Secrets She Kept

All her life, Hannah Sterling longed for a close relationship with her estranged mother. Following Lieselotte’s death, Hannah determines to unlock the secrets of her mother’s mysterious past and is shocked to discover a grandfather living in Germany.

Thirty years earlier, Lieselotte’s father is quickly ascending the ranks of the Nazi party, and a proper marriage for his daughter could help advance his career. Lieselotte is in love—but her beloved Lukas is far from an ideal match, as he secretly works against the Reich. Yet Lieselotte never imagined how far her father would go to ensure her cooperation.

Both Hannah’s and Lieselotte’s stories unfold as Hannah travels to Germany to meet her grandfather, who is hiding wartimes secrets of his own. Longing for connection, yet shaken by all she uncovers, Hannah must decide if she can atone for her family’s tragic past and how their legacy will shape her future.

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Chapter 1



A summons to the principal’s office had the same effect on me at twenty-seven as it did when I was seven, and seventeen. Giant bass drums struck and rumbled my insides. Crashing cymbals raced my heart—all as loud and out of step as our high school marching band’s rehearsals for the Christmas parade.

I’d grabbed my bag of sophomore essays to grade over the Thanksgiving weekend, desperately hoping to get an early start up the mountain to Aunt Lavinia’s, when the order to report to the office crackled over the loudspeaker.

Buses pulled from the school parking lot, the long hand of the clock ticked past four, and all the while the school secretary drummed her nails, eager to leave. At last the principal’s door opened. Out strode a grim-faced Mrs. Whitmeyer, mother of Trudy Whitmeyer, the latest tenth-grade student crushed by my short-tempered venom, and the one I especially regretted humiliating. Mrs. Whitmeyer swept past, ignoring my half smile. I swallowed cardboard.

“Miss Sterling, come in.” Mr. Stone, six feet two inches tall, with broad, linebacker shoulders that filled his office doorway, dwarfed me as I squeezed past. “Take a seat.”

Grown women should not be terrified by school principals. . . . Grown women should not be terrified by school principals. . . . Grown women should—

“You saw Mrs. Whitmeyer.”

“Yes. Mr. Stone, I’ll apologize—”

“She’s not the first.” He sat on the front of his desk, two feet from me, arms crossed. “We’ve talked about this before. You assured me you’d get it under control. This isn’t working, Hannah.”

At least he’s still calling me Hannah. “I’m sorry, Mr. Stone. I know I shouldn’t have snapped at Trudy—”

“Or Susan Perry or Mark Granger—all Advanced Placement students, none of whom are traditionally discipline problems. And that’s just this week—this short week.”

“I know,” I acknowledged.

“If it had happened once, I’d say forget it. Twice? Apologize. But this snapping and ridiculing has gotten to be an ugly habit, not good for the students—not the ones on the receiving end and not those who witness it. I don’t know what’s going on, but it’s got to stop.”

I bit my lip. I’m turning into my mother—the last thing on God’s green earth I want. “I’m sorry. It won’t happen again. I promise.”

“I’m not convinced that’s a promise you can keep.”

“I can. I—”

“Hannah, stop.” He walked around his desk and took a seat, then leaned back, considering. “Last year you were voted Forsyth County’s most innovative teacher.”

I moistened my lips. “That meant a great deal to me—truly.” I’d poured out my heart for the kids and parents, and they’d responded. I felt wanted, appreciated.

“I know it did.” He softened. “To all of us. But you’ve got to see that something’s changed.”

“I’ll get past it,” I promised, trying to assert confidence I didn’t feel. “By Monday I’ll—”

“Not by Monday. Take some time.”

“I don’t need time. I don’t want time.” The drums in my stomach began to rumble again.

“The day after your mother’s death, you walked back into the classroom.”

“Her funeral wasn’t until the weekend. I didn’t need—”

“Everybody needs time when they lose a parent.”

How could I lose a parent I never had? “We weren’t close.” How many times did I have to explain that?

“You’ve not dealt with it.”

“I don’t—”

“Go home, Hannah. Take some time and figure this out. Grieve. Grief is nothing to be ashamed of. It takes time to process, to figure out how to move on. Life goes on—in a different way.”

I’m not grieving because she died. If I’m grieving at all, it’s because of what never was—what can never be changed now, what wouldn’t have changed if she’d lived another fifty years.

“I’ll arrange for a long-term substitute.”

“A long-term— No, please, Mr. Stone, I’ll be fine by Monday.”

“Take until the first of the year, then contact me. We’ll talk.”

“The first of the year?” The cymbals crashed and fell to the floor three seconds before my frustration and voice rose. “I don’t need a month—”

“I don’t know what you need, Hannah, but find out. And when you do—when you find again the Hannah Sterling, teacher extraordinaire, who taught here last year—we’ll be glad to have you back.”


It was well past midnight when Aunt Lavinia put the teakettle on for the third time and wrapped her favorite burnt-orange and earth-brown afghan around my shoulders. “Maybe he’s right. Maybe you do need some time away. That doesn’t mean you have to take it here, sweetie. A trip, somewhere completely different—a vacation, a fresh view—might be just what the doctor ordered.”

“A fresh view.” I pulled the afghan closer, battling irritability. “How can I see anything new if I can’t sort my past?”

“There’s nothing to sort. She’s gone. She made your life—and Joe’s—miserable. You did everything you could to please her from the time you could walk, but it was never enough. Let her go, Hannah, and move on. Don’t let her demons wreck your life.”

