“Granny, is this a good book for tonight?”
Greta Schneider sat in her usual place in the family living room. Near the fireplace in an immense lounge chair, a blanket covering her tiny body, she reminded me of a turtle with only her head exposed. She was a small woman with steel gray hair, sparce on top, somewhat pasty white skin and piercing blue eyes that eyed my choice of reading material suspiciously. As her eyes were not what they used to be, momma insisted each evening I read to Granny to help her relax and hopefully fall asleep. It was a job I dreaded. Boring. What else might I be doing that could certainly be much more fun? I could think of a million things my teenage brain thought much more exciting.
The book I had chosen was one I was sure she would like, Sense and Sensibility. I had recently read it myself and liked it immensely. Certainly, Granny would enjoy it too. We would begin a chapter a night before those blue eyes closed and the snoring began. “So, Granny, Jane Austen again, ok?”
“Hmmph” Granny grunted.
“Now Granny, you liked, Pride and Prejudice. We had just finished reading it last week. “This is another of her great novels!” My eyes searched the small, wrinkled face before me for a positive reaction.
“Hmmph,” the same reply came from her narrow lips.
I pulled a hassock from the other side of the room and placed it near her feet. Sitting there with the book opened in my lap, I began to read loudly, as Granny often didn’t hear well. “The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex.” I looked up to see Granny’s faraway look. “You will like this book, Granny.” I searched her face, trying to get her attention focused on the story. “I know you like books with love stories in them.” This occasional lack of focus happened to Granny lately, but usually I could bring her back to the present. I often wondered where her mind took her when she got that spacey, zombie expression. Tonight, I was to find out one of those places.
“Many books were burned,” she said loudly, surprising me and making me jump.
“I remember. Books were burned.”
I rolled my eyes. What in the world? Was she thinking about something from the television? Was it a bad dream she remembered? “Granny, I’m trying to begin the first chapter of this book tonight. You are listening, aren’t you?”
“I was a little girl.” Her voice was now soft, but the words came out clearly. “Our family was awakened by the chaos going on outside. Our street was bright with light, very unusual. I remember being very afraid.”
I closed the book. Granny rarely spoke of her childhood. Momma had said living in Nazi Germany was terrible for Granny’s family. She didn’t want to remember and often if asked, would not speak about those days. How lucky that they were not Jewish, I remembered Momma saying. Things could have been so much worse. Now, Granny seemed to be remembering something odd, but I wasn’t sure what. I leaned in to ask her if she wanted me to continue with my reading. Her eyes were closed, and she put her hands to them and rubbed them as if trying to rub away memories. “Granny?”
“A terrible night it was, Lydia.” She shuddered as she spoke. I stared at Granny. Her eyes were wide now, and I reached for her hand. It was trembling. “A very terrible, scary night for a small child,” she continued. “My mother and father tried to pull me from the window, but I could see the crowd outside in the street. The big fire was sending shoots of white sparks up and away. Things were being tossed into the fire. People were shouting. The fire burned furiously. I worried it would come and get me. I was very little, very afraid.” Granny now covered her face again with her blue veined hands.
“Granny,” I patted her knee soothingly, my heart hurting to see her fear. “Granny, that is over now, you don’t need to worry and be afraid.”
Her blue eyes were wide now as her fear grew. Continuing to pat her trembling hand, I chimed, “Now, now Granny. You are not that little girl anymore.” I had heard momma tell me many times that Granny’s family had lived through dreadful days in Germany before coming to the United States. I had only read of these times in history books. What was this memory that had been triggered by reading this book? Granny’s eyes continued to display the fear she had felt as a young girl, and for a moment I felt quite helpless. I tried to read again, and reread aloud the first line of the novel, only to be interrupted.
“I loved my books, Lydia. I had many. As a young child, I loved my books more than any other toy or any of my dolls. They took me to pleasant places. You know, Lydia, there was no television back then. Our radios had been confiscated. My books were my only friends for a long time. When Poppa said, “Don’t worry, Greta, they are only burning books, but they will not come here to harm you,” I stood and yelled out, “Books? Burning books? Please, not my books!” Poppa took me in his arms, and I cried again. Granny grew quiet and then looked up at me, her face relaxing, realizing now she was not a small girl anymore and did not have to fear. Staring at me with intensity she asked, “Lydia, do you know what it would be like if they burned our books now?”
