Archive for the ‘WP Longform’ Tag

The Informant’s Agenda, Chapter II, – The Mengelders of Omaha

Chapters and pages in chronological order

Family photos of paternal grandfather’s family and his German Bible

Chapter Two

The Mengelders,

Omaha, Nebraska

 Grandfather Jacob, his wine glass raised, as if standing for communion at his Lutheran church stood addressing the Mengelder family on Thanksgiving Day. Forty-eight of us crowded together at my grandparents’ home for the annual family  reunion.

“Does this sound familiar?” Jeremy said quietly, leaning towards my ear.

“You think? Yes, just a little.” I said, smiling. “But, this stuff is important to him. He just wants to remind us of the virtues of  ‘family values’, our ‘beginnings and rich heritage’, all of the above.” I said. We all bunched together, anxiously waiting for him  to finish while he delivered his speech, “embracing family, country, and freedom” once again.

Grandfather continued. “When our family came here in 1889 they earned the right and privilege of American citizenship. They embraced a new world, a new country. They could vote, go to church, and worship God openly, without fear. They could obtain an education, exercise free speech, without persecution or imprisonment.  They could visit friends and not worry about spying eyes, or listening ears. No opportunities were taken for granted.  They were patriots. Today, we are Americans in a free world that will one day seek to return to all once gained, that is now all but lost.”

Winding it up, he added, “At such times as we live in, there might be intervention by the evil one to take our most esteemed privileges from us and place in its stead the works of men with ruinous strife and hatred. But we will fight for our rights and with dignity we will stand before our flag and God, and declare our country, built with pride, perseverance, and respect for all. To God, our flag, our family, and our freedoms.”

At that point, grandfather took a sip from the wine glass in his right hand, while holding a little American flag in his left hand marking the occasion and the day of ‘thanks’ as we raised our glasses, the younger ones their soft drinks, and my uncles their beers, pronouncing a toast to, “freedom, democracy and liberty of one nation, and its people.”

“Hip, hip, hooray! To our flag, freedom, and the grand ole U.S.A.”, shouted Chad with a smart mouthed smirk, gulping down his Coke.

“Here, here! Let us pilgrims march forth into victory. And dinner.” declared John.

“Cheers to the red, white and blue. Cheers to me, and you.” said, Ben, our ‘poet’.

My cousins enjoyed a good laugh, not meant to be at the expense of grandfather Jacob. He just tended to be a bit long-winded when they stood impatient, waiting to load their plates from the bounty spread out over the buffet table.

When he finished and the prayer said we filled our plates and found seats at tables spilling out of the dining room, living room and kitchen. It was enough to freak out a fire marshal. We made a noisy bunch, laughing, joking, everyone talking at once.

Grandfather Jacob sat at the head of the dining room table in his chair looking like a proud peacock, patriarch of the family clan. His once thick silver locks now ringed his pink pate like a wispy white halo. His wire rimmed glasses framed kind, but intense, dark brown eyes. His face, the color of old ivory bore the deep lines, wrinkles and aging spots of his eighty-six years.

He worked on the mounds of mashed potatoes, dressing, and corn custard beside a half eaten turkey leg.  Another small plate with salad and rolls lay beside it disappearing just as fast. While eating he listened to bits and pieces of everyone’s conversation around the table, not missing a beat to add his input on all.

Grandmother Lisle sat beside him, her dainty hands cutting through a slice of turkey while discussing her Sweet Potato Pie’s ingredients and secret to a “flakier crust” with aunt Libby.

Sitting beside my uncle Heinrich at the other end of the table I nodded politely to all his ramblings about the things wrong with our government, and all that needed to be fixed in Washington, DC.

It was a typical holiday gathering, some watching football games on TV, my cousins in the basement playing pool, and the women cleaning up in the kitchen, gossiping while they worked.

Grandfather excused himself to go watch the boys play kick ball, and “get some fresh air”.  His pallor, and quiet mood seemed a bit off as I watched him through the opened window above the kitchen sink where I helped with clean up.

