Yeah, so… While you’re thinking I’m a flake, I’m thinking maybe it’s more just whimsy and you don’t have enough life experience to tell the difference between the two just yet.
I’m not a flake, though.
I act with intention. With a creator’s force. And I also happen to see magic as a real life religion, not just some Harry Potter potion and stuff.
So while you go on about your way, judging me like I’m some stoned fairy-duster hippie, you’ll never really get to see something special.
And that’s okay, I guess.
I have this story to tell, yunno? Things have happened to me. Things I have to put down on paper before I leave this body. Stories I want my grandkids to hear before they’re gone, too.
The problem is that it’s not just one long story. It’s a bunch of mini-stories. Fragment-schragment, whatevs.
So let’s start with an early one. Just to get us going.
The name’s Toni. Like the boy. But it’s Antoinette – not Anthony. Obvs because I’m a girl. But don’t be pulling that, “Antoinette…” shit on me. Truly. That was really only ever used when I was little and in trouble. Which I guess happened a lot when I was young.
Born in Munich, Germany, 1926. Grew up with a war right in my back yard. Court yard. Things were different in Germany. Nothing like the US. The food was better, for one…
Pops was a musician. Cello. First cellist in Hitler’s orchestra.
He was also real strict-like. Which was fine for Sonja. (The sister.)
But me? I was a free bird. Coming home after curfew was my modus operandi. Rules were made to be broken. That’s what I always say.
Oh, and what a beauty I was. At fourteen, I could flash a smile and it’d knock the boys right off their barstool. At the same time, it was the boys who were my friends. Blonde, great breasts, and a sense of getting my way.
What can I say? I’m an Aries.
Mom used to say I was like a butterfly flitting through the flowers. Times were tough, and I was tough, and usually we all got along as long as we modeled the don’t ask, don’t tell policy.
When we talked about it, though, there wasn’t much talking going on. Mom was pretty cool headed and gentle 99% of the time. Until she found out I’d not come home until dawn. Then she’d pretty well lose her shit with me. Cursing and bellowing out an enormous tirade. I guess she thought 14 wasn’t a good enough age to let me do my thing.
Thing was… my parents’ rules were nothing compared to the city’s rules. Things got real firm leading up to the Big War. The police stopped messing around. In a pretty short amount of time, the enforced curfew became a major offense. Armed officers manned the streets and men were beaten to death for being out past dark.
I gave my parents tons to worry about, but when word got around that old Johan, one of my boys from the Tavern, didn’t make it home one night, I curtailed my shenanigans. No shame. And also no dying on my part.
Instead of living like I was a free woman, everything about my life was about to change for me.
Pops and mom thought it’d be a swell idea to put Sonja and I in the local girls’ club. Great, I thought. More rules and kid stuff to adhere to.
‘Course by the time I was fifteen, no one had a choice. The Jungend clubs (Bund Deutscher Magel was the name) were a requirement – to make sure all us Deutschers we were fully brain-washed before adulthood.
Being forced to go, I figured it was high time I would meet some of the girls in my town. And I guess I needed to learn how to sew and do other domestic stuff besides drinking games. Plus getting together as a social thing pretty much wasn’t allowed anymore, so I learned that the best way to get the dish on what was going on and I had to actually listen.
The boys? They learned how to shoot guns. I cursed the dieties for letting me be born into this world without a dick.
I guess Mom was pretty happy that someone had the authority to teach me how to be a housewife.
I was stuck going to dances. Which wasn’t so bad.
There were dresses and boys and a sense of being proper. Which has its moments.
I hated the way the “adults” had to tell us how much smarter we were for being German, though. Jews and gays weren’t allowed in, which ought to have been the real crime.
Years of these rules went by. My whole childhood, really. What a shame that’s what I have to remember about all that. Mom and Pops, they were afraid. And angry. And the safest thing to do was for them to scream their heads off at me for every little thing I did wrong.
In 1944, air raid sirens went off in the city.
They’d been going on for months, but this time was the real deal. Along with the sirens, there were explosions a few miles off. We’d been told that planes can drop over several miles real fast like, so when the sirens blew, you ran for cover.
We were bombed more than a few times that year.
The first time, our apartment was hit. It was the middle of the night.
Neighbors wailed as a sea of people streamed down the halls yelling, “FIRE!”
