100. A Voice from the Past

100. A Voice from the Past

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Hope & Miracles

A Voice from the Past

We shall draw from the heart of suffering itself the means of inspiration and survival.

~Winston Churchill

When I was in my last year of high school, I almost killed my grandmother. I did so not with a gun or a knife, but with a black-and-white postcard from 1918.

I was a salon communist, like most of my other German friends with big egos, big brains and big allowances. We sat together on the floor of my room, legs crossed in carefully torn $200 designer denims, drinking first-flush green tea from China, smoking real Russian cigarettes called Dostoevsky that made me cough for the first few weeks I tried them. We read Lenin and Sartre and talked about revolutions, the ones in the past and the one we would be a part of one day. Needless to say, my family hated it, but they were pragmatic enough to call it “a phase” and just hoped it would pass quickly.

That summer, my friends and I took a trip to Vienna to explore the flea markets and thrift stores. I came back home with a bag full of vintage couture and an envelope of postcards, all dating back to the Russian Revolution and the first years of the Soviet Republic.

When I sat down to frame them, I spent some time trying to read what people wrote. That was when I found it: the postcard that was different from all the others.

It was marked 1918, and the address on the back was that of my great-grandfather’s pub. The handwriting was in old German cursive, but I managed to decipher most of the text. A few lines from a German soldier, who seemed to know that this war was lost, writing about the harsh winter and his longing for home. The despair that seeped through the lines was intense enough to make me feel cold and lonely right there in my well-heated room.

Amazingly, this postcard had been sent by my great-uncle August, my grandmother’s brother. It was the last the family had heard from him before he was killed in World War I, at eighteen, only three days later. I read it again and again as the realization of my chance discovery set in. Then I went to look for my grandmother.

I gave her the postcard from the brother she had lost when she was still a little girl, the older brother she had adored. My grandmother took the postcard, holding it close to her almost blind eyes with shaky hands. For five long minutes, she stared at it. Then she turned and left for her apartment downstairs, leaning heavily on her cane and walking even slower than usual.

When my mother sent me to fetch my grandmother for dinner that night, I found her in bed, her white rosary running through her fingers in a continuous motion while she cried and prayed. When I called out to her, she looked up, the color of her eyes a faded shade of light blue, and said, “Ich komme bald, August.” “I’m coming soon, August.”

For the next days, nobody could get her to eat or leave her bedroom. She did not recognize anyone who tried to coax her back into daily life. On the second day, my mother sent for a doctor. On the third day, everybody started to prepare for her to die.

Each day, I dreaded dinner. At 6:30 sharp, my mother, father and I sat down and my grandmother’s chair remained empty. And though we talked about our day as we always did, I felt the blame as clearly as if someone had said it out loud: It’s your fault if she dies.

I suggested a deal to God: I would give up communism if he let her off the hook once more. Just this once, so that I wouldn’t have to live with the guilt. I realized perfectly well that it was a selfish plea, but I was only eighteen and I had a certain confidence that God might understand that this was how teenagers worked. I had plenty of time to become a better person later, I figured.

On day four, I woke up shortly after 6 a.m. from some commotion in the kitchen. I got up and found my grandmother making coffee. She was wearing an elegant brown dress with her mother’s little cameo brooch neatly fixed to the lapel and matching coral lipstick. “I need someone to drive me to the hairstylist at eight,” she announced, instead of saying good morning. I nodded, not daring to talk about the elephant in the room.

She drank her first coffee quickly, refilled her cup and sat down. From the pocket of her dress, she retrieved the postcard, now folded into a small square. She flattened it on the kitchen table and stroked it with her left hand while sipping her coffee. I sat down across from her, still too stunned to speak.

“Do you know how that postcard got all the way from here to Vienna?” she asked, looking me in the eyes for the first time.

I shook my head. I had thought about that and even asked my parents, but nobody could come up with an explanation.

“Right after World War II,” she continued, “your great-grandparents and I moved the pub to the building where it still is today. There were so many people involved in the new construction and the move that nobody was surprised that some things just vanished. But the one theft I could never forgive was that of the drawer in which my father kept all the postcards people from the village had sent to the pub. And this one,” she held her brother’s postcard up as if I hadn’t seen it before, “this one I could never forget. Just imagine, by the time we got it, we had already been told that he was dead.” A single tear rolled slowly down her cheek. She didn’t wipe it away.

“You know, I have been so worried about you getting involved with these communists. But now I understand that there has been a purpose to it. God sent you to recover this card for me.” Her tears now fell freely.

I didn’t know what to say, so I just held her hand for a while. But later that afternoon, I threw away all the communist cards and pamphlets I had collected. I was done with that.

We found August’s postcard in my grandmother’s purse, again folded into the small square when we went through her things after she died—more than fifteen years later. I reclaimed it and moved it to my wallet. It is still there.

Only recently did I realize that there was something else I took from this episode, something much more important than that old piece of cardboard: Whenever life throws me a curve, I give myself three days to sulk. Three days spent in bed, without showering or eating. Then I get up again and go on with my life. Just like my grandmother did.

~Olivia de Winter

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