Their noise drifted in, as did the heat from the unusually warm day in late November.

With some nudging from the boys, Grandfather relented and joined them in a game of kickball, but had a harder time keeping up with the ones he once bounced on his knees calling his “little patriots”.  He jostled around, returning the ball a few times when suddenly he clutched his chest and collapsed to the ground.

We all ran out. My cousin wasted no time calling an ambulance.

Grandfather’s face turned red. He struggled to breathe. His words came slowly, his eyes turning to grandmother Lisle now kneeling down beside him, stroking his hot, perspiring forehead.  “Tell them… the truth. Make them…. proud….of… their heritage. My dear Lisle,… love. I will…see you, one day. Tell… Moni….”

Grandmother Lisle shook her head. “No, Jacob! You cannot leave me. Not now. There is no time for you to be sick.” she said, her voice breaking. She sobbed, imploring our help.

My uncle and cousin tried CPR, not waiting for paramedics to arrive. But, it did not help. A final breath and he lay quiet. A white cloud moved across the midday sun, his eyes staring upward, unmoving. A strange calm came over me as I looked down at his still form, realizing we had just lost him. In my mind I had an image of grandfather Jacob soaring through clouds, into the heavens, enlightening all the angels carrying him. And God smiling, while he “went on, and on,” his speech to all who would listen.

When the paramedics arrived their attempt to revive him was futile.  He was rushed to ER, but was pronounced dead from a “massive coronary,” turning our day of “thanks” into one of mourning.

A week later bouquets of flowers draped his coffin, as the Lutheran minister delivered the eulogy. The family gathered again in Omaha, Nebraska for his funeral, wept and mourned, then went home returning once again to busy lives, their jobs, all except me. It was grandfather Jacob’s wish to make me the “keeper” of our records, archive our history, and “preserve it for the coming generations.”

“Moni,” – he always called me that – “do not memorialize me when I am gone.  Learn the truth of our family’s history.  My grave will be but a stone to the quarry you will come to find. Learn our heritage. Write our story that it may be remembered. The patriotism to our country will live on in the hearts of the descendents that carry the banner of our beliefs. Those who value the words honored in our constitution will uphold the principles our nation’s founders swore to live by,” he’d written in a letter to be given to me upon his death. It was saved and kept with his old German Bible, passport, photos and naturalization papers.

Known jokingly as the ‘reporter’ in the family I lived up to their word, receiving my BA degree in journalism from UN, Lincoln, Nebraska. My father once told me, “Monica, develop your rapport with people instead of the report on them. Be sensitive to those whose lives and stories are subjected to someone else’s disclosure.”

As the creator of the literary press research paper, THE QUILL AND QUEST while in college I developed a web site and blog, enhancing it with new features.  By updating our site daily our readers could read articles, post and blog on political issues at home and abroad. Our newest feature; genealogy and archival research on diverse ethnic groups became a special project promoting interest, inquiries and questions from people wanting to research their ‘family tree,’ many of them becoming regular contributors or bloggers. Its success drew the interest of other professors and students majoring in history and genealogy studies in other schools. German, Russian and East European Jewish ethnic history became the most popular of our research studies project. And my obsession.

After earning my Master’s degree in history and genealogy studies I began assessing what I had on my own family history. Grandmother Lisle and I went through old documents, files and photos during our coffee talks, always with a plate of her “fresh from the oven,” Oatmeal Raisin cookies, my favorite.

Carefully turning pages of grandfather Jacob’s German Bible, I read the scrawled names, birth and death dates on family record pages, personal notes, mementoes and bookmarks stuffed inside, even favorite scriptures underlined and noted.

The worn, antiquated passport of my great-grandfather with pages as fine as tissue spilled loosely into my hands, well over a hundred years old now. Names and dates of family members’ immigration were scribbled on lines in Old Russian Cyrillic script.

