A love story
— REVIEW —
Lara, Lilly, and Willy Tilly, along with their Italian nanny, Lucia, are immigrants in America, having been forced to leave Belgium at the start of World War II. The story is told through the eyes of Willy and his beloved dog and companion, Jake. Lara, Willy’s older sister, has settled happily in America having found a boyfriend, Win Stone. Little Lilly was young enough when she arrived that America has come to feel like home, despite the absence of her precious parents. Lucia, the children’s nanny, gives us the clearest idea of what life is like for an immigrant—someone born on earth, but always looking for some place to call home. The story takes place at the New England home of the Knickernoons, the children’s aunt and uncle, who took them in.
— PART II —
THE summer of 1948 was the third summer without war. It was the first time we began to believe it was really over. I turned sixteen that summer and Uncle Irving taught me to drive. That summer I announced that my name was no longer Willy, but Will. My childhood was over. Though I never told anyone but Jake, I missed it already.
Lara was now Mrs. Win Stone. She had twins that spring: George Washington Stone and Betsy Ross Stone. They were our family’s first real, live Americans. They would have peace, freedom and a fair chance in life just because they got themselves born here. It was hard not to envy them since they didn’t have to do anything for all that, but just be born here. But I was also grateful to them. Georgy and Betsy made me a little more American because I was their uncle. I promised them that I would be a real uncle and not an immigrant.
Before the war was over, Aunt Magic and Uncle Nickkk filled every bedroom in the house—all ten of them—with immigrants. Some of them were pretty strange, but no one complained. Only later did I understand how brave Aunt Magic and Uncle Nickkk were. It takes something special to trust people who aren’t like you, especially when everyone around you is saying no good can come of trusting strangers. But Aunt Magic was smarter than all their talk.
The boarders returned home after the war—all except Lara, Lilly, Lucia and me. There was nothing to return to. Our home had been bombed with mama, papa, and grandmama asleep in their beds. Aunt Magic told us they never suffered because it was all over before they ever woke up. I knew Aunt Magic wouldn’t lie to us, but I was sure you couldn’t bomb someone’s thoughts away. I wanted to know what my mama and papa were thinking now that it was all over.
We never talked about the death of our parents to anyone because we knew people here just couldn’t understand. No one understands war when it hasn’t happened on your own land. That’s a fact.
Aunt Magic and Uncle Nickkk adopted us, even Lucia. The first thing I did was tear up my immigration card. I tore into pieces so small that no one would ever again see whose name had been on it. You probably can’t understand why I did that—unless, that is, you were an immigrant once.
Lilly was the most successful of us all. She was the only one who spoke English with- out an accent, so people forgot she was a foreigner. I envied her, too, but I was also grateful to her. Thanks to Lilly, I learned that people could forget you were a foreigner. Miss Matoon, our tutor, stayed on with us. She never said it, but she felt more at home with us than with her family in Boston. She even started taking Lilly home with her to Boston on weekends. But she never told her parents that Lilly was an immigrant.
THE biggest change was in Lucia. After she learned to speak English, she spoke less, not more. It was funny and sad all at the same time. She spoke with us, of course, and told us her stories about life in Italy. She had the hardest life of anyone I knew, but was the happiest of us all. That’s something not just anybody can understand, and so Lucia didn’t talk much. She didn’t want people to feel sad because they couldn’t understand what real happiness is.
When she wasn’t helping Aunt Magic, Lucia read. Aunt Magic and Uncle Nickkk had a whole room that was nothing but books! (I sometimes wondered if the books talked to each other when no one was there to hear.) Every wall had bookshelves from the floor right up to the ceiling and every shelf was full of books. Some shelves had two books: one behind the other to save space. No one ever bothered Lucia when she was reading. It sounds strange, but books were her best friends. They didn’t judge her. They didn’t ask if she could understand them. They let her have all their secrets and best ideas. They respected her and so she loved them more than just about anything on earth except all of us.
One day she saw me looking through the door at her. It was evening. The low, warm, silent sun was waiting for her to finish one more chapter before it left for the night. She smiled and told me to come in. “Will,” she said, “someday you’re going to do something special, I just know it!”
How I loved Lucia. She was like a second mother. And, in some ways, that was even better because she chose me. She always made me feel special. I gave her a kiss on the cheek and asked her how she knew I would do something special.
“That’s easy,” she answered. “It’s because you care about people.”
“I don’t know what’s so special about that,” I answered honestly.
“Well, it’s special because it’s bigger than you. Here, come listen to what I was just reading and it will help you understand.” The book she was reading had a plain brown cover. It was called My Experiments with Truth. It didn’t look very special. But from the way Lucia held it in her hands, it made you wonder what could be inside.
“The man who wrote this book, Will, was named Gandhi. People called him Mahatma. It means, Great Soul,” she said, with the biggest eyes you’ve ever seen—the kind you have the first time you see a star shoot across the sky.
“Gandhi said, ‘Whether mankind will consciously follow the Law of Love, I do not know. But that need not perturb us. The Law will work, just as the Law of Gravitation will work, whether we accept it or not. And just as a scientist will work wonders out of various applications of the Laws of Nature, even so a man who applies the Law of Love with scientific precision can work greater wonders.’
