A love story
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Lara, Willy and Lilly Tilly, along with their Italian nanny, Lucia, are finally starting to feel a little at home in America. Willy has a wonderful dog, Jake, who never leaves his side. Lara has a boyfriend, Win Stone, and little Lilly has a new hero: Miss Matoon, an English teacher who lives with the family and is teaching Lucia English. Life was almost perfect until Miss Puffer and Miss Peeverbee came to live with them in the spring of 1941. It was during the “blitz” in England in World War II. Blitz is from the German word “blitzkrieg” which means “lightning war”. Blitz was the name given to the nightly (every night) bombing of England by Germany from September 7, 1940 until May 10, 1941.
Miss Peeverbee and Miss Puffer
IT didn’t take long to understand that a big change was about to happen at Khoo House. You could feel it like a storm coming. We came rushing into the kitchen as always when, suddenly, two strange ladies cleared their throats and stood up at the table, sending a huge wave of rose petal perfume smack into our faces and up our noses. Their hats looked like nests for those big white birds called storks. One even had a big feather sticking out of her hat as if the stork was still living there. We froze like statues we were so shocked. The worst part was that they were not company. They were permanent! “Miss Puffer and Miss Beeverpee . . .”
“It’s Peeverbee” interrupted the one with the stork nest.
“Oh dear, excuse me,” said Aunt Magic. “It’s just that we have far less interesting names here in America—like Smith and Jones and Knickernoon. As I was saying, children, please welcome Miss Puffer and Miss Peeverbee! They are cousins and have come from England to live with us until the war is over.”
“How long will it be until the war is over?” asked Lilly pinching her nose.
“Young ladies,” said Miss Puffer looking at Lilly, “do not pinch their noses! And no one knows when this dreadful [terrible] war will be over. In the meantime, we will pray to the Almighty [God] to send us deliverance.”
“What language is she speaking?” I whispered to Miss Matoon.
“Shhh! She’s speaking English. She just has a British accent, that’s all. She said we should pray to God to help England,” answered Miss Matoon quickly.
“What does God have to do with it?! If I get in a fight at school, I don’t get to blame it on God. I get my BEhind [bottom] hit with a stick until I promise to be good!”
“Young man,” said Miss Peeverbee staring at me like she would command the stork on her head to bite my nose off, “Didn’t anyone ever tell you that children are to be seen and not heard?!”
“I’m sorry,” said Aunt Magic, “You’ll have to excuse the children. It’s just that they aren’t used to having guests arrive who eat their lunch.” It was hard not to laugh. That was some humdinger of an answer [something well said] that Aunt Magic had just come up with. We sure loved Aunt Magic. She wasn’t afraid of anyone, even if they did have such scary hats.
“Children, our new house guests are seamstresses [clothes makers],” continued Aunt Magic. “They will be teaching you how to sew. From now on, you will be making all your own clothes to help with the war effort.” I had no idea what sewing clothes had to do with war, but I was glad that sewing had nothing to do with boys! I began to think of all the hours I could be in the secret room when the girls had to be with Miss Puffer and Miss Peeverbee. I was totally misnoticed and underlooked [Willy should have said, unnoticed and overlooked] until Miss Peeverbee said, “As for you, young man, I will teach you to cut out the sewing patterns.”
I was shocked! If my class found out that I had to sew like girls, I might as well be coot stew. [There is a story people in England told long ago about Yankee cooking. The story tells how Yankees made coot, or duck, stew. They put a duck and a small clean rock in a pot of water with salt and boiled it for three hours. Then they poured out the water, filled the pot again, added a little more salt and boiled the stone and the duck for three more hours. They poured out the water and filled the pot one more time and cooked the stew slowly all night. In the morning they threw out the water, threw out the duck and ate the stone.]
“In addition, Miss Puffer will be teaching you to put in zippers.”
“You will do no such thing!” said a voice coming into the kitchen from the back door. “If anyone is going to teach Willy how to sew it will be me!”
“Uncle Irving!” I said running to jump into his arms, “do you really know how to sew?! Or are you pulling the wool over my eyes?” [To pull the wool over someone’s eyes means to trick someone and keep them from knowing the truth. It comes from the days in England when judges in courts of law wore big white wigs. A funny word for the wigs (or for someone with lots of hair) was “wool”. The wigs didn’t fit well and so they would fall over the judges eyes keeping them from seeing clearly what was going on.]
I looked quickly at Miss Puffer and Miss Peeverbee when I said that. It was a phrase Uncle Irving taught me. I wanted to show those strange sisters that I could speak funny too. But then Uncle Irving ruined my whole day. He said, “Of course I can sew! And you’re going to learn too, Willy Tilly!”
“Is it easier than rolling cigarettes,” I asked?
“Why Irving Rowbottom Roberts! Did you teach Willy how to roll cigarettes?!” cried out Aunt Magic in shock. Poor Uncle Irving. I could tell he was in for it now [in trouble].
Later on I learned that Uncle Irving’s middle name wasn’t really Rowbottom. Aunt Magic just called him that when she was annoyed [upset, a little angry] with him. Rowbottom just means someone who lives in a valley.
AFTER Uncle Irving taught me to sew, he taught me how to find the North Star. Uncle Irving was like that. Just when you thought the worst thing ever had happened (and learning to sew was the worst thing I could imagine), Uncle Irving would tell you to think big. Later on in life, I learned that hatred was the worst thing that could happen to you. I don’t mean being hated, I mean being made to hate. But the North Star was always there, calm, bright and peaceful, just like Uncle Irving said it would be, unmoved by even the saddest things. Somehow it just made you calm again knowing there were bigger things. In fact, Uncle Irving really shocked me one day by saying the biggest things can’t be seen!
“So how do you know they’re there?” I asked in amazement.