Then she brought out another box, dust settling on it as it had been stored, hidden away, its contents giving off a musty, old smell. In unbelief I watched as she pulled things out, and it was then I learned the secret kept, like a hidden piece to a puzzle needed to complete the picture. And I realized the reason for grandfather Jacob’s fanatical patriotism.

Months later grandmother Lisle became weak and frail after suffering the flu the previous winter. Unable to regain her strength and recover she died peacefully in her sleep. Our family once again came together to mourn their loss. Like grandfather Jacob she believed anyone could be, “an American forging paths with a spirit of adventure and greatness,” like the first patriots and immigrants who came to shore pioneering the way.

We buried her a week later beside grandfather Jacob. Their adjoining gravesite now held another fresh bouquet of yellow daffodils, her favorite. It was Memorial Day.

While applying for a current passport and visa papers to travel abroad I received a call from the U.S. Genealogy Department of History and Research in Washington, D.C. They hired me, and I was sent on assignment to Europe with a team of archivists.

_________________________

To be continued…

Joyce E. Johnson

Note: The above story is fiction, but the photos above are mine. They are ones of my own family and grandparents. The story is based on facts, some true, some from other resources to create the fictional story of The Mengelders of Omaha.

When Dark Closes In, Chapter VIII – Fallout

English: 1965 Ford Mustang 2D Hardtop frontvie...

English: 1965 Ford Mustang 2D Hardtop

WHEN DARK CLOSES IN

Chapter VIII

 Fallout

     1966 – Clear Creek, WA.

    Scott boarded the southbound bus, and turned around to find her waving. He smiled, found a seat, and the bus pulled out, headed for Fort Lewis. He promised to write. She could only pray his letters would never stop, that he would return to her, and the child he knew nothing about.

    There could not be a hole anywhere on earth deeper, or greater than the one she felt in her heart as she made the lonely drive home in his 1965 Ford Mustang. Even with a window down the scent of his sweat mixed with his after shave and soap he used when he showered lingered. She caressed the black, leather upholstered bucket seats. She knew how much he loved this car, spending hours buffing and polishing it after a wash. She would call his father and have him pick it up. One day at a time: it was all she could do, and hope for the year to pass quickly.

    But, there was something she could not put off any longer, so locked it and reluctantly went inside where she knew her parents waited. They sat at the kitchen table in their usual place, reading the newspaper over their coffee. It was around the kitchen table where they had their family sessions, laughed, and talked about their day. This time an awkward silence filled the room, as if a pall of doom had followed her inside making its home there, uninvited.

   “I’m very sorry, dear. I know Scott’s leaving has been a sad and difficult thing for you, but perhaps, when you return to school things will be easier then, and you can meet up with some friends there.” Erin said.

    “I’m not returning to school in the fall.” Jennifer said, pointedly.

    Her father’s head shot up, his facial expression always an easy barometer to read. His broad, bent shoulders stiffened, as he straightened in his chair. Jennifer did not look forward to this.

    “What kind of nonsense is that? You’re going back to school. I won’t allow you to quit school, and mope around here over that boy.”

    “I’m not going back, daddy. Not now. I need to tell you both something. About why I can’t. I’m…Scott and I… I mean, I am going to have a baby. I’m pregnant.”

    Her words fell on them like the mammoth trees felled in the Olympic National forests where her father managed the logging camps. He could determine the exact angle and position as each was felled to the ground. But, he could not determine her fate. Right or wrong, alone or with their help, she would make her own way. Another long pause.

    Erin McAlister found her voice. “Have you been to a doctor? How far along are you?” she asked.

    “Yes, I saw the doctor. I’m three months.”

    “Does Scott know?” Erin asked.

    “No. I didn’t tell him. I’m not going to. Until he returns home. I don’t want anyone else to. I don’t want his family to know, because they will think it their duty to tell him. He has enough to deal with just being over there in that war.” The days of holding back tears, the stress: all of it was gone now, as she unleashed it all.

