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"So what were they like?" the boy asked, truly uninterested. He looked around over the peaceful green hills with the less than carefully tended gravestones and crumbling statues. His parents were in the car, yawning as they waited for his great-aunt to finish.
Next to him, his great-aunt moved as if she had just noticed he was there. Her pepper-and-salt colored hair blew slightly in the breeze, which pulled at the hem of her flowered dress. The old woman carried a cane, and she hunched over until she was nearly as tall as the boy.
"I suppose I should tell you," the lady said carefully.
The boy looked at her expectantly, not knowing if this would be a sad story of a joyful one like the one his parents told him. He'd heard stories about the people under his feet for years, all of them told of wonderful people and things like fairy tales.
She smiled at him, showing her dentures. "I'll tell you the truth- not like the others. Sit."
The boy did so as the elder sat herself awkwardly on the gravestone. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his parents glance at them and then go back to their newspaper.
"The truth is, my grandparents were truly wonderful people. Over time, the stories have changed about them to make their lives seem like fairy tales. That happens a lot, actually. People see others who are perfectly happy and make up some impossible story for why they aren't like that.
You're great-great-great Oma was born in Luxembourg, a small country in Europe. When she was still a young girl, she moved to Germany to live with the rest of her family. I still don't know why.
She was truly a lovely girl. She had bright red hair with bright green eyes to match. I suppose she was an extremely happy child- she was later on in life.
After a long time of glorious living, a man named Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, telling stories about a supreme race, telling everyone that the pure Germans made up the race, and everyone else must die. Do you know about Adolf Hitler?" she asked, studying the boy.
The boy nodded. He'd heard of a man named Hitler. In some stories, he was a savior. In others, he was the devil himself. In the boy's house, he was discussed, or even mentioned.
"Hitler was a very powerful man. I've heard stories about him. I may be old, but my hearing hasn't failed me yet. No, he was actually quite handsome..."
The boy gaped at her. No one, not even the elders, said that someone evil was handsome. They never said anything good about bad people. And after people were judged, they were never mentioned again.
"He was strong, too. He had blue eyes, I think. Sturdy shoulders. Always had a pressed uniform, scrubbed face. One of my teachers once said that when he talked to crowds about his ideas and beliefs, he was 'hypnotic.' The teacher listened to him, or at least a tape of him, standing firmly for what she believed in, but she says she felt herself being drawn in all the same.
Hitler brought about World War Two. You know that, of course. Like I said, Hitler said the supreme race should be the only race to live. He murdered Catholics, slaughtered Jews. Anyone who didn't look right or had some sort of handicap. Someone once told me that he killed mpeople who were left-handed, but that's probably just a rumor. The US didn't get involved until the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor. Then we started to fight, and we did a mightly fine job, I say.
Anyway, at this time, there was a boy, probably hardly out of his teens. He got by for a living by playing by playing the trumpet and the piano. He was in an awful band, once. They never practiced until he joined. Then he took over and got them two records. I still have them at home, somewhere. Anyway, he enlisted in the Army because he felt that he should do something for the country. He'd lived during the First World War, you see, and I suppose that affected him. His dad fought in it and his mother gave food to the people who came searching for things to eat. Those were tough times, you see. He mostly guarded the attack planes, but he finally got the chance to go to Germany. Unfortunately and fortunately, the war had already ended. He was just going to make sure the Germans stayed in their place, secure everything.
He and his friends went to a bar one night to kick back and relax. He saw a piano somewhere and I suppose he couldn't resist. He went and played songs and sang songs, all of them insulting the Germans pretty badly. It was an American bar, anyway. I don't suppose he thought that he might be hurting people.
Then, in a break between his songs, a woman approached him with long red hair that she had put in pigtails, and bright green eyes." She saw the boy as he blinked, and she nodded. "Yes, it was my Oma. She went straight up to him and asked him to stop playing songs that insulted the Germans, and she pointed out to him that she WAS a German.
This is where the story splits two ways. Just slightly, mind, and it doesn't matter much. I believe that he apologized and asked her if she would have a drink with him. On the other hand, I think I was told once by someone close to them- or else imagined it- that Opa said he would only stop playing the songs if she would have a drink with him.
Either way, she excepted.
Years passed, and they had three sons; the middle son was my father. My mother told me that when people heard someone they knew was going to see my Oma and Opa, they dropped all their plans and went just because my Oma was so much fun, and my Opa was so great."
At this point, the boy noticed she straightened her back and looked a bit younger. It seemed to him that she was reliving the moment.
"Didn't you know them yourself?" he asked.
Her face, along with her back, fell. "I never knew my Oma. A smoker, you see. Couldn't stop even when she knew it was bad for her. Died of lung cancer before my dad even got into college, where my parents met. My Opa died when I saw nine. He slowed down the cancer from smoking, somehow, if he had it. I never knew for sure. He smoked a pipe, which is actually healthier." She pointed her cane at him. "And don't ever let me see you with anything tobacco-related, boy, or else I'll skin you alive." She shrugged and let her cane drop. "My mom had forbidden me to ask anyone about Oma when I was little; she thought they'd be too sad and I'd upset them." She grinned. "Once, though, I broke the rules. And I never regretted it, either. I was young, so young that I didn't comprehend the fact that guns killed people. Opa was teaching me how to play chess. Perfect day, too. Sunny, a few popcorn clouds. I moved my pawn and suddenly felt this urge. I'd wanted to ask him for years, of course, but then it really started pushing me. So I opened my mouth and asked, 'Opa, what was Oma like?' I saw his face fall, and for a few moments, I was afraid he wouldn't answer. He looked at his watch a lot. Then, finally, he watched the chessboard, and as he took my pawn with either a knight or a rook- I can't remember which, he said, 'She was nice.' Three words, mind, but more to me than life itself. Then, because I had the worst timing anyone can imagine, he had to call a friend of his called Elaine. They were kind of like girlfriend and boyfriend, and I always thought they'd get married. But Opa had apparently vowed never to marry again. And don't think it's because of Oma and his love, either. He got married after she died, but got divorced two months later. THAT'S when he made the vow.
