Skip to main content

Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
Home
Contents
Biographies
Submissions
Archives
Editors
Contact Us
Publications
Policies

Thoughts For The Ages

 

by Michael Ellman

 

 


Li’l Abner and Dick Tracy, then White Sox box scores, then front-page headlines, editorials, stock markets—the ages of man are defined by morning reading habits. Now I sip dark coffee and turn first to the obituaries. It’s March 11, 2014.

 

Goodman, April (James).

April Goodman nee James, Phoenix, AZ, a longtime Chicago resident. Surrounded by family and friends, April was touched by angels and passed away to eternal life just months shy of her 75th birthday. Beloved wife of Oscar and mother of…

 

I knew her. I knew April well. April was born in May, she was always difficult. Doris Day sheen, Lizzie Borden instincts—well maybe not exactly like Lizzie, but touched by angels? I don’t think so.

 

Leo Bretholz, born in Vienna, Austria, 1921-2014.

Survivor escaped Nazis by leaping from train. On November 6, 1942, Leo Bretholz made a daring escape from the Nazis on its way to Auschwitz…. He later said that the underground gave him false identification documents. He worked with the resistance…[1]

 

Mr. Bretholz came to the U.S. in 1947 and wrote the memoir, Leap into Darkness: Seven Years on the Run in Wartime Europe. I purchased the book, it wasn’t in the library. There are so few stories of escapes—so many victims, so few heroes. Leo Bretholz, seven years on the run in wartime Europe, it’s impossible to imagine.

 

Let me tell you about April. I was 13, just turned 13. You know about that age, you’re looking at girls, maybe they‘re even looking back at you, but you don’t have a clue as to what it’s all about, except you can’t stop thinking about them.

 

“Hi,” she said, “I’m April, but you can call me Miss James. I’m your new neighbor, as you already know. I saw you peek over the fence, staring at me when we moved in—don’t deny it. No, don’t deny it,” April said, pointing a bobbing index finger at my chest. “Spell ‘Peeping Tom’ for me, and then tell me what’re you playing?”

 

“Duh—tiddlywinks,” I said.  I was playing hoops in the backyard and tossed the basketball her way, which she promptly kicked back.

 

“I’ll play you a game of ‘Horse,’ if you think you know how to spell that,” April said, her smile radiant and challenging, flicking back her hair, the color of pale redwood.

 

I’ve noticed that nobody actually dies anymore? They pass away, or are called home, or make the journey, or transition, or some other euphemism. They die, for goodness sakes! And where exactly would they pass to? We’re born here and die here—dust to dust.

 

I read sitting next to the east facing window, bask in the morning sun, and spy on mister cardinal carrying twigs to his nest high up in my silver maple. He’s preparing for the next generation. His ambition and casual beauty help me handle the sadness.

 

April asked me to walk her to school. Her first day, and starting a new school in the eighth grade was scary even for an alpha princess. Spring had arrived early, the buds ready to burst open, the earth this close to green. The magnolia flowers were full, and the day gentle and inviting. Walking to school with April would boost me to super-star status—something like bringing Sid Luckman, the Bear’s ex-quarterback, to show-and-tell.

 

Leo’s memoir arrived from Amazon Books. For a few extra bucks, I was able to buy an old signed hard-cover copy with a dust-jacket. It came in three days—they’re more efficient than the Apple store. I could be residing in Boca Raton if I had purchased Amazon stock.

 

Leo was 17 years old during the Anschluss (the joining); he was 20 yards away from Hitler, who stood in an open-air touring automobile traveling down the Mariahilferstrasse, the major business artery of Vienna, surrounded by goose-stepping troops and adoring Austrians. During history’s re-counting, the Austrians claimed they were victims of Hitler in spite of the whopping 99.7% approval they had given the union. Leo put it best: “The Austrians weren’t Hitler’s First Victims, but his First Embracers.”

 

After fifteen, no make it twenty minutes slicking my hair, working on my smile, painfully pulling the corners of my lips upward, I called on April. Mrs. James answered my timid knocking, surprise on her face, her morning features soft and vague like an unfinished drawing.

 

“Hi, I’m Greg from down the block, April asked me to walk her to school—her first day, but I guess you know that,” I said, blushing. I usually don’t put so many words together when meeting an adult stranger, and a woman to boot.

 

“Greg, is it? It’s good to meet neighbors,” Mrs. James said. Holding a slice of unbuttered toast in her hand, she looked at it and then me, laughed, and asked if I would care for some breakfast because I needn’t wait for April. “She went to school with that other nice boy down the street, Richard What’s His Name, the big fellow without thick eyeglasses.”

 

My disappointment was as subtle as Ed Sullivan’s spontaneity.