“You feel them.”
The same day I was told I had to learn to sew, Uncle and I climbed up to the bedroom under the roof. It was the best room in the house. When it rained you could lie on the bed and put your hand on the ceiling and feel the raindrops hitting the roof. It also helped that no one went there so you could talk outloud to yourself when you were trying to get an answer to something you didn’t understand and no one would hear you. But, most of all, it was the best room because that’s where the secret door was to my secret room.
Aunt Magic said that Jake and I could have the bedroom for our very own if I made new curtains for the window. Uncle Irving looked at me and chuckled. He told me to pack my things and get ready to sleep there that very night!
My sisters, of course, said it wasn’t fair that I was getting a room of my own. (But what they really wanted to say is that it wasn’t fair that I got to be taught by Uncle Irving how to sew and they had to be taught by the nest heads.) And Miss Puffer and Miss Peeverbee—they weren’t at all pleased and made funny little snort sounds. But it was the happiest day of my life since moving to America. All I had to do was to learn how to sew and the best room in Khoo House was mine! For the first time since the war began I understood life: if you want to be happy, just learn.
To make curtains, Uncle Irving said we had to measure the window. But while we were measuring the window, all of a sudden, the secret door into my secret room popped open and Jake ran into it as fast as a bear stung by a bee. Uncle Irving looked at the door and then looked at me.
“Please, Uncle Irving!” I said in a whisper. “Please don’t tell any- one about our secret room! It will spoil everything. Please!”
So now Uncle Irving knew about the secret room under the bed. It was just big enough for Jake and me to lie down and look out the window. Yes, the room had a little window. That’s what made it a room and not a closet. But I can’t tell you why it had a window. Old houses are like that. They have lots of very interesting discoveries but you don’t know why they are there because, unfortunately, houses can’t talk.
With my head by the window, I could lie down on my back with my knees up in the air and read a book. And at night I could lie on my stomach (with my feet up in the air) to look at the stars without the trees getting in the way.
Uncle Irving looked carefully again at the secret door and then looked at me. He told Jake to come out and then kicked the door shut with his foot. “We better change the latch after we make the curtains,” he said. “It would be too bad if Jake got locked in there with no way to open the door.”
“Locked in?!” I whispered to myself in shock. I never thought about the possibility of getting locked into the secret room. But before I could say anything, Uncle changed the subject.
“Do you know where the North Star is?” he asked. “If you’re going to have a special room with a special window you better use it to find special things.”
CHAPTER 15: How to find the North Star.
THE next night, Uncle Irving he took me and Jake out to the field beyond the barn. “The field is on the north side of the house,” he explained, “just like your secret window. But there’s another way to find where north is if I’m not here to tell you.”
And, as soon as he said that, to my surprise, he took me to a grove of old trees. “See this moss?” he asked. “It grows on the north side of trees.”
How Uncle Irving could know something like that I had no idea. “You mean to tell me moss only grows on the north side of trees?! Who stops it from creeping around to the other side?!” I asked.
“The sun,” he replied. “Moss only grows in the shade. Where we live, in the northern hemisphere, moss grows on the north side of trees where it’s shady. If we lived in the southern hemisphere it would grow on the south side of the trees because that’s the shady side in the southern hemisphere.”
“What’s a hemisphere?” I asked.
“Long ago, one person started walking south from an invisible pole at the top of the earth and another person walked north from an invisible pole at the bottom of the earth. When they met in the middle they shook hands and started to walk in opposite directions around the earth drawing an invisible line. They walked all the way around the earth until they met again. They shook hands, said ‘Goodbye,’ and after that our world had a northern half and a southern half. The north half of the earth used to be called The Top Half and the south half was called The Bottom Half. But those in the bottom half finally objected to being called The Bottom Half and so some Greek came up with the fancy name hemisphere, but I don’t remember his name.”
Sometimes I was quite sure that Uncle Irving made things up.
When we finally reached the field, the sun had set. That’s when Uncle Irving pointed up in the sky and showed me the Big Dipper. I thought it was the most wonderful thing I had ever seen in my whole life until, six minutes later, I saw the North Star.
Uncle gave me a long stick and told me to hold out my arm and hold the stick so that it lined up with the two bright stars on the “pouring side” of the Big Dipper. He then told me to put the top of the stick at the top star. Then he told me to put my thumb at the point where the lower star was on the stick.
“Now don’t move your thumb!” he ordered. “The space between the top of the stick and your thumb is the space between the two stars and that’s important!”
I promised not to move my thumb, but I asked him if he was kidding me again, like the hemisphere story.
Uncle didn’t answer because he was too busy fishing out the flashlight in his left front pocket and his pocket knife from the right. Still holding my thumb on the stick, Uncle carefully made a mark on the stick at the top of my thumb. Finally he said I could give him the stick. He then told me to shine the flashlight on the stick while he found the tape measure in his back pocket.
“From the top of your thumb to the top of the stick is just about 1 inch,” he said. “That’s good! That will make the next step easy.”
“I’m glad,” I replied, not understanding anything.
“The distance between the two stars multiplied by five is the distance from the Big Dipper to the North Star,” he explained. “We had to first measure the distance between the two stars and then find a way to easily muliply it by five. That’s why I told you to hold your thumb still on the stick. See?”
Before I could say I didn’t understand what my thumb and the stick had to do with finding the North Star, he had cut the stick off at exactly five inches and handed it back to me. “Now, hold out your arm and put the bottom of the stick on the top “pour” star. Follow the stick up to the top and you’ll find the North Star.”
I couldn’t believe it. I had found the North Star.
That night I learned that it wasn’t just any star. It was the star that never moved. The star you could count on.
I now had a room to call my own, the best dog in the world, and one thing that promised to never change. After that, my life was never the same.