“Daddy always said it was the war. Something happened to her and her family during the war, but he’d never tell me what.”

“I don’t know that he knew.”

“He married her in Germany. He must have known something.”

Aunt Lavinia stiffened, as she always did when talking about Mama.

“You were his favorite sister,” I accused. “If he’d told anybody, he’d have—”

“As much as it may surprise you, he didn’t confide everything to me. I doubt he knew all of your mother’s past. She certainly never told me.” She poured the steaming water over fresh tea bags. “Ward Beecham’s still trying to get in touch with you. He said you didn’t return his phone call. He’s got to read the will, you know.”

“You’re changing the subject.”

She raised her brows.

“I know. I’ll call him. I just couldn’t stay here after the funeral. And I already know what it says. There’s nothing but the house and land.”

“Well, you’ll have to go see him. It’s his obligation to finalize things, and you need to do that before you can sell the house.”

“Next week.”

“Why your mother used him and not Red Skylar, I’ll never know. Red’s family’s been part of Spring Mountain forever.”

“She probably just liked breaking the mold—or not having an attorney so eager to share his clients’ business.”

Aunt Lavinia ignored me. “Did I tell you that Ernest Ford agreed to take the house on multiple listing? He said he might be able to sell it without you fixing anything up, but you’ll have to clear it out. I talked to Clyde about that. He’s between jobs now. If you let him sell the contents, that would cover his labor. There’s not much there worth anything.”

“I don’t want anything.”

She pushed the cream pitcher my way. “Do you want me to confirm it with Clyde? It’s the quickest way.”

“Sure.” I dropped my spoon to the saucer, startling us both with the clatter.

“We can tell him at dinner tomorrow. He’s got no family, so I invited him and Norma. You don’t mind, do you?”

“Of course not, as long as they don’t ask me how I’m doing since Mama died or how my job’s going or anything personal.” Aunt Lavinia regularly invited her best friend, Norma Mosely, and half the kinless in her church for holiday meals. By tomorrow there would be at least seven more. There was nothing I could do to change that, but I didn’t have to like it.

Aunt Lavinia ignored my sarcasm. “I think Clyde might be a little sweet on you.”

“You’ve been saying that since I was ten.”

“It’s still true. It wouldn’t take much encouragement on your part to light that fire.”

I rolled my eyes. “Please, Aunt Lavinia.”

Aunt Lavinia ignored me and pried the teacup from my fingers. “Now, you’d best get to bed. I’d like to keep my good china in one piece, and I’ve got a date with a turkey at half past five.”


I’d hidden the windup alarm clock in a bureau drawer between bed linens so I couldn’t hear it tick, but that meant the alarm was just as useless. Still, the aromas of rosemary-stuffed turkey in the oven and cranberries and apples simmering in cinnamon and cloves made their way up the stairs, tickling my nose beneath a mountain of quilts, drawing my feet to the bedside rag rug. I should have been downstairs and helping two hours ago.

The back porch door slammed, the kitchen door opened, and a “Yoo-hoo!” rang through the house. Norma, with three pies and a bridal congealed salad. Aunt Lavinia won’t miss me.

Still, I raced through my hair and makeup, zipped my favorite gray wool skirt, and pulled on a rose knit sweater set and the pearls Daddy’d given me for my sixteenth birthday—the only thing I’d kept to remember him by. Aunt Lavinia believed in dressing for Thanksgiving dinner. It was one of the things I’d always groaned over as a child, but had secretly appreciated. It made the day seem more special.

Another favorite pastime was spying on my aunt whenever she let me sleep over. Anytime things got too tense or loud or silent at home, Aunt Lavinia gave me sanctuary. I must have been five or six when I discovered I could peek through the coarsely cut circle in the floor, the one the black stovepipe shot through to reach the roof. It heated the upstairs bedroom just enough to keep icicles at bay. If I caught the right angle, I could watch Aunt Lavinia working in the kitchen and learn more than my share of gossip.

Twenty-seven was too old to be eavesdropping, but when Norma hissed, “Why don’t you tell her? She’s a right to know,” my ears perked. I sat cross-legged on the floor and squinted until I saw Aunt Lavinia shushing her. But Norma protested, “She can’t hear me; she’s not even up yet. I’m just saying—”

“I know what you’re saying, but it would only bring her more grief. She’s had a lifetime of that woman’s cold heart. No matter how bad things were between Joe and Lieselotte, he was a good provider and a good father and I’m not about to shame him now.”

“He’s been dead eleven years. There’s no shame for him—only credit due. I don’t know another man who’d do what he did for that woman.”

“It would break her heart. I won’t do it.”

“What if she finds something telling in the house? There’s bound to be something from Lieselotte’s past.” Norma snapped a dish towel open and plucked a pot from the drainer. “That could open up a whole new can of worms, and when she finds out you knew and never told her . . .”

“Clyde Dillard’s going to clean out the house, burn everything he can’t sell. That’ll be the end of it.”

“She’s not going through it herself? Not even curious?” Norma sniffed. “I don’t know. It seems like an awfully big gamble. All it takes is a little math.”


Thirteen squeezed around Aunt Lavinia’s table built for eight. Despite the cheerful banter, I barely touched her lavish Thanksgiving dinner. Norma teased that I seemed off my feed. I stared back, doing my best to bite my tongue. She flushed and turned away. I wouldn’t confess that I’d eavesdropped, but I couldn’t pretend what they’d said made no difference.

After the meal, Aunt Lavinia sliced the pumpkin pies. I cut the mincemeat and apple. Clyde grabbed two half gallons of ice cream from the freezer, and Norma carried trays into the dining room.