 

“Oh, I’m so sorry. April is really a nice person and maybe you’ll see her in school, maybe she just forgot you were coming, April is kinda like that…” Mrs. James said, forgetting her offer of toast as she hustled me out the door. Richard What’s His Name was my life-long tormentor, who hadn’t yet returned my brand new silver and blue Schwinn that he had “borrowed.”

  

April and I got along OK. We did homework together; it wasn’t that she was slow, just indifferent. She kissed me once after receiving an A on her Algebra final. I didn’t wash that side of my cheek for a week. She could have been a high school freshman cheerleader, but didn’t want to mix with those kinds of girls, and freshman girls like April were kept busy by senior boys muscling their charm. My only solace was that she dumped Richard, who may have taken the disappointment out on my Schwinn. My father never fully accepted my explanation for the oddly angulated front wheel.

 

Everybody looks better singing, and April was beautiful as Julie Jordan in the senior year production of Carousel, sweeter even than the movie star Shirley Jones. Photographed while she was singing “If I Loved You,” April’s picture graced the center of the program’s cover.

 

During my junior year at Penn, on a warm weekend, the magnolias bright just as they were when I first met her, she telephoned. We spoke as if we were family, touching familiar themes during my rundown of classes, grades and expenses. April needed a place to stay and suggested my dormitory room. There was sweetness about her request, and later a generosity that maybe I hadn’t detected before. We made love, we kissed, we made love again—it had been a long time coming. There was no fuss. It seemed so natural.

 

April called me on the Friday after our tryst. Not the happy April from the prior weekend, an insistent April. We met at Cookie’s, the student hang out. “I’m pregnant,” she said, before we even kissed, or touched, or ordered coffee and the sugar-encrusted rolls.

 

One November morning, Leo Bretholz climbed onto a train bound for Auschwitz where he was supposed to die. Hours into the journey, an old woman’s voice lifted within the foul freight car and said to him as he was hoisted up to the only window: “Go ahead, and may God watch over you.” Leo leaped between the bars of the open window into the dark French countryside.[2]

  

April didn’t believe in abortions and that was not an option. Her rosy voice, soft but forceful, still the prom queen, her eyes searching my soul and its desires, said we should get married. Our love making that weekend had been so insistent, little thought was given to safe-practices. “You love me, Greg, you’ve always loved me, you can’t deny that,” April said, and in the crowded, smoky college diner, she touched my hand and face, leaned over the narrow table and kissed me. “And I love you too,” she said, her hair disheveled, but in a pretty way, copper colored now and short, the spicy freshness fixed in my memory.

 

Leo Bretholz married and had children. He operated several bookstores. It seemed that he thrived, although being a survivor brings a daily reckoning: the memories of lost family, the privations, the guilt, the cruelties. The Nazis kept precise records and in 1978, in the French book the size of a telephone directory, Le Mémorial de La Déportation des Juifs de France, Leo found his name on the manifold of prisoners sent to Auschwitz: Leo Bretholz, the date, the train number. There was no asterisk accompanying his name, placed after people that the Allies found alive. Leo was officially dead—as if he was one of the ghosts of Auschwitz.

 

Years later, I was at a meeting in Phoenix and on one of those lonely afternoons after too much wine for lunch and too much sitting in rigid chairs listening to fluff, I called her.

 

“Greg,” she said, not at all surprised it was me. “You called me about the senior year English quiz, did you?—well it’s too late for that you prick—and before I hang up on you, continue spending your 2 AM hours thinking about how much I could’ve pleased you, how we could have pleased each other, you had that chance you know. My hair is all gray now, long and silvery, beautiful, but gray—you do remember how you loved my hair.”  It was her familiar melodious voice in spite of the rancor, maybe slurred a little like mine with alcohol, but she was right, I did think about her in the late hours. It was over, but it was never over.

 

Threatening her with a paternity lawyer, knowing that the baby couldn’t be mine one week after love-making, soothed no nerves, and April left my life those eons ago. Even the most memorable and sweetest of encounters, it seems, carry a tinge of melancholy. April became a mother and successful entrepreneur with several children, her beauty gracing the hometown newspapers at every special event. She was a survivor like Leo, but with daily remorse? I doubt it.

 

Perched 10 feet from my window, mister cardinal takes a break from nest building and sings to his missus. I also hear the rat-tat-tatata of the downy woodpecker—but they’re small and difficult to spot even with binoculars. I once read an article about the impact of their constant pecking on their neck bones. I can’t remember what it said.

 

The coffee has gotten cold. I’ve ruminated too long. There are moments like this when the Earth has stopped spinning.  It’s time now to turn from the newspaper and get on with my day. I think, and perhaps I think about it too often, that maybe the only benefit in reading the obituaries is not finding my name among them.

 

 

[1] Edited obituary from the Chicago Tribune, March 11, 2014

[2] From Leap Into Darkness, Leo Bretholz and Michael Olesker, Woodholme House Publishers, Baltimore, MD, 1999