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Freefall: Chapter 26

Miriam Zakon

Private Isidore Klein needs a Jewish home for his children after his wife was killed. He sends a telegram to his only relative — Aunt Cele

Thursday, October 27, 2016

An unfamiliar face answered the doorbell of the Central Park West apartment. Her eyes seemed a little unfocused, Annie thought, and her uniform and white cap sat clumsily upon her, not like the usual starched perfection of Mary, Aunt Cele’s housemaid.

“Who was that, Aunt?” she asked, as she sipped the fragrant Chinese tea she’d grown to love. “Where is Mary?”

Cele’s mouth turned down into the pout that was becoming more and more a feature of her carefully made-up face.

“Mary has left me,” she announced dramatically. “A casualty of this cursed war.”

“A casualty?” It seemed impossible — though there were daily reports of military losses, civilians in the United States seemed just as safe as they’d been before the Pearl Harbor attack. “Yes, a casualty. She had a good job here, she was well-treated and well-paid. And she decides to leave and go to work — manual work, filthy work — in some Navy base or other, cleaning boats.

Cleaning boats, yes, that’s what will win the war. And here I am, with this Jane, who can’t even put her cap on straight.”

Annie felt a pang of anxiety. She’d come to break it to Aunt Cele that their weekly visits would have to be postponed because of the job she’d taken. What would her aunt say when she found out that her niece was beginning work this coming week, in “some Navy base or other”? Yet with the anxiety came a whisper of laughter, as she imagined telling Abe about her aunt’s “casualty of the war.”

Taking a deep breath and another sip of strengthening tea, Annie told her the news: She would soon be starting shift work in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Aunt Cele took it better than she’d expected. She’d made no secret of her disapproval when Annie had decided to stay on helping Mrs. Horn in the Hotel kitchen even after her marriage; married women, she’d told her niece, should be at home, making certain the servants took proper care of their domestic duties, ensuring that the house would be a well-run, delightful place for her hardworking husband to come home to. No, she said, if Annie insisted on working, better to be helping the war effort than destroying her pretty hands peeling endless vegetables.

(There was, Annie noticed with an inward smile, no mention now of war casualties.)

Her aunt’s litany of complaints continued: shortages of meat, uncouth sailors hanging about on every street corner. “And, my dear, the tragedies of war. Just look at this,” she said, walking over to her lovely mother-of-pearl inlay desk and pulling a thin yellow sheet out of one of its drawers.

Annie read the words typed out on the telegram. “Bella dead in bombing. Urgently need Jewish home for children. Can you help at all? Isidore Klein.”

“Bella? Isidore? Who are these people, Aunt?”

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