“I haven’t eaten this much since last Thanksgiving at your table, Mrs. Mayfield.” Clyde heaped dollops of vanilla ice cream over too-big slices of pie. “I’m much obliged.”

“We love having you, Clyde. You and that strong arm just keep dipping that vanilla.”

“Yes, ma’am. And I’ll get busy over to the house first thing tomorrow. I know you want to get it on the market before Christmas.” He glanced at me, his face as red as the cranberry chutney.

“That’ll be wonderful.” Aunt Lavinia patted his shoulder. “The sooner the better.”

“About that . . .” I wiped the stickiness of the last pie slice on a tea towel. “Let’s hold off on clearing out the house. I want to think about it some more.”

Aunt Lavinia straightened, and from the corner of my eye I caught Norma’s sideways glance as she set down the empty pie tray.

“But, honey, we settled that last night. Clyde has some free time now. And just think, if you could sell the house before the end of the year, you’d have all that money to do whatever you want. There’s no need to wait.” Aunt Lavinia spoke a little too brightly.

“You mean, in case the school won’t take me back?”

“I didn’t mean that. Of course they’ll take you back. They’re lucky to have you. But, Hannah, honey, you don’t want that old house. It’s best to let it go.”

“Whose best? Yours? Mine? My dead parents’?”

Aunt Lavinia’s color rose and she smiled, flustered, at Clyde, who glanced uncertainly between the two of us.

Aunt Lavinia didn’t deserve that after how good she’d been to me, all my life. But I couldn’t get past the idea that she knew something about Mama and Daddy and hadn’t told me—something that even Norma knew and thought might be important. If there was something in the house that might help me reconcile my relationship with my dead mother or at least help me understand her and move forward, that would be worth any amount of embarrassment.

I picked up Norma’s second tray and headed for the dining room. “I want to go through the house on my own, Clyde. I’ll let you know soon what I want to do about the contents—but it won’t be tomorrow.”


The company gone and the dishes finished, Aunt Lavinia shoved the clean turkey roaster to the back of the pantry for another year and turned on me. “I don’t understand you. You wanted nothing to do with that old house. You couldn’t wait to get away after high school, and you hated coming back last summer to nurse your mother. Have you forgotten?”

“It was just after she died in her room—right there—that I didn’t want to go back.” I spread the fourth wet tea towel on the rack to dry. “I couldn’t go back. But now, before I leave it forever, I’m thinking I should sort through things—things Mama never let me see. No telling what I’ll find.”

“Wallowing in that old house will just make you miserable.”

Couldn’t Aunt Lavinia understand that I needed Mama—no matter that she hadn’t needed, maybe hadn’t even wanted, me? “You sound like one of your soap operas.”

“I’d arranged everything—just like you asked me to, let me remind you. You—”

“I need some time, Aunt Lavinia. My career as a teacher is over if I don’t get my act together. And I can’t get on with my future if I don’t settle things with Mama—once and for all. Running away from home resolved nothing. Coming back to nurse her last summer didn’t redeem our years of misery. She barely spoke to me the whole time, except to say things out of her head. Crazy, raving things as if she was fighting someone, and other times whispering and then pleading, begging for something not to happen. Once she screamed, and I had no idea what any of it meant. All things that made absolutely no sense, at least as far as anything I ever knew about her. But that’s it. I never knew her, not really. Going through her things is the only thing I haven’t tried. I’m going to live in the house—alone.”

“Please don’t do this to yourself. Let God close that door.”

“God never opened the door, Aunt Lavinia. I don’t see what reason He’d have to close it.”

“Leave it alone, Hannah. You don’t want to dig up things that can hurt you.”

“What, you believe in ghosts now?”

“There are ghosts and then there are ghosts.” She peered at me over her glasses.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means leave the past alone. What you don’t know can’t haunt you.”

“Then tell me. What is it you and Norma were talking about this morning—‘do the math,’ or whatever?”

Aunt Lavinia paled and turned grim in one go. “Still listening at keyholes?” she quipped defensively. “I’d have thought you’d outgrown that.”

I stared her down.

Aunt Lavinia pulled off her dirty bib apron and tossed it toward the washer, then pushed her fists into her hips. “I will say that I did not always treat your mother as kindly as I could have—as I should have. But she didn’t do right by you or your daddy from the get-go. Joe would tell you to leave sleeping dogs lie and get on with your life. Even Lieselotte would have wanted that.”

“What ‘math’?”

But Aunt Lavinia simply closed her eyes, threw up her hand, and headed for the door.

“Why did they move to the mountain in the first place?”

She stopped, shook her head, as if I’d asked a wearisome question, but turned to face me. “You know that Henry and I settled here because his family was here. What you probably don’t know is that he’d joined up in Oklahoma because he was going to college out there. That’s why he and Joe ended up in the same unit once the war started. Henry and I met through Joe—you know that. When Joe came back from Germany, there was just no reason for him to stay in Oklahoma.”

“But all your family was there—all Daddy’s. I never understood why Mama and Daddy followed you out here.”

Aunt Lavinia wouldn’t meet my eye. “Joe and I always got along—the closest of the siblings—and I guess he thought your mama might be more accepted here than out there, where so many families had lost boys from their unit.”

“Why wouldn’t people accept Mama in Oklahoma?”

Aunt Lavinia sighed again, this time exasperated. “The war changed the way people treated foreigners. The war changed everything.”