Mom grabbed books. Sonja grabbed the jewelry box. Pops grabbed his cello. I pushed the damn piano out the door and down the stairs of our second floor flat.
I loved that piano. Music was a big thing with our family. We all played an instrument. Or more like four instruments. Still is big for me. That piano has been the single most difficult thing to leave behind – and I left it so many times.
We had to move after the fire in our apartments. Our stuff stunk like smoke, but nothing burned, so there’s that.
The good news is that we were able to put up in a house that was closer to solid bomb shelters. The bad news is that our family was about to expand by a lot here real soon.
Sonja met a fella.
Sonja was 19 when I was 16. After graduating secondary school, most ladies got married. My sister was like most ladies.
Bruno was his name. He was cute. Brutish. Brutish Bruno. He was a few years older, and a German soldier.
Bruno and Sonja married a few weeks before he was deployed to Russia.
Bruno never made it home, but he left Sonja with a gift before he went: and she named her Lily.
Sonja and her baby lived with us, of course. The baby gave us something happy to focus on, and my sister really needed us then. Not surprising, since being a single mom ain’t ever easy.
Air raid sirens still went off, and we still ran for cover. The first few days of it, you have this adrenal thing going on and you just move move move. Months, though, drag on. If it hadn’t been for that baby, half the time I would have just ignored the peeling sirens.
And Lily was an angel baby. She was calm and those sirens really didn’t bother her. I guess maybe it’s because she never knew any different.
One time, though – and this is awful, don’t judge me – I dropped the baby.
I threw her in the basket because it was time to run again, and since we could hear the explosions nearby, we ran like mad for cover.
Sonja and I toppled into the stone cave and she grabbed at my arm for the basket. I held it out to her and grimaced. It was lighter than it had been five minutes before.
“MY BABY!” she shrieked at me.
Not gonna lie, we panicked. Sonja and I scraped our fingertips all over the cold stone floors looking for Lily. She wasn’t there.
Flung open the doors and realized the sirens were gone. And that the baby was in the bushes next to the shelter. No idea how she got out of the basket, and that’s something Sonja carried with her for the rest of her life. Never lived that one down.
In 1945, the town was overtaken.
We got a few new houseguests. Sonja wrote in her journal, so I figured I’d just put that text here:
Without warning today, explosions and air sirens began screaming at us from the streets again. Toni, me, and Daddy were not far from home, but we weren’t together, having gone out on our own private errands. The wail of sirens glared from armored trucks. I ran like a lunatic through the narrow streets, jumping over scattered crates and wayward chickens. I bumped headlong into people running in every direction. I ran just as fast as my feet would take me, headed directly for the sanctuary of our new stone-walled home.
Once we all were safely inside, Mother, clutching Lily, collapsed against the interior wall, a mess of tears pouring from her eyelids onto my baby’s head. Not far from the house, a blast made the stone walls shimmy. A dining chair creaked backwards and dashed itself against the floor with a loud crack. Toni crawled on her hands and knees to Mother, and when she reached her, she wrapped her arms around her and Lily, whispering calming words against her temple, “Mom… Mom… it’s okay, we’re all here.”
The next handful of days ran together liked wet ink on paper. There were explosions and the rat-a-tat-tats of weapons. Mother’s wails were almost as loud as the groans of our empty stomachs. Several days later, silence that shrouded the city.
We didn’t have food to eat, and unfamiliar machinery sounded in the streets. Unfamiliar machinery? Unfamiliar machinery?! What? I pulled the curtains only an inch from the side of the window, only wide enough to barely get a glimpse of what was happening outside. In the field across the way, a cloud of dust rose high into the sky. Soon, approaching trucks showed up on the horizon.
Daddy screamed at me, “Don’t you know that it’s not safe to open the curtains? What would happen if those men saw you!?”
I looked back at his terrified face.
“Those weren’t our trucks, Papa.”
“I know, Sonja.”
“What do we do?”
“I don’t know, Sonja.”
By evening, American soldiers were knocking the door. Daddy, was a musician, not a soldier. He had no choice but to open it. We had no weapons– they weren’t allowed.
An American Captain and a German translator stood on the doorstep. Behind them, two American soldiers stood straight-backed and eyes forward.
“Good evening, Sir,” said the captain, pausing while the translator conveyed the message.
“It is fortunate for all of us that your home has withstood the battles as of late.”
