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Most families have one significant story that would hearten many if it were known. Happily for us, the American author Olivia Hawker picked up one around her husband’s dining room table and enfleshed Anton Starzmann within the pages of her historical novel, The Ragged Edge of Night (2018). A humble man, Anton lays bare his conflicted soul, enters fully into the challenges that beset him, laughs and cries from the core of his being: overtures that endear him to the reader.

And yes, this is another story oozing from the wound of World War II, from 1942 to 1945, set in a backwater hamlet, 40 kilometers from bomb-strafed Stuttgart, Germany. From the opening paragraphs, tensions chilled this reader: Anton’s selflessness as former Franciscan friar, husband to Elisabeth, stepfather to her children, and the scrutiny of Herr Franke, the hamlet’s collaborator; the innocence of developmentally challenged children and their killers; the “normalcy” of the hamlet’s lifestyle within bombing range of nearby Stuttgart; Anton and the pastor’s covert resistance with the Red Orchestra that plots the death of Hitler.

Within these tensions, Anton and Elisabeth skirt the edges of their marital and parental responsibilities within their deepening relationship.

Offsetting these tensions, however, are the bronze bells ringing from the belfry of St. Kolumban’s Church—hope infusing the evil that gags them.

Two salient points emerge from this reading: the farmers’ frequent laments of not having resisted Hitler’s menace, rendering them passive and horrified. And through bartering homegrown produce and livestock at their weekly market, no one starved.

Should hard times befall us, I shudder.

 

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How often will an April freeze scorch a lilac shrub of its regal display? Or brown a full-blown magnolia tree, reducing it to widow’s weeds? Or blister-winds knife blossoms from apple trees and pastiche the ground with snowy whiteness? Or drenching rains wash away tender roots of newly planted annuals? Such losses burn, leave a sour taste.

Such feelings glimmer beneath the opening lines of T. S. Eliot’s elegy, The Waste Land (1922): “April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.”

It’s all about yearning, about holding onto glimpses of Beauty, whether experienced in nature, in loved ones, or in pets. Within these richly nuanced moments, we catch our breath, perhaps pick up pen or watercolor brush and set to work. For students of such industry, a trail emerges that evidences the expression of unstoppable Life, despite continuous setbacks, even death. The challenge is to begin, yet again, hopefully wiser until the next in-breaking of Beauty that stirs our roots with spring rain.

 

It was late August, time for Mother’s jelly making for our winters during the war years. From a farmer’s stall in the country, Dad had already lugged baskets of purple grapes into the hot kitchen and placed them in the sink for the first washing. All was ready.

Perspiration glistening on her cheeks, her brow taut, Mother set to work. With gloved-hands she pulled grapes from their woody stems, rinsed them under the faucet, then plunked them into steel pots filled with water upon the counter. Next came hours of simmering the bubbling grapes over low burners. At intervals, she stirred them with a long-handled spoon between sips of ice water. Next came cups of sugar and more stirring. From the living room came strains of symphonies from the Capehart. Toward mid-afternoon, Mother poured the sticky mass through cheesecloth, hooked to the top of a tripod, and watched the gummy sweetness drip into the pot below.

That evening saw jars of grape jelly, sealed with paraffin wax, lining the pantry shelf. Her work finished, her splotched apron resembled the regal pastiche of a preschooler, her housedress soaked with perspiration.

The pungent aroma seeped into the breakfast room where I was sitting with the funnies from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. Already, I was enjoying the sweetness of Mother’s grape jelly on warm buttered toast before walking to school.

With this blog, I honor our Mother’s courage in maintaining the semblance of normalcy in our home, all the while dreading Dad’s eligibility for the draft and becoming cannon fodder. That did not happen.

 

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