“I know about the US internment camps during the war. But the war was over by the time she got here, and it’s not like she was German or Japanese. She was Austrian. They were victims of the war—people we fought to liberate.”

“So she said.”

“What? You think Mama wasn’t Austrian? C’mon, Aunt Lavinia. She’d have no reason to lie about that. And she certainly sounded Austrian.”

But Aunt Lavinia had turned again and taken off, down the hallway for her favorite fireside chair and footstool.

“This isn’t about me.” She pulled off her shoes, rubbed her arches, and lifted her feet to the ottoman. “It was a different time, and you’re too young to understand.” She massaged her temples, as if to relieve an ache lodged there. “Leave sleeping dogs lie, Hannah. That’s all I’m going to say.”

“But what if I find something that tells me who my mother was—I mean, who she was really?”

“I don’t believe anything or anyone could explain that woman.”

“Nobody’s born so closed off, Aunt Lavinia. I need to know if that was her own warped nature or if something happened to her . . . or if it was because of me.” That confession cost me everything, though I turned away, fussing with the afghan on the sofa, so Aunt Lavinia could not read my face.

“It wasn’t you, sweetie.” She shook her head. “What if you find it was because of something she did? Something neither she nor you can ever reconcile? A lot of bad things went on in the war. You just never know. Besides, she couldn’t love herself; how could she love another person?”

I sat heavily on the sofa, swinging my legs up to lie down and stare at the ceiling. “She never loved Daddy; that’s for certain. I hated that—for both of them. I think part of him wanted to love her, but he wasn’t good at it. He could be soft with me but awfully hard on her. But she must have felt something for him, sometime. They married. They had me.” I couldn’t keep the hope from my voice, or my glance from her eyes, just in case she knew something, anything.

But Aunt Lavinia closed her eyes and turned away. “I don’t believe your mother ever loved another soul.”


Chapter 2



I’d loved Lukas Kirchmann all my life—from the time I was old enough to breathe, or at least to bat my eyelashes. Lukas was my older brother’s friend—both two years older than me. But unlike Rudy, Lukas took the time to smile and talk with me, to ask the names of my dolls as I set out their china plates and cups and metal spoons, or to mention that his mother and sister were very fond of tea parties too.

When I was old enough to walk to school, Rudy ignored Mutti’s instructions to walk beside me, determined to run ahead. But Lukas insisted they keep a step behind to watch over me and his sister, Marta. No one dared tease or torment us with two big boys on patrol. In all those years I never saw Lukas afraid of anyone—not until Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass.

I’d just turned thirteen and was long past playing with dolls. My father had warned me to stay home that night and keep the door locked, no matter what I heard or saw from our windows. He and Rudy—so full of himself in his Hitler Youth uniform—would be out late. Our housekeeper had long gone home to her family for the evening, and of course Mutti lay upstairs, sound asleep from the laudanum drops taken to ease her pain.

I’d finished my school lessons and the dishes, then hung the dripping tea towel to dry. It was half past ten, and still no sign of Rudy or Vater. Only when I stepped outside to stuff rubbish into the bin did I catch the faint, far-off whiff of wood burning and a faded light painted across the sky. No one dared openly burn brush or wood with the current rationing, certainly not at night and not in Berlin—unless a house was burning. I’d followed my nose to the street when a roughened hand clamped over my mouth and a strong arm yanked me back into the shadows. Scratching, kicking, clawing, biting—I did it all—but he dragged me into the bushes.

“Lieselotte! Lieselotte, it’s me, Lukas!” he hissed in my ear. “Stop biting me, for pity’s sake!”

“Lukas!” He relaxed his grip and I jerked away. “You scared me to death. What are you doing?”

“Is Rudy home? Your father?”

Nein. Lukas, what—?”

“Let us come in, just for a bit.”

“Let who?” And that is when I glimpsed another shape in the dark, one I couldn’t make out, hunched and lurking behind the courtyard door.

“Please,” Lukas begged. In that moment I sensed his fear—a thing so foreign in Lukas Kirchmann that I immediately shoved open the door and pulled him through, the hulking form on his heels. “Bolt it.” Lukas had never ordered me to do anything before, but I turned the lock without thinking. He put out the kitchen light and peered around the edge of the curtain. “Your father’s not home?” he repeated, as if he’d not quite believed me.

Nein. He said he’d be late. Your arm is bleeding—and your face! What’s happened?”

“Nothing. It’s nothing.”

The other man, more than twice Lukas’s age, moaned toward the pale light cast from the street, nursing a crumpled arm.

“Herr Weiss?” I recognized him as the butcher from the market three streets over. The Jewish market, where I was no longer permitted to shop, no matter that we’d shopped there ever since I could remember and it was so very close and had always carried the best cuts of meat—at least, Mutti claimed that once it did. According to Vater, good Aryan girls didn’t buy from Jews—not meat, not anything. The Führer had made that clear for a long time.

Herr Weiss nodded miserably.

“Lieselotte, do you have some cloth? A strip I can make into a sling for Herr Weiss?”

“Sit down, Lukas. You’re bleeding all over the place! Let me get you a face flannel.”

“Never mind me.” But he sat and grabbed my arm, warming me through despite the shock of seeing him roughened up. “Help us.”

“Anything,” I swore.

“I’ve got to get Herr Weiss and his family away.”

“His family? Where—?”

“That doesn’t matter. Can you help us? Can you help me—without telling your father or Rudy?”