Daddy nodded but stayed silent.
“Well, Sir. It is fortunate for you, because you are not displaced by this violence. It is fortunate for us, because your home will do well for my two soldiers, here.” The Captain swept his arm back as in introduction.
“These soldiers are good men. They will need food, clothing, and a bed to sleep in. Your city is devastated and no longer belongs to you. Your home is ours. And it will do us no good to have you… and your,” he paused making a nodding movement toward us.
He cleared his throat and began again, “It would do us no good to have you and your daughters on the streets. I will be placing my boys here in your care. However, you are to obey their wishes and respect their commands, should they choose to give them. Do you understand, sir?”
The only way we could remain safe was to allow these soldiers stay.
“Very well,” said the Captain. “Please allow me to introduce you. This here is Lieutenant Henry and the other is Lieutenant Green. They are good boys, so you won’t have anything to worry about with them. But they are hungry, and I’m quite certain that they are tired. Please know that we don’t take this responsibility lightly, nor should you. If you are good to them, they will be good to you. However, if they suspect that you are working against them, I have given them full permission to use their better judgment to retire you.”
Daddy nodded consent.
The Captain bowed his chin in gratitude, and turned to step away.
The soldiers were just boys. About the same age as Sonja.
Which under other circumstances would be absurd. Who houses young single men and women together beneath the same roof? Really.
And tragedy immediately sprouted into our comedy.
Sonja, meek and widowed, and me, wily as usual. Sonja worried about what the neighbors would think, and I wondered how we might make this more… fun.
Of course, I won.
I was curious, of course. Lts Henry and Green were polite, though they didn’t speak a lick of German. It was awkward. But by the grace of the gods, all of us focused on the one thing we could do – which was to make this crazy experience as tolerable and happy as possible.
Pops and Mom thought it’d be best to give the guys Sonja’s and my bedroom. I threw a fit, and the guys conceded they’d sleep on the floor in the living room.
We didn’t really have enough rations to feed all six of us, but we made due.
On particularly hungry evenings, I grabbed a deck of cards and they taught my sister and me how to play poker.
When I was bored out of my mind, I cajoled Sonja into playing the piano and Pops played the cello, and I danced and sang as though center stage in the theater.
The rest of life after the boys moved in was pretty much business as usual. Except now the business was to rebuild the city. A great thing given that it had been destroyed both by tyranny and the bombs that liberated us.
Weeks passed and occasionally the Captain brought gifts of extra rations. Mom cried a lot. Lily learned how to crawl and walk and eventually how to speak in both English and German. Pops got involved in politics and moved to a higher standing in the Unitarian church. My boobs got bigger and I learned a lot of English myself.
Lt Henry was my favorite, I think. He was good natured and his eyes sparkled when I made broken English at him. His free time belonged to me.
He gave me a book. It was bound in green leather and smelled like Christmas trees.
I wrote in it, but hid it in the woodpile.
I think I love him.
Hindsight is always crystal clear but for the moment, I really believed that.
And so did he when he snooped through the woodpile to find my journal and saw what I wrote.
I must have been the only one surprised by the ring.
Mom was furious and Sonja was jealous and when they all found out that I had said yes without giving it an iota of thought, Pops made me keep my word.
The soldiers eventually left Munich, and Lt. Henry promised he’d send for me.
As much as I fought it, my whole family insisted I’d leave Germany once my summons finally arrived.
It had been years since I’d last seen him. I was 20 years old, and couldn’t even remember what he looked like. The war had ended and we had been free for years – rebuilding everything we wanted without Hitler’s absurd tyranny over our heads.
The demographics of the community had changed immensely. For starters, none of our Jewish friends had been located and rumors of murder by the hands of our own people were hard to ignore.
Buildings had to be rebuilt, and new lenient laws needed to be upheld. I had a social life to reignite and friends I wanted to see again. My niece Lily was my shining star and right hand man. She was my joy. Leaving her was not an option.
There was so much more to think about than an American sweetheart. And though I wore my ruby ring on my finger, the idea of actually leaving was something I had refused to even consider.
What was the book I read a few years ago? Gone with the Wind? Like Scarlet, I kept telling myself, “I’ll think of that later.”
As life has a way of doing, ‘Later” eventually shows up. And when it does, don’t be surprised with your Mom packs your bags and your Pops fills your purse and your sister hardly turns away when you ask her to support your decision to stay.