I closed the novel and looked at Granny’s grave face. This usually quiet, often unresponsive woman before me had many memories that occasionally surfaced without reason. I had read to Granny many evenings and never had this reaction. What might be causing these old memories to surface? Impatiently I asked, “Granny, are you wanting me to read to you tonight?”
A solemn Granny continued, “Such a waste. Such a sad, sad waste. To burn books, any book – a tragedy. Ah, Lydia.” A gigantic sigh came forth from Granny, as her chest rose and fell. Her blue eyes looked teary, and I patted her knee again, not sure what to do to sooth her. Remembering how I had not enjoyed this part of my evenings having to read to Granny, my stomach began to churn. I was guilty of being an uncaring, selfish granddaughter. Taking a deep breath, I thought of how I might help this person I dearly loved and had unfairly resented for taking up my time.
I remembered then that Granny loved the book of Psalms and knew her Bible would be near her bedstand. I rose from the hassock, “I’ll be right back, Granny. I’ll find something to read that will help you sleep.” When I returned, Bible in hand, soft snores were leaving Granny’s open mouth. I sat near her and looked at the woman who had lived through times I had only read about. Perhaps, I might learn something the history books wouldn’t teach me. Tomorrow evening instead of trying to read to Granny, I could take some time to learn about her childhood. To really come to know the old woman before me who had lived many decades. I would delve into her past. More than likely, there were many things she might teach me. I took the Jane Austen novel and placed it back on the bookshelf. Why had this book uncovered such a haunting memory for Granny? I was baffled. Sitting for some time, rummaging through my mind to discover the connection – Sense and Sensibility . . . book burning . . . a thought broke through like a sparkler in the dark. To Granny, burning precious books – any book - was a senseless act and one she had stored away in her memory as terrifying.
The following evening, I timidly approached Granny and asked her if she would like me to read to her. After last evening’s outburst, I was pleasantly surprised by her reaction. She smiled and nodded, her eyes bright. Bundled up in a blanket again, yet looking more awake than last evening, I eagerly nodded and sat again on the hassock and asked, “Firstly Granny, what were your favorite books as a child?”
A large smile showing her missing lower tooth faced me. “Oh Lydia, I loved Black Beauty. I loved horses and my book Black Beauty was illustrated so wonderfully. I can still see the sleek, black horse in the green pastures my book displayed.”
“Really Granny, I never knew that about you! And what other books might you have loved as a child?”
Granny smiled, closed her eyes and rocked back and forth in her chair, gripping her hands together in her lap. Heidi, I loved the story of Heidi the Swiss orphan girl. This was another of my favorites. I think I wanted to be a mountain climber for part of my life!” A rare giggle escaped her mouth, and I watched an old woman transform into a younger one.
My granny and I continued our tour of her favorite childhood books that evening; books I had heard of but never read. She told me happily about The Secret Garden, The Peterkin Papers, and The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. Finally, she fell asleep with a smile on her face, and I made a mental list of books to check out from the library. Soft snores erupted soon, and I studied her, imagining her girlhood in Germany. Momma might be able to find me a picture of Granny as a girl somewhere I hoped. Greta hadn’t always been an old woman, and I think I would have loved to have met the young Greta I was just beginning to learn about.
The next day I made a trip to the library and came home with Granny’s two favorites, Black Beauty and Heidi. That evening, we took our familiar places in the living room and as I read the first line from Anna Sewell’s classic, “The first place I can well remember was a large, pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it,” I saw Granny close her eyes, relax and smile contentedly. “Ah, Lydia” she replied with a smile of satisfaction. “Now you are reminding me how happy was my childhood with such treasures as these.” We continued the novel night after night until it was finished. Moving on to read “Heidi” in the months to come, we grew close as we enjoyed the story together, exploring the Alps and living in a fancy house in Frankfurt, Germany, as Heidi had done. I never heard any more from Granny’s lips about book burning or Nazi’s and I decided that was fine with me. Granny’s unpleasant memories would not surface again, and we continued our enjoyable evenings with the classics I was now learning to love.
Reading for my Granny, now that she has gone on to the next life, will always be a fond memory of my teenage years. Black Beauty and Heidi continue to be some of my favorite books, and I will remember to share them someday with my own children, as well as sharing the stories Greta Schneider has now told me of her youth.