He wants me to do something secret and dangerous—he wants me, without Rudy. I didn’t know exactly what Lukas needed or had planned, but I knew that helping Jews was forbidden and that I ran the risk of my father’s wrath, Rudy’s wrath, and of being denounced by our neighbors. It was frightening, and thrilling. “What do you need? What can I do?”

“We need bandages, coats, some food. And we need a place to hide Herr Weiss and his family until tomorrow night.”

“Tomorrow night?” Bandages and food and even coats were one thing, but hiding them . . . Where could I hide them? Did I dare?

“Others will be able to get him away from Berlin by then.”

My heart raced. This was more than I knew how to do.

But Lukas stepped near, so near I could feel his whispered breath on my face. “The brownshirts smashed his shop. They threw all his meats and goods into the street. They’ve set fire to the synagogue and to a whole string of Jewish houses. No one’s trying to stop the fires, unless they endanger Aryan houses. There’s a good chance every Jewish shop and house nearby will burn, including the Weisses’. His son’s been beaten senseless and arrested for trying to protect his parents. Herr Weiss and his wife need to get their daughters away before . . . before something worse happens to them. Help them. Please. Help me help them.”

How can I refuse? But not in the house—there’s no place safe. “The garden shed in the courtyard. No one goes there now. There’s room for all of them in the cellar just beneath, where you and Rudy made your clubhouse when I was little—when you wouldn’t let me in.” I remembered the long-ago slight, even in that moment.

He kissed my cheek. “You’re an angel, Lieselotte! I’ll take them there now. The key—I need the key.”

I pulled it from the hook by the back door. “I’ll cut some sandwiches.”

“And cloth—something we can fashion a sling from.”

“Yes, I’ll find something.”

“And coats or blankets—anything you—”

“Yes, yes, you’d better go. Vater and Rudy might return any moment. I’ll get them to you.”

Danke schön, Fräulein Sommer.” Herr Weiss took my hands in his, then seemed to think that too forward and stepped back, bowing his head twice. “There is no way for me to thank you.”

“There is no need, Herr Weiss. I can’t imagine who would do such a thing.” But the reserve in Herr Weiss’s eyes and the pain in Lukas’s told me I should know, and without being absolutely certain, I’m afraid I did.

They slipped through the door and into the night. As I pulled bread and cheese from the pantry, I remembered the chest of woolen steamer blankets in the attic above Mutti’s room. I ran there first, pulling out three of the heaviest, and two coats Rudy and I had each outgrown. I couldn’t remember the Weiss girls, how old or tall they were, but it was all I could carry.

“Lieselotte,” Mutti called faintly as I passed her room. I froze outside her doorway, realizing I must have woken her with my rummaging through the attic.

“I’ll be back in a moment, Mutti. Just give me a minute.”

“Lieselotte,” she called more urgently. “Lieselotte, come now!”

I hadn’t heard her so strong in weeks, but it could mean her pain had returned. I dropped the coats and blankets in the hallway and stepped into the dimly lit room. “What is it, Mutti? Do you need more laudanum? It isn’t quite time yet.”

“My coat.” She lifted her hand toward her wardrobe. “Take my coat.”

“We’re not going anywhere. It’s the middle of the night. You must have been dreaming.”

Her voice was frail, as was everything about her, and I knew it took great effort for her to speak. “I heard them . . . Herr Weiss. Take my coat for Frau Weiss, my warm fur. It will keep her warm.”

Nein. That’s your best. You’ll need that.” I pulled the duvet above her shoulders, horrified to realize that she’d heard us, fearful of what she thought, if she knew and would tell Vater. He would never approve, and the trouble it would mean for Lukas . . .

“I won’t need it. I won’t be going out again. Frau Weiss was always so friendly and kind to me. Herr Weiss gave generous cuts whenever I shop—” But Mutti gasped, her back arching and her face contorting as she cried out in pain.

Quickly I repositioned the small pillow beneath her back to better support her. It was so little to do and did so little good. “I’m not sure Vater will think it a good idea. I’m afraid—”

A crash came from the street, followed by raucous shouts and the broken rhythm of a poorly beaten drum.

“Take it. Go quickly.” Mutti closed her eyes.

I stood beside her bed, uncertain. But there was no more time. I grabbed Mutti’s rich brown fur coat from her Kleiderschrank, inhaling her sweet scent from days when she was well enough to walk down the stairs and out into the world. I knew Mutti was right that she would not wear it again, that she was past those days forever. But I couldn’t let myself think about that now.

I grabbed the pile of blankets from the hallway and a sheet and pair of sewing scissors from the linen shelf, balancing the load on my hip as I made my way down the stairs and carefully crept out the back kitchen door before I lost my nerve.

More shouts and drunken laughter erupted from the street in startling bursts. Smoke hung in the air and the odor of something pungent that I couldn’t identify, couldn’t separate from the smell of wood burning.

A furtive knock on the shed door, and I passed the load through, into Lukas’s arms. He squeezed mine in gratitude, and I raced back to the kitchen. My knife had just cut through the loaf of bread when Vater and Rudy burst through the kitchen door in high spirits, Rudy recounting some exploit and Vater laughing too loudly in hearty approval. My stomach flipped.

“Lieselotte, what are you doing up at this hour?” Vater’s tone suddenly changed. “Why is this door not locked? You’ve been out?”

“Nein,” I lied, something I never remembered doing to my father. “But you were both so late. I was worried.”

“Did the noises in the street worry dear little Lieselotte?” Rudy teased. “You’d best get used to it. It’s only the beginning!” He rose up on his toes and stretched his arms above my head, menacing like a gremlin.

