I remember her in the color red.
Gunpowder, the stench of infection, the screams of the dying…most days, I forgot the sounds, the smells.
But her, I will always remember in red.
Today, her family dressed her in yellow.
And, again for the last time, I would say goodbye.
It had been over seventy years since we’d last seen each other. The last memory I’d had of her was standing on opposite sides of a busy square, the distance between us lengthened by the knowledge we would never see each other again.
We’d known each other ten days before I learned her name.
Serendipitous was the last thing a prison camp should have ever been considered; however, it was how Eleanor and I met. Due to a labor shortage, Black nurses were transferred from segregated barracks to haphazardly erected camps housing German prisoners of war.
The assignment had been considered second-rate—an inferior position for a perceived inferior people. Regardless, the nurses had worked tirelessly, the refusal to yield blending with strain lines in the whites of their eyes. With unshakeable pride, they served a country who’d denounced the humanitarian crises uncovered on the other side of the globe while willfully turning an ignorant eye to the ones occurring on their own soil.
"Don’t know if you’re gonna make it.”
Those were the first words she said to me.
I’d tried to get up from the folding cot that had acted as my personal prison upon my arrival in the barracks. But, holding my shoulders, she’d eased me back down and said, with a tenderness I hadn't deserved, “Josef, your only job right now is to survive.”
For ten days, it was the same exchange.
Later, I would learn that, in those ten days, we’d both walked on unraveling threads of faith, in similar and different ways.
War had left us emotionally maimed. Eleanor, although committed to her ethos, had questioned her sanity, having to treat the lacerations and sores connected to the same mouths that soiled her uniform with frothy streams of slurs and epithets. Although she’d taken an oath to save human lives, there were many days she’d wondered whether there were certain lives not worth saving.
On the tenth day, I asked her name.
She’d taken the time to learn mine, so I wanted to learn hers.
“Bishop,” she’d said. “But you can call me Eleanor.”
After that day, she became more than a nurse.
We learned we shared a birth year, born during a period that had granted us childhoods woven with peace more sheer than gossamer. The Great War had ended eight years before we were born, and we’d assumed it was the last the world would know such conflict.
Then Germany invaded Poland.
Two days later, France and Great Britain declared war.
And, in an instant, our futures developed rough-hewn edges and faded corners.
We’d envisioned lives where our primary concern would have been reaching the expected milestones and accomplishments of adulthood. Like me, she’d dreamed of marriage, of children. Unlike me, her dreams had been uprooted by color lines drawn so deep, equality and civil rights came to her as fantasies of gray.
One night, Eleanor and I the only two souls awake beneath a dark moon, we shared the lives we’d still hoped to have. I’d wanted to live on a farm in the countryside. Since childhood, I’d dreamed of pigs, horses, goats, and cows. The smell of manure and fresh cut grass. Rising at dawn and ending my days covered in the residue of God’s land.
She’d grown wide eyed with each revelation, which had made her ideal life not much of a surprise—she’d wanted to live in the city. She’d dreamed of car engines, exhaust smoke, and bodies bumping on sidewalks. Evidence of life passing by, providing the opportunity for a tomorrow filled with one more day to hope for change.
“Did you grow up on a farm?” she asked.
“No." I shook my head. "In the city."
"What about you? Did you grow up in the city?”
She smiled, eyes finding mine in the dark. “No. I grew up on a farm.”
One day, while listening to her talk about sunsets and love, art and music and passion, her arm brushed mine. I’d looked down at the contrast and wondered how we could look so different but share so much of the same.
“Because our hearts are the same color,” she whispered, two empty cots separating us, physical barriers to placate the societal ones. “We are nothing but plasters of skin molded over the same skeleton, the same organs, and the same blood vessels. We breathe, we hurt. Just like me, you live. And just like you, one day, I’ll die.”
“Our hearts are the same color,” I whispered in return.
In that moment, I realized I’d fallen in love. On another night, again when we were the only two souls awake beneath a dark moon, she kissed me and told me she’d realized the same.
The days grew longer then.
I prayed for a quiet night for the chance to pull her into my arms. I prayed for quiet nights to feel her lips, to touch her hair, and to look into her eyes rather than sneak unfulfilling glances across a wooden dwelling that stank of pus and unwashed privates.
We didn’t pretend to be blind to the world around us.
Where I’d felt fear, she’d felt terror.
Yet, on the darkest nights, we kissed. Beneath thin streams of light from half and crescent moons, we touched.
Then came talk of the war coming to an end.
Berlin had fallen to the Soviets.
Surrender appeared to be inevitable.
Looking back, I saw our naïveté. I saw our hope that love would be enough without truly understanding every opponent love would have had to fight. I remembered attempting to convince myself she could have ever been happy, away from the din of the city, living on a farm with only our land and our love. My ignorance had coddled my selfishness; segregation had already stolen portions of her idyllic life. Love didn’t give me an excuse to do the same.
Twelve nights later, while everyone slept, Eleanor and I explored the verboten. On lean bedding meant for ailing bodies, we kissed and touched, skimmed and shifted. Every heartbeat traded trepidation with desire. Straining under the weight of our fading reality, we whispered and promised and pretended.
Too soon, the orders arrived.
Home didn’t feel quite the same as it had before. The camp, though vermin-filled and flea-ridden, was the only place hard lines had been permitted to blur. Some days, uniform fabric brushed uniform fabric. Some nights, skin brushed skin.
On our last day, in my mind, we walked to the train, laughing, our fingers linked and her cheek pressed against mine. I imagined our last kiss, her hands cradling the sides of my face, heavy droplets on my lashes while her tears dripped down my wrists. I saw myself standing on the platform, our eyes on each other through an open window until the train forever severed the connection.
Instead, my last moment was her in that red dress, on the other side of the square, a line separating us we felt but couldn’t see. We stood as far apart as the countries that had brought us together, relegated to opposite sides of an ideological illusion. For that one last moment, that one last glimpse, we'd risked, neither of us where we were supposed to be.
For a foolish second, I'd considered walking across the square to kiss her goodbye. So much death had comprised my life over the course of the last several months, and for a foolish second, I hadn't so much as considered it.
When she turned to walk away, it finally hit me that it would be my first sunset without her.
“How did you know my mother?”
I looked up into brown eyes like Eleanor’s, brown skin like Eleanor’s, and traces of a face that would never truly be gone from my memories.
“The war,” I said. “We met in a German POW camp.”
The woman’s eyes searched mine. “Is your name Anne?”
I nodded. “Anne Manning. Back then, I was Anne Josef. Shortly after, our family switched to Joseph to create distance from our German ancestry. A small group of nurses from my hometown were dispatched to assist at a POW camp that had gone up, virtually overnight, in our state. Several nurses didn’t like the mixed company, but Eleanor and I, we became good friends. My first day there, I came down with a terrible fever. Without her, I don’t think I would have made it.”
“She spoke of you."
"All good things, I hope."
She took my hand in hers. “I’m Anne, her youngest daughter. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”
Anne helped me to a seat in the first row, several rows in front of the spot I’d initially chosen at the back of the church. Then she squeezed my hand before taking a seat in the same pew.
Two women and a young man separated us.
All had Eleanor’s eyes.