“That’s why I know you will do something great one day! Oh, Will! I’m sorry,” she said suddenly, seeing I didn’t understand what she had read. “Let me think how to explain it to you.”
I looked at Lucia with new eyes that day. People still laughed at her and said she was an “ignorant immigrant” who didn’t know more than a primate [monkey]. I wondered if they could read all those big words she had just read!
“Will, he’s saying that he doesn’t know if people will ever just love each other, but he says we shouldn’t worry about that. The Law of Love keeps being the Law, not because of what people do, but because it’s bigger than people, like gravity. It’s so big that no one can stop it or change it. Isn’t that wonderful, Will? Once you learn a rule you can use it all you want. For example. Uncle Irving taught you how to find the North Star and now you know how to find it. It isn’t something you can’t know now. And now you know there is a law of Love. It’s even better than the law of gravity, Will.”
“Well,” I replied, thinking very hard, “I learned in school that the law of gravity holds me to the earth, but what does the Law of Love hold me to?”
“It holds you to God, Will.”
I had no idea that Lucia knew anything about God. I was so surprised, I didn’t know what to say. Then she told me her secret.
One day, she said, she found a book on the very top shelf next to a book about Shakespeare. When she pulled the book about Shakespeare off the shelf, another little book fell on the floor. It was a book about the Shaker people. She had never heard of them before. The book was called Simple Gifts. By the time she finished reading it, she loved the Shaker people. Then she learned there was a village of Shakers not far from us in a place called Canterbury.
“Will,” she said very quietly, “the Shakers are very special people. They’ve found a way to live without hurting each other. They share what they have without being afraid of not having enough. And do you know, Will, men and women are considered equal. Even the ideas of children are listened to and respected. They care for poor people and strangers without asking where they’re from or if they are good enough to be loved.”
Lucia was talking so quickly I could hardly keep up with her, but I didn’t dare stop her. “They say that everything is a gift from God: our hands, our eyes, our voice, our lives—even time is a gift. So they say you should never waste time because it’s like throwing away a special gift! They say you should do everything the very best you can because it is a gift to be able to do it. Will, I think they must be the happiest people on earth!”
That fall Uncle Nikkk drove Lucia to Canterbury Village to visit the Shaker people. I knew then that Lucia would be leaving us. She had found people who understood how precious life is. Right after Christmas Lucia left to live with the Shakers. We would go to visit her every other week and, sometimes, she would come home to be with us for a few days.
It left a big hole in Khoo House after she was gone—but how could we be sad when, finally, Lucia was happy?
IT was time for me to help Aunt Magic and Uncle Nikkk now that Lucia was gone. All through the long war they had fed all those people . . . and only God Himself knows how. When everyone else was complaining about not having butter to put on their bread, they just kept taking in more and more people without even asking how long they would stay. I wondered what they really thought when they learned that Lara, Lilly, Lucia and I didn’t have anywhere else to go . . . forever.
I knew I had to make sure they were never sorry they helped us. I promised myself I would make them glad.
Uncle Elbert gave me a job in his store after school. But that wasn’t all. Uncle Irving found all the tools he needed to make clocks again. And so while I worked in the store, Uncle Elbert made and repaired clocks. The whole town started bringing in their old, broken clocks. People started to say that maybe they were wrong about Uncle Elbert. “Maybe he’s not all that stupid,” they said, “just 'cause he don’t speak English good.” It made me wonder how many good people lived in America that nobody knew about just because they said “vonderful” instead of “wonderful” and couldn’t spell “eight”.
But two years later there was a real problem with my stupidity. The problem was, Aunt Magic and Uncle Nikkk didn’t have the money to send me to college. My family knew I wasn’t stupid, but no one else would believe that if I didn’t have a college degree. Finally, Uncle Irving said we’d have to start our own college. We called it the College of Overalls. We had a little ceremony on September 1, 1950, the day it opened. Even Lucia came. She gave me a notebook and a pen, and Uncle Irving gave me a new plaid cap. Lucia and Aunt Magic made a real fancy dinner for everyone. I felt so proud.
School started at 4:30 every morning and didn’t stop until we all went to bed. Our neighbor, Ebenezer Fetcher, taught me how to care for farm animals. He said unless I learned how to take care of others, no book learning meant anything. His little son Teddy always tagged along. Teddy said I was the smartest person he knew—and I think he really believed it.
After breakfast, Uncle Irving taught engineering and math. He said when he got done with me I would be able to repair anything—even a worm hole in an apple. Only in later years I learned that Uncle Irving’s stories weren’t necessarily completely true. They were just true enough to make you not think about the details. But they were like no other stories you would ever hear anywhere again. I guess that’s why I wrote them down in my log book. When I listened to Uncle Irving I felt like we were sailing to another world. But it was a real world. After all, Uncle Irving was real. I don’t know what that made the world around me. I only knew it wasn’t like Uncle Irving’s world. His world was kind.
