dip.”
“Oh, here, on the big table.” She removed the wrapper and immediately took a piece of carrot. “That is so good. My mother always overcooks vegetables, so it’s nice to crunch.”
Max and Peter came over. I feel like such a grownup. Max and Kate, and Peter and I at a New Year’s Eve party; no small children around. Father found some new friends to discuss politics with, so he’s enjoying himself. I need to ask him if I can have some champagne at midnight. I meant to ask earlier but forgot If he says no, I’ll be the only person at the party without an alcoholic beverage, and everyone will know I’m still a kid. He had better say yes.
The one long dinner table was set with beautiful china and fresh flowers. The ladies began bringing out the food, so I helped. There were a total of twenty guests. After we were seated in our assigned seats, Kate’s father offered the blessing, ending with a hope for peace in the upcoming year. There was a hardy “amen” to that as we began passing the dishes around the table. Father poured me a half a glass of wine so I won’t feel left out. How did he know? The first sip tasted a little bitter, but the second was much better. It’s a nice treat to help make the night special.
After the meal, coffee, brandy, and desserts were set out on the table where the appetizers had been located. I went straight for the chocolate layer cake. Peter selected something called a cannoli, an Italian dessert, Kate told us. Within seconds he had powdered sugar all over his lips and fingers.
“Tasty, but messy,” he said as I helped him clean up.
As midnight approached, Kate and her parents handed out party favors and hats, and poured the champagne. Father gave me a nod that it was alright for me to take a glass. Without the local radio station we have to rely on Kate’s father’s pocket watch for the countdown.
Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, Happy New Year!
There was kissing and hugging, everyone tooting their horns and raising their glasses to 1940. Father, Max, and I had a group hug, and Father kissed each of us on the cheek. I noticed a little sadness in his eyes, probably missing Mother. I suddenly felt a little guilty that I hadn't thought of her once the entire evening.
The party broke up about an hour later. We walked a couple of blocks out of the way so that Peter didn't have to walk home alone. About two blocks from our apartment, we saw two German soldiers walking toward us, obviously drunk. We were in the middle of the block, so there was nothing we could really do but lock arms and just keep walking. As we got close, one of the soldiers tripped over the curb, caught his balance, and said “Happy New Year!” very loudly.
“Happy New Year,” we replied, Father and Max tipping their hats We continued walking. So did the soldiers, thankfully. I hated being on edge when the Germans were nearby, and I wasn't going to let this spoil my good mood. It was the perfect end to a far-from-perfect year.