“Enough, Rudy,” Vater admonished. “You’re making sandwiches at this hour?”

“I thought you’d be hungry.” To lie again came more easily.

“That’s good of you,” Vater approved, pulling off his overcoat and muffler. “It was cold out tonight.”

“I’m famished!” Rudy tore off his coat and threw his cap to the table. “Make me two! Is there any coffee?”

Ja, a little ersatz. I’ll heat it up.” I turned to the stove, praying my face would not betray me. But Rudy was too full of himself to notice, and Vater had other things on his mind.

“How’s your mother? Did she wake while we were out?”

“I don’t think so. She’s sleeping now. The laudanum . . .”

Ja, das ist gut. She didn’t need to hear this night.”

“Mutti wouldn’t understand.” Rudy sounded so offhanded.

“What were you doing that Mutti wouldn’t understand?” It was a bold question, but I wanted them to tell me they’d been drinking or playing cards or anything but beating up young boys and burning synagogues. For the first time in my life I wanted Lukas Kirchmann to be a liar.

“It’s retribution for the murder by that Bolshevik Jew in France. Haven’t you listened to the radio? You must keep up with these things. You’re not a baby anymore, you know.”

“Rudy, that’s enough. Lower your voice. Don’t wake your mother. She needs her sleep.” Vater plucked a sandwich from my board. “Bring the coffee when it’s ready. I’m going to check on Mutti, then to bed.” He stopped. “Ah, I have a gift for you, Daughter.” He pulled a book from his coat and handed it to me. “Take good care of it.”

A Christmas Carol? And in English! Vater, where did you ever find such a thing?”

“A first edition, so mind how you keep it.”

Ja, ja, I will. Danke schön.” It was not like my father to bring me gifts. And this book—my favorite!

He was through the door when Rudy whispered, “There’s more where that came from.” He winked. “And what he meant is that he doesn’t want Mutti to know about tonight. She’s been giving him grief about the ‘growing militancy’ of the Hitler Youth. She doesn’t understand. The Führer has plans we’ve not dreamed of—mark my words! He’ll call us to arms before long. The world will see what the New Germany is made of, and I’m part of it!”

“That’s a boy’s bravado. You’re all about rowing and exercising and camping and—”

“Not anymore, little sister—not after tonight. The Hitler Youth of today will become the army of tomorrow.”

“What did you do tonight? You still haven’t answered.”

“Poor little Lieselotte.” He stroked my cheek, uncharacteristically kind—or was he being sarcastic? “Your world is about to change and you don’t even know it. You’ve been too much at home with Mutti and her old-fashioned ways. You’ve missed more meetings of the Young Girls League than you’ve attended. Next year you must join the other girls in the Bund Deutscher Mädel. You won’t be excused, even if Mutti’s still alive.”

“Don’t say such a thing!”

He shook his head. “It’s a mercy for her if she’s not. She’s draining our finances and her life is no longer productive. You must see that. You need to take your place in the New Germany. Because Mutti’s dying, she’s excused. But you’re not. Your laxness looks bad for me and for Vater. The Führer says—”

“You’re talking crazy, Rudy, and I won’t listen to any more. Go to bed.” I wrapped the remainder of the loaf of bread in a cheesecloth, as if I planned to return it to the pantry. As soon as he and Vater were snoring I would slip what food I could to Herr Weiss in the shed.

Rudy grabbed two sandwiches from the board and headed for the stairs. “Don’t mock me. It’s a dangerous pastime. You don’t want me to report you, do you?” He turned and raised his brows in mock surprise. I wasn’t entirely sure he was teasing. “Next time you do something Vater’s forbidden, best wipe your shoes.”

He pointed to the caked mud on my socks and school shoes. “I don’t know what you’ve been up to and I don’t care. I have my own life apart from Mutti and Vater now, so why shouldn’t you? It’s time you grow up, little sister.”


Chapter 3



Old houses creak in the day; at night they moan as if their bones crack and separate. Sleeping in my old room felt just as creepy as when I was a kid. Shadows from the tree limbs outside my windows still loomed with outstretched arms, still danced on the wallpaper opposite my bed. There was still a family of hoot owls—generations old—calling to one another after midnight, unnerving my feeble attempts at slumber. And the safest place was still buried beneath my mountain of patchwork quilts, head and all.

By 2 a.m. I gave up and pulled on jeans and one of my old high school sweaters still hanging in my closet.

Thankfully, the electrician had come out to reconnect the line the day before, so I flooded the house with light, top to bottom. It didn’t seem so spooky then, just old and a bit decrepit, in serious need of care—care someone else would give. The telephone couldn’t be reconnected until midweek, but Aunt Lavinia was the only one I’d call, and a little space from her was in order.

Tea, good and strong, would surely keep me awake, but might make me think more clearly. Tea had always annoyed Mama. She’d liked her coffee, strong and sweet with cream, as if she couldn’t get enough, as if somebody’d take it from her if she didn’t hold on with two hands. Maybe that’s why I liked tea—plain—just to spite her, just to be different.

The kettle whistled. I poured steaming water into the pot, stirring the leaves. Tea leaves constituted my solitary return to nature—rejecting tea bags in the modern era. Real leaves redeemed time. I pulled my sweater closer and cradled the mug in my hands. So many things I did, so much of my life felt in response—or more in reaction—to my mother. Which is crazy. This has to stop.