Miss Matoon taught me English literature and writing for the next two hours. She was now a part of the family, even after Lucia left. It was funny to think that someone from a rich Boston family preferred to live with us. At first she went home every week- end, but then there came a time when she went home just once a month. And she would always take Lilly with her. She and Lilly shared a room in Khoo house. Miss Matoon taught her all sorts of ridiculous words and how to walk funny. But people in Boston would turn their heads when Lilly walked by and men would tip their hats. It made us all feel special to have a Lady in the family.
After lunch Uncle Nikkk taught me how to build everything from a bed to a barn. He never acted like he was afraid I might break something. He would just quietly show me how to do what needed to be done, ask if I understood, and then walk away—like he really trusted me. I don’t think he ever once told me I did something wrong. He just showed me how I could do it better.
At the end of the day I worked at Uncle Elbert’s store. At 6 pm we put the “CLOSED” sign on the door and went into the back room. We listened to BBC while Uncle Elbert made us tea, with eggs and a bagle and cream cheese. The one thing I noticed the most about Uncle Elbert is that he never rushed, even though he was a time keeper. (That’s another reason people thought he was stupid, just because he never rushed.) But Uncle Elbert always said that, in the end, no one remembers when you do something. They only remember if you don’t do it right. Uncle Elbert taught me everything he knew about repairing clocks. And it was thanks to him that I learned German and Russian. He said that learning German would teach me discipline and learning Russian would fill me with beauty. Both, he said, would help me keep from getting killed if there was another war. As for learning to make clocks, he said it would teach me respect.
“Respect for clocks?” I asked in surprise.
“No, Will,” he answered. “Respect for people.”
I could see how you could respect a clock. After all, it was thanks to all those little parts that people got up at the right time and knew when their eggs were hard-boiled and when to turn on BBC. But I sure didn’t under- stand how you could respect people who were so unkind to you.
“How can you respect people who insult you, Uncle Elbert?”
“You respect yourself enough, Will, not to care what other people say. When they say things that aren’t true, it’s just like a clock that has stopped. The clock says it’s five o’clock even when you know it’s really ten o’clock. But there’s something even more important to remember, Will. You respect people because you have to respect the Clock Maker—even when the clocks get themselves messed up. Just pray the Clock Maker repairs them soon.”
Uncle Elbert and Aunt Magic were alike in a lot of ways. They had no patience for the words, “It’s too hard to do!”
Aunt Magic’s day was Saturday and our classroom was the garden. She said you could make anything grow if you cared enough for it. By the end of October I even thought potatoes were beautiful. We harvested ours in October. Most people harvested in September, but Aunt Magic had a secret. She didn’t plant them until the 4th of July. That way, she said, all the potato bugs got tired of waiting and went somewhere else. She grew onions and carrots together like one of her quilts. She said the bugs that love carrots don’t like the smell of onions and the bugs that love onions are afraid of carrot tops. We grew yellow, instead of red, watermelons. It was the Menonite people who taught us about the yellow watermelons. They’re sweeter and have less seeds. Garlic beds all around the garden kept the deer and skunks away. Of course we had apple trees, pear trees, apricots and peaches. We had strawberries, blueberries and two kinds of raspberries. All-in-all, there was enough for us, the birds, the squirrels, and whoever showed up at our door hungry. That was the worst thing about war. Long after the war was over, it really wasn’t.
During the winter, when we couldn’t garden, Moses Mason taught me how to build chimneys. I never knew if his name really was Mason, or if people just called him that because he built everyone’s chimney. He was real smart, that was for sure. He could always tell the people who didn’t want to pay all they owed him. They would pay him something, and then start mumbling about hard times. They were the people who were always finding something wrong with your work even though you both knew it was the best work anywhere. “I’m not sure about this fourth brick in the front,” they would say. “It looks smaller than this one over here on the back.”
There was one old man named Dandy Crimes. That was his name, honest to good- ness. Moses knew for sure that Dandy wasn’t going to pay him what he owed him. So Moses told Dandy that there was just one more thing to do to finish his chimney and, when he got paid, he’d finish it real quick. When Moses left, Dandy looked everything over real carefully. He poked at all the bricks with a poker. He stuck his head inside the chimney to make sure he could see the sky. He went outside to see if there was a chimney on top of his roof. Finally, he said to himself, “This chimney is the best in the county! Moses is just pulling my leg telling me there’s one more thing to do!”
So ol’ Dandy Crimes started a fire in the fireplace. And, sure enough, before you could say, “That ol’ devil!” smoke was filling up Dandy’s house right nice! Uncle Moses came over right away and collected the money Dandy owed him. Then he climbed up on the roof and took the glass plate off the top.
Every week Lucia wrote me a long letter. She told me all she learned from the Shakers. It was pretty surprising that people who spent all their time talking about God could be so practical! She told me how she learned to make brooms and boxes, and how she learned to use the big ironing machines in the laundry. But, most of all, her letters were about God. I wasn’t sure that had much to do with graduating from the College of Overalls. But, once she wrote that God was just another name for life. It was just like Lucia to write something like that. She knew full well it would get me thinking.
That left Lara. She taught me how to change diapers.