    “Mom, could you get me some water. I feel…light headed.”

    Erin got up, and brought her some water and a cold compress.

    “Thank you.”

    “Jenny. Jenny. What have you gone, and done?” Her father slowly shook his head. “Does anyone else know about this?”

    “Dana does. I told her when I found out. I just wanted to share it with someone that… would understand.”

    “How can a girl like that ‘understand?’ Someone who has no morals of her own.” Jim said, his Scotch-Irish brogue more noticeable when angry.

    “Jim. That’s enough. Maybe she wasn’t taught the things we have taught Jenny, so what else would you expect? It is rather sad they let her do all the things she was allowed to do. She lives the way she wants.”

    “Which is why our Jenny should not be hanging around with the girl.”

     “Jim! Stop that kind of talk. You don’t know…”

     “Daddy. I’m tired of you calling Scott, ‘that boy,’ and Dana, ‘that girl.’ They’re my friends. I love Scott. We plan to be married… when he comes home.” She cried into the wet compress, shoulders shaking.

    “Jenny, it will be alright. Your father is just trying to be…”

     “Sensible. Someone needs to be. I hope you have gone to confession, talked with the priest.” her father said.

    “No. I don’t need a priest. They hide behind their confessional like an imposter as if afraid, or too ashamed of you to even look at your face, and tell you what you need to hear.”

    “Jenny! That’s enough. You cannot speak that way. It’s…” Jim spat the angry words back.

    “What? Disrespectful? Are they hiding from our shame? Or theirs? Aren’t they guilty of sin, too? Isn’t it God we should confess to, and ask for help?”

    “God knows we can use his help.” Erin said, quietly.

    Jennifer walked upstairs to her room. She picked up her rosary beads sitting on the night stand. As a child she was taught to practice the good Catholic rites of faith. A confession when she did things that were wrong, regular attendance at Mass, bowing and saying her prayers before the Virgin Mary. It all seems so pointless, so empty now.

    She looked out into a clear night sky from her upstairs bedroom window. The moon was out, and the stars looked like shiny crystals scattered about. She wasn’t into astrology like some, but she found them more comforting than rosary beads.

    She fingered the tiny diamond ear studs she wore. Scot had given them to her the night they watched the sky explode in every shape and color, bursting through the dark void on July 4th, over Puget Sound.

    She went to bed, but slept little.

__________________________________

To be continued

Joyce E. Johnson (2013)

         

The Ghetto Jews

The Ghetto Jews

Odessa, Russia 1944

Jacob pressed his face to the glass. The window, comforting like a chunk of ice soothed his brow, feeling hot to the  touch.

Large, frosty flakes drifted slowly from a dark, cold sky crystallizing on the dirty window.  Shapes and patterns came together in delicate designs like mama’s lace tablecloth she once owned. Used for special occasions like Passover Seder she would spread it out on their dining room table and place the menorah in the center. She would then add the special Passover dishes and papa would lead in the Hebraic prayer. A long time ago, with Joseph and their friends.

He remembered something his papa once said. “Jacob, each person is unique to God and has been given a gift; all have their own identity making them unlike anyone else. We can all give something back to God by contributing to the world, each in their own way. No one is made just like another. Like snowflakes, people are all different. But there is a beauty, distinct in us all.”

Then papa’s face became sad and his shoulders slumped as if shrinking into his chair.  “Sometimes though, it is not the good in them we see, but the bad things they do …that we remember…and cannot forget.” he said, quietly.

Jacob thought about that, then asked, “Why does God make them then, if they do bad things? Why aren’t they like the snowflakes? Why does God make the snowflakes disappear, but not the bad people?”

“Ah. Well Jacob, perhaps the beauty of such things as snowflakes is with us for just a short time, so God will remind us how important it is to appreciate them when they are with us. Then, he rewards us by sending us more again, later, all in different patterns, different designs, all of them beautiful.”