A list. The first thing I ever did to focus on a new project for my classes was to make a list. I ripped a sheet of notebook paper from my school binder and scribbled at the top: Understanding Mama. Moving Forward. Those two things encompassed my goal. Everything else fell between.

The first step was to go through the house, top to bottom, and search for clues. I’d no idea what kind of clues. Mama and Daddy were both dead, after all.

But what if Mama kept a diary, or what if Daddy did? Hard to imagine, but I wrote it down: Look for diaries, family pictures. I listed the rooms, determined to remain objective: kitchen—the easiest to tackle. After having spent the summer cooking there, I felt pretty sure there wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen, but I’d tear apart every cupboard and cookie tin. In the process I’d see if there were things I wanted to keep. Everything else, Clyde could deal with.

Most of Mama’s kitchen pans and utensils had come from rummage sales and yard sales. She didn’t believe in spending money on herself, and truth be told, there wasn’t much to spend. Clipping coupons and saving string and a ball of rubber bands and using tinfoil twice or three times was a way of life. All of that I’d toss in the trash, and feel guilty in the process.

Next, I’d tackle the bathroom, then the living room. The cellar and attic stored little. Mama hadn’t been in those in years, as far as I knew, but I added them to the list. My old bedroom was as familiar as the back of my hand. I only needed to go through boxes of high school stuff and see if I really wanted to keep anything. I’d leave Mama and Daddy’s room for last. It conjured too many memories of last summer and Mama dying. I couldn’t think about that, couldn’t get sidetracked by memories or misplaced emotion.

I flicked the power switch on Mama’s old electric radio on the kitchen counter. Cat Stevens belted out “Morning Has Broken,” then The Main Ingredient came on the air and we vied for the right to sing “Everybody Plays the Fool.” The line “But there’s no guarantee that the one you love is gonna love you” surely seemed to fit. It didn’t have to be a man, a boyfriend—as if I’d ever get to that point. All that about loving yourself before you could love someone else might have something to it. And what about God’s love for me? I believed in that, but where were the arms to hold me? How could I love myself if my own mother couldn’t love me? How could I believe Aunt Lavinia’s assertion that Mama’s attitudes had nothing to do with me? How could they not? Neither set of lyrics helped.

At half past noon I finished the kitchen. I’d found a couple of old wooden spoons—ones Daddy had carved from a fallen maple the summer he took up whittling, thinking it might be a nice sideline. But Mama had frowned when he’d given her the spoons and stuffed them in the catchall drawer. He never carved another thing. My mind ran through the year’s hit parade, and I wondered if there were lyrics for spurned love. I tossed the wooden spoons on the countertop in my Save pile. I should have a song too.

Mama wasn’t one to hide money in canisters or Ball canning jars on the backs of shelves like Aunt Lavinia. Unlike so many Depression-era parents, Mama never hoarded cash for a rainy day, even though she saved tinfoil and rubber bands. She’d lived simply, as though everything important was inside her rather than outside, though she never showed what that was. Though grim and frugal, she was generous to a fault, which made no sense to me. Generous people are known to be happy people, but not Mama.

I pulled a can of tuna fish from the pantry and grabbed a loaf of brown bread I’d picked up from the local grocer. That bread—that grocer—reminded me of a day years back . . . I couldn’t have been more than five or six. Mama, Aunt Lavinia, and I had stopped in the grocer’s to do our weekly shopping, which for Mama generally amounted to a small sack of flour, salt, half a pound of sugar, one paper sack of staples, and a pound and a half of red meat she’d spread through the week to add to Daddy’s butchered hog and chickens and occasional fish from the creek beyond the house. Anything else we grew in the garden.

A tramp came through the door and asked the clerk if he could work—maybe sweep up out front and empty the trash, unpack boxes, whatever needed doing—for food. He asked the clerk if he knew of anybody needing an extra hand in exchange for a place to sleep and board. But he talked funny—a lot like Mama.

The clerk turned him out straightaway, saying they didn’t need his kind. Aunt Lavinia whispered that nobody’d let a stranger sleep in their barn. No telling where he’d been or what he’d been up to, let alone where he was from, dirty as he was. His faded brown suit jacket was ripped in the sleeve as if he’d been in a fight, and even the top of one of his shoes had come away from its sole.

When the man left by the front door, the grocer called the sheriff. Just as we were leaving the store, the sheriff came over and ran the man off the town bus bench for loitering.

Mama stood stock-still, staring after the sheriff. I couldn’t tell if she was angry or frightened or if she approved of what she’d seen. Her face was blank. But she took me by the hand and marched me back into the grocery, shoving our purchases in my arms and leaving Aunt Lavinia standing outside.

Mama pulled a loaf of white bread from the shelf—something we never store bought—along with two bottles of soda pop. She ordered the grocer to cut a half pound of bologna, sliced thick, and a quarter pound of American cheese, sliced thicker—a veritable feast of riches. She plunked down money I knew Daddy would prohibit and marched me back outside with this largesse. Whisking past Aunt Lavinia, who’d waited impatiently in the late-September sun, Mama searched the street both ways, then nearly ran the tramp down chasing after him, me breathless on her heels.

My visions of a lakeside picnic high up the mountain vanished as Mama caught up to the man and laid a firm hand on his shoulder—a thing I instinctively knew no well-bred Southern woman would do and that every woman in town would gasp over and some did. When the tramp turned, almost fearful, she thrust the grocery sack into his hands, then pulled half the apples from our bag and added them to his. She squeezed the man’s arms and searched his eyes, her chin quivering, as if offering a silent benediction.