We all drank a lot the night before I left.
And if we’re being honest, I begged them to help me stay.
On the boat.
Hung over, cross, and wishing I was home in my own bed, I woke up in my cabin.
I had to drag myself into the dining hall. I was miserable, groaning, and splotchy.
Rachel had long straight dark hair and a wide nose. She was beautiful and smiled as much as I grumped at her.
She must have thought I was ill. And I was, I guess. If you consider still being drunk when you wake up, still having the taste of vomit up your nose, having a raging headache and beer bloat belly illness.
A mothering friend was something I actually welcomed while I thought I was as low as I’d ever be in life.
She asked me gentle questions, and fed me juice and crackers and water, and when I finally started to feel human again, I realized I had hogged all of the conversation.
Turns out Rachel was going to America to find her family. They had fled persecution in Germany and she had stayed and hid. Her survival is the first miracle, and her joyful spirit amidst such atrocity against her people was the second.
I think I loved her that first day.
Years later, Rachel would finally stop being my friend. Probably because I’m a shitty friend. See, when we arrived at the dock, she had nowhere in particular to go. And I took her into my world, and we became each other’s welcome-to-America party. She held my hand when I saw Lt. Henry, or as he preferred I call him, Roy, again. She lent her ear when I whispered that I wasn’t sure it was him.
She was my maid of honor at the wedding. She helped me decorate for the party. She took me to writing classes when I grew depressed, and she held my hair when I was throwing up after conceiving my first child. Rachel became my very best friend, though I was anything but a great friend to her.
He was a very kind man. Just as I had remembered from childhood. He was smart, employed, a doting husband, and after I realized I was pregnant, I knew he’d be an amazing father. He was practical and sweet natured. He didn’t fight with me, even when I tried to engage him. And that was his downfall.
I conceived and gave birth to Seliah very soon after I arrived in America. Rachel, of course, was there. Roy was, too, but in those days custom didn’t allow him in the birthing room with us. I wrote home once every six months, keeping my family abreast of major events. But the distance and the completely different new world around me prevented me from being quite close with any of them any more.
America was different. Funny. Where I once held the entire world in the palm of my hand, here I was new, novel, and the foreign – nay German – straight out of the devil’s pocket from Europe. You’ve seen this phenomenon in America many times over since. The enemy loses to war and then any children from the enemy state are instantly demonized among the American people.
I’m not sure if this is unique among Americans, or just an evolutionary human instinct thing, but good ole Top-o’-the-line-Toni was bottom of the trash heap for years after moving to Florida. Rachel seemed to make her way a little more easily. She was as sweet as I was brash, and she was the rescued Jewish angel, ready for salvation.
And try to explain that you were only a young lady in the war… even that wasn’t enough for most people. I spent the first many years struggling to hide my accent only for it to emerge as soon as someone poured me a cocktail.
Anyhow, the blow to my ego was harsh. So take this into consideration when I tell you about my next great hero: Harold.
Oh, Harold. Tall, gruff, alligator-wrestling Harold. For every ounce of allowing and generous Roy was, Harold was exciting and cruel.
And Harold was also Roy’s best friend.
Or, Roy was Harold’s best friend.
You see, something I’ve learned in life is this: friendship, and any relationship, is actually never very balanced. There’s always one person who is more loyal, more generous with their time and money and energy. It’s a rare moment to find a sliver of relationship that doesn’t follow this tilted stance. And Roy and Harold were as tipsy as Rachel and I.
Which makes it very awkward when your best friend, Rachel, decides to confide to you that she’s fallen in love with your husband’s best friend.
It should have gone like this:
“Toni! I think I found him!”
“Rachel, you’ve got to tell me who!”
(insert giddy girl giggles here)
And instead it went like this:
(Toni secretly pursues her husband’s best friend and after a frisky jaunt in the bathroom together during a drunken party, Rachel finds her and naively confesses her intentions about Harold as he stands naked behind the partly closed door, dripping with sweat and other bodily fluids and Toni stands dumb with her mouth open. Like a fish.)
Aye. I am an awful friend. And it goes without saying that I’m an awful wife, too. Maybe even an awful mother. But what can you do? Harold lit a fire inside of me. My ego needed solace in a strange world.
And had I been a better friend, I’d have confided in Rachel my secret rendezvous. But did I? Sure didn’t.