Jacob remembered how he used to try catching them in his hands as they fell from the sky, but too soon they were gone leaving only a trace of their dampness absorbed into the red mittens his mother knitted for him. He no longer had the mittens.

“But, you asked about the, “bad people” that do not disappear. I think perhaps God allows the evil to remain with us for a time too, like the beautiful snowflakes before He makes them go away. One day maybe, I hope they will all be gone too, and we can see only God’s beautiful creations, again.”

His papa was a doctor and a very smart man. Jacob always had questions. Sometimes, when papa did not have an answer to every question he would ponder for a while and say, “Jacob, some things I believe you will just learn about on your own. It is the way we learn best.”

Jacob remembered a time when he and his brother played out in the snow. Mama would let them stay up past dark and the sky became white with a soft like glow. They built forts and bunkers using boxes and buckets, made bayonets from long sticks, and turned bowls upside down on their heads for helmets. Their snowmen wore helmets too and stood as sentries to their fort. While hiding behind them, or running around they would sometimes knock off their head or helmet playing soldiers at war. They would laugh and roll in the snow and when they came in mama would have ready cups of hot sweet cider. They warmed themselves in front of a hearth fire watching the flames dance, the logs crackle, and pop, then go to bed in clean warm beds.

Now Joseph, his brother was gone. And there was no yard to play in the snow or build a safe fort. There was no hearth fire. But there were real soldiers, and there were real guns aimed at the Jews in their crowded ghetto. The terror continued and the sick and old gave up and died.

“Mama, where did papa go?” he asked her, again.  Peering intently through the window gazing out at the swirling flakes accumulating on the ground he saw no sign of him anywhere. Just the snow that fell, leaving the ground covered in white. He would not leave his post, so he stood there, watched, and waited. But unless papa returned to them soon and they could be together again tears would threaten to fall untended and his heart for papa would ache.

An hour passed; three hours, then more. His mother stood silent. What could she say to a child so young? Now burning with fever from this hated curse, will she mourn yet another son to disease? How many more would they bury tonight? For the thousands of Jews forced to live in the ghetto, with the filth and despair they would surely all die. Like a herd of swine in a holding tank, awaiting their fate, their “transport” to where? To be Jewish, or “different,” this was their fate? What could they do but wait here and die? Typhus and hunger ravaged them all. There were rumors in the ghetto of massacres and killings, of Jews rounded up, digging graves, then shot and burned. Of soldiers laughing, making lewd comments, imitating “pious” gestures, and drinking to their deaths.

Stroking his shoulders, she wore a sad smile. “Jacob, come. Lie down. Try to sleep. Papa will scurry fast like the mice that run away when they scatter and hide.”