That thin, wearied man looked so sad and startled and half frightened that I thought he might fall over. He never even looked in the sack, but his eyes grew big as saucers till the tears overflowed.

He stared at Mama the longest time, as if he meant never to forget her face, then looked down at me. He smiled and leaned down, stroking my hair till I wanted to turn away. But he lifted my chin with his finger and his thumb gently stroked my cheek. Neither he nor Mama ever said a word, which I thought strange even for her. At last she shuddered, then just spun on her heels and headed for home.

I remember looking back at Aunt Lavinia, worried that she’d tell Daddy and he’d be mad at all the money spent on a stranger. But Aunt Lavinia just stood there with her mouth open, then shut it, turned, and walked the other way by herself.

I followed Mama home, trailing her at a clip. Halfway she seemed to lose her steam and grow suddenly weary. When we reached the house, she walked straight to her room and locked the door. Two hours I heard Mama cry—the only time I ever heard her cry. She didn’t shed one tear at Daddy’s funeral a good ten years later, but she bawled two hours of heart-wrenching sobs for a tramp she didn’t know.

I hadn’t thought of that day in a long time. It had seemed so out of character for Mama and yet so like her at the same time. Who were you, Mama? How could you treat a perfect stranger better than you treated me or Daddy and have that seem natural?

What Aunt Lavinia had said about Mama being foreign was the first I’d thought about Mama’s accent in years. Once, a cluster of mean boys in grade school had tormented me on the playground, shouting, “Your mama’s nothing but a Nazi spy! You should hightail it back to Krautland!”

Daddy’d said that simply wasn’t true, that they were just ignorant young mountain children and not to pay them any mind. Daddy’s comfort had been enough for me then, had enabled me to stick my nose in the air at school, even though I’d felt stabbed inside.

But now I wondered. Was Mama’s accent why she’d connected so strongly—so strangely—to the tramp, or was it the puzzle of some great emotion, foreign even to her? Was her accent why the other women in the church and community kept their distance, or was it her standoffish nature?


Three more days I spent rummaging through the house, attic to cellar, turning cupboards and dressers and closets and drawers inside out, even tapping for hidden walls and loose floorboards, as foolish as I knew that to be. I sorted for donations and trash and packed the few odds and ends I wanted to keep. That felt like progress, better than leaving it all for Clyde to handle.

By Friday I felt sick of the house and its contents. I’d given up looking for diaries and mysterious family photo albums. There simply were none. The only room left was Mama and Daddy’s.

Going through Mama’s personal things was a love/hate pilgrimage. I found the Bible I’d been given in second grade at Sunday school in the bottom of her bedside stand. Mama had learned to read English with my Bible. But if she knew I saw her reading, she’d close it and push it away, like she didn’t want me to see. I never understood that.

Every drawer held the scent of her homemade lilac sachets, alternately making my stomach ache and filling my heart with a longing I knew I’d never satisfy. Seeing strands of her faded gold hair in her hairbrush made me grip my stomach and throw the brush in the wastebasket.

Not a thing was out of place. Five dresses hung in the closet—one for church, one for shopping, three for the house. She’d owned a pair of black pumps for Sunday sitting beside a polished pair of brown tie shoes, heels worn down, for every day. When other mothers had donned open-toe sandals and patent-leather heels, my mother had ignored the fashion and continued to wear the plainest clothes and “sensible shoes,” as if she didn’t deserve better, as if dressing like a pauper helped her martyrdom. And yet I knew part of her had looked down on those women who’d dressed to the nines, as if they’d missed the point of living entirely.

In a last attempt I pulled the dresser from the wall and searched its back. I turned the oval dressing table mirror over. . . . Nothing.

I lay on her bed, the bed she’d died in, and waited the longest time to see if I felt something, anything, wondering if I might be given a sign. Please . . . please, God. Help me understand. Nothing . . . nothing . . . nothing. It was that nothingness that felt like suffocation—like all the air was gradually being sucked from the room. Who were you, Mama? Did you feel anything at all for me? Finally, I cried a good long cry and fell hard asleep. I didn’t dream, and never woke until the phone rang.

My first call on the newly reconnected phone. It had to be Aunt Lavinia. I couldn’t bear talking to her now.

The phone finally stopped ringing for the space of thirty seconds and started up again. I groaned and dragged myself from the bed because I knew she wouldn’t give up until I answered.


“Miss Sterling? Hannah Sterling?”

“This is she.” A lump rose in my throat. No, please don’t let something have happened to Aunt Lavinia. Dear God, I’m sorry I was so mean to her! Please . . .

“Miss Sterling, this is Ward Beecham, your mother’s attorney. Allow me to offer my condolences on her passing. I’m sorry I’ve not done so sooner.”

My heart nearly stopped. Thank You, God! “It’s all right, Mr. Beecham. I never gave you a chance. It’s just been—”

“These things are always hard.”

The lump rose higher in my throat. He had no idea.

“Your mother left a will—a simple will, but I do need to give that to you, as well as the key.”

“The key?”

“To her safe-deposit box. She was explicit that I place it directly into your hands, privately. Would you be able to stop by my office tomorrow sometime? It shouldn’t take more than thirty, forty minutes for us to finalize things.”

Mama left me a key to a safe-deposit box? She owned nothing of monetary value. What could—?

“Miss Sterling? Are you there?”

“Yes . . . yes, Mr. Beecham, I am. I’m just stunned. I didn’t expect anything from my mother.”

“I understand. Shall we say ten o’clock tomorrow?”

“Yes, of course. I’ll be there.”