When I was nine, Elaine called on a Friday night, hysterical. I picked up the phone. The first thing she told me was that she couldn't get in touch with my Opa, that he hadn't called. Then she realized she was talking to a nine-year-old girl and asked to speak with my parents. I put them on the phone, and, thinking myself old enough to handle the situation, explained Opa's habit of calling Elaine at four every day. My dad took the phone and he and Elaine talked, my mom and I crowding the portable phone in the front hall. My dad said he'd go check on him.
It seemed like an eternity. Of course, now that I look back, the time passed quickly. There was nothing to watch on TV, so I played music in my room and wandered endlessly around the house, knowing the truth about what had happened but my mind refusing to believe it and trying to find some way to get me to think otherwise.
At last, we got a phone call. I raced for it, but back then, my mom was faster than I. She reached it first. The first thing she said was my dad's name, then 'Oh my God,' a lot. I heard her say that she'd call the family and the paramedics and everyone else. Come to think of it, I don't think she knew who to call. She sent me out of the room. I sneaked back when she was talking to the paramedics. I asked what was wrong, even though I knew perfectly well. She said, 'You're Opa.' That was all. And suddenly I knew. It dawned on me. I guess I had been hoping that I was wrong.
I ran out of my house and cried on the side step. I cried like a baby, to tell you the truth, but I've never been ashamed of it. I prayed harder to God than I ever had before. I blamed Him, and apologized, and blamed Him again." She grinned. "After that, God and I got pretty close. Something like death really kind of forces you to believe, I suppose. I prayed for Opa's soul. And I prayed for Oma. And I prayed that Opa would still come back. I never want memories to die, and I prayed they wouldn't.
My mom came out later. Her eyes were watery, but she hadn't cried. She sent me to a friend's house, and that was where I heard the news for certain. My Opa had died in the middle of the night of a sudden heart attack. They aren't sure if it was late Wednesday night or early Thursday morning. But Elaine was the last to talk to him, I think. Wednesday. Thursday, I think she figured he may have forgotten, or fallen asleep, or couldn't get to a phone.
At Elaine's house, she told me that Opa was happy now. I thought about it and realized she was right. So I was the only one who didn't cry at the funeral. Quite a few people showed up, but there weren't that many people. Ticked me off, quite frankly.
Years later, I found out about his series of heart attacks and his major heart surgeries that no one told me about. A year later, I found out about the divorce.
Once, when I was little, Opa baby-sat for me. I had to go somewhere afterwards and heard my parents tell him not to let me get that messy. When he was working in his office, I sneaked outside and played in the puddles and with the mud and earthworms. He came outside and brought me back in, joking about how much trouble he'd be in if my parents saw me like that. He let me wash up, and I did so willingly. That was one of the things I liked about him. He was always patient with me. Always calm, willing to listen." She grinned again. "And Lord knows I needed all of those, and I probably pushed his patience to the limits. I used to climb the stairs on the side, hanging out over the floor and not the stairs. He always came in and helped me get down. But he never screamed or yelled at me. And that's something parents these days need.
All in all, he was in three wards. The second World War, Vietnam, and the Korean. He retired as a Lieuenant Colonel.
I don't think he liked wars, I don't. But he learned from them. He looked at what people around him did wrong and learned from their mistakes. He looked at the wars and saw what caused them, and he made up his mind not to let history repeat itself. That's what you get from mistakes, boy. Learning. I'll reckon you've learned lots and lots from your mistakes.
There was one thing the fairy tales you've been listening to got right. He was a hero. Both of them. Everyone who knew them knew that. And they didn't need the help of fairies and magic, either. No, you listen to me, boy. Heroism is in the character. You want to be a hero, you gotta have the character. You gotta have respect, strength, patience. You gotta be willing to do the right thing, and you've got to make mistakes now and then so you can learn from them. Now, come on. I'm sick of sitting on this thing." She tapped the gravestone with her cane.
"And boy, next time you hear those lies, you set 'em straight. If you don't, I'll take this cane and whip that skin right off that skinny back of yours."
The boy grinned.
As they got settled in the car, he let his mind wander. So that was the truth. They were heroes because of their chacter, not because of fairies. Maybe that meant he could be a hero, too, one day.
It was on the tip of his tongue, but he couldn't decide what to say. I'm gonna be a hero. And I know the truth, Why didn't you tell me? Or Did you know the truth? Maybe "Fairies don't matter, it's people. Their characters. Once again, he was tempted to say, I'm gonna be a hero.
In the end, he said, "Nothing."
His great-aunt shook her cane at his dad, who looked in the rearview mirror at him. "Now you watch the road, young man, or else I'm gonna whack you over the head so hard, you'll end up in China without a clue what happened to you."