His tears fell to the sill in tiny puddles on grime. Some of the ice crystals forming outside still remained, as if lingering; stubborn they stayed, as if wanting to remain for Jacob, this night.

~~~~

Aaron ran, his legs feeling like lead, tired from the effort. If only he’d kept himself, more fit, playing and hiking with his sons in the forest. He stumbled, his gait awkward, his body feeling weak, weary. His breaths filled the air like little puffs of steam, building with each effort.   Ice sickles hung off slouching roofs heavy from layers of old snow, frozen in place from an earlier thaw. Ugly and dirty like the pointy nails of an old witch’s gnarled hands they clawed their way down drainage pipes. No beauty remained from an earlier reflection, “like prisms cascading from an ice castle in the sky,” he once told Jacob. The boys often broke them off to suck on, pretending they were, “iced treats.”

Aaron had no way of knowing how late the hour. Down a dark, narrow alley he ran staying in the shadows. He had to make it back before a guard detachment saw him.  Clutching the small vial and syringe with stiff fingers, his arthritic hands felt numb from the cold, stuffed into thin worn pockets of his tattered coat. The medicine, he found in the doctor’s fine house, the one with the yard where his sons always played, building their forts, their bunkers and caves, under a misty, cold sky after a fresh fallen snow.

Now another doctor lived in their house, seeing his patients and collecting their payments. If he were to hope for just one miracle this night, it would be that he make it back to the ghetto before being caught.

From inside the other pocket he took out two keys, tied together with a shoelace. One fit a lock to their back door and the other to the locked medicine cabinet. He found them in the same place hidden under a porch step. They had been hidden for months before he and his family were rounded up and made to vacate their home. It was not safe to be found with them now. There would never be another time to use them again.  He tossed them into the gutter drain as he ran. He knew he would never see his home, his patients, or practice medicine again.

Painful cramps gripped his legs. He stumbled making too much noise, knocking over a garbage can while rounding a corner. Now they would know, and soon they would learn to where he fled, to a hole in the wall where brick and mortar gave way.

He observed the rats one day watching as they came and went, in and out through the cracked, crumbling wall. Aaron wasted no time, chipping and hacking, enlarging the hole. When he thought it large enough, while still dark, he squeezed through, telling only his wife, Rachel where he was going. It was his only hope if he was to get away and try saving his son from certain death. As much as he wanted to squeeze them all through the hole and try to escape, he had no way of ensuring their safety on the other side until he had tried it first. All sides and entrances to the ghetto were watched, guarded constantly.  Clawing at the hard cold ground under the fence he dug frantically and lifted the wire enough to slide through.  Any escape routes were sealed up and closed off. If he were seen entering it now, he would endanger his family, and everyone else. They would all be shot. He would have to hide somewhere and wait till it was safe.

He thought he heard the soldiers’ jackboots, or was it anxiety born out of fear? Closing in they rounded the corner from where he’d come. Faster now, he thrust himself forward, a determined, defiant attempt of alluding his captors. There were no more alleys to run to, no crevice in the wall where he could squeeze through, no door to bolt to, and no window he could jump through.

His mind raced through a Hebrew prayer he prayed with his family on the eve of Shabbat. Sucking cold air, his breaths coming in ragged short spurts, as if seeing his son before him, he sighed. The light snow continued, snowflakes sticking to his beard. Aaron touched them, moisture forming in his eyes. Jacob, I’m sorry I had to leave, I did not want to watch you die. I will not make it home tonight. Forgive me, son. Be brave, for mama.   

Caught like a deer silhouetted under the night winter sky he came into their gun sights. There would be no escape. Shots rang out. Loud, they echoed, sending the sound and its message beyond to the boy who stood waiting for his papa tonight. Aaron fell to his knees, eyes fixed on the sky, as if in prayerful pose. Another shot, and he lay still, the crimson stain forming under his head.

~~~~

Standing at the window his eyes upon the snowflakes stubbornly affixed to the glass Jacob decided he no longer wanted them there. He wiped furiously at their image as if to make them disappear.  A “work of art, like no other,” his papa would say, “beautiful, unique, like you Jacob.” One remained, as if stuck there. And soon, it too was gone. It didn’t matter anymore.

Snowflakes forgotten, sounds assailed Jacob’s ears like none others he’d heard before.  Closer now, a burst of gunfire in quick succession, screams and shouts, doors kicked loose from their hinges, jackboots came running. Jacob clung tightly to his mama gripped in fear for what would come next. Brown uniformed soldiers stormed in, standing with machine guns raised, the “evil” papa had talked about.

Jacob shut his eyes, his face in deep consternation begging God to, “make the evil disappear.”

But today, the “evil” would be allowed to prevail, and the beautiful would not be allowed to live. In quick succession once more shots shattered the ghetto confines, the sounds of screams pierced the air. Soon, only an occasional sputter from an assailant’s lone gun could be heard. Then it too went silent. The snow stopped falling. An eerie quiet settled over the ghetto. The skies filled with smoke from unknown fires, and the sound of transport trucks was heard rumbling through the streets.

____________________

Joyce E. Johnson (2014)

%d bloggers like this: