The Formal Invitation
Icy November winds pierced the few layers I️ was wearing, and I️ realized that living in Atlanta for a few years had ruined my tolerance for Chicago winters. Complaining underneath my breath, I reached for the envelops in the mailbox, quickly thumbing through them to sort out the junk mail and rush back inside.
“Man, it’s cold out there. Do you think we’ll get snow before Thanksgiving?” I asked, rushing to close the door behind me.
“Oh, you just never know. Once you’ve been away for a few years, you tend to forget the crazy Chicago winters, don’t you?” Kelly smiled. “If it’s going to be cold, it might as well be pretty, so I️ certainly hope we get snow! Anything fun, or just junk?”
I looked at the stack in my hand, halfway forgetting that I had gathered the mail and already begun to separate what we were going to throw out. “We really need to sign up for that no-junk-mail-thing.”
“That one has both of our names on it. How cute is this?” Kelly took the navy blue envelop with gold writing from my hand and opened it gently. “It’s from Chelsea." She held a thin piece of parchment with a personal note to the two of us. "We’re both invited to Thanksgiving dinner with Grandpa and the family.”
“Wow. That’s pretty fancy for a Thanksgiving invite.” She handed me the card that was embossed with gold lettering and leafy wreaths, cordially inviting us to a celebration of thanks at the home of Chelsea and Franklin Aberheim. As I read it aloud, Kelly gasped. “I️ didn’t even read the official invite! But I know her husband's name, they talk about him like he's royalty. He’s one of the top surgeons in our hospital. I have friends who are surgical nurses who must have worked with him a hundred times.” Her eyes widened as she lifted her brows and rested her elbows on the counter.
“Well, I️ guess this will be a Thanksgiving to remember.” We smiled, looking at each other with excitement and proceeded to talk about what we may need to wear or buy since we were certain it would be a fancy affair. No dress code was specified, but the invitation alone was enough to indicate the formality of our forthcoming adventure. “Just a nice winter dress or a fancy sweater, trousers and heals should do it, don’t you think? I’m thinking semi-formal, maybe?”
I️ shrugged my shoulders. “I️ have no earthly clue.” For a girl who lived in her sneakers and jeans, it would be a stretch, but fortunately, I️ had cleaned up nicely, according to my own grandpa, so I️ wasn’t entirely unaccustomed to dresses. “You're no stranger to elegant soirees," I pointed toward her with a grin. "You Chicago nurses don’t live in your scrubs outside of the hospital, so you’ll have to help me with my fancy.” We laughed and giggled about the fun we would have dressing up, the possibilities of meeting the nice surgeon’s son, and what the appropriate gift to bring would be, as we officially accepted the invitation online as directed.
The Holiday Function
I tugged on my scarf, straitening and flattening my wool coat with my gloved hands. “All these layers, and I’m still cold,” I laughed.
“Well, you look fabulous,” Kelly reassured me. Taking the wine in one hand, and passing me the potted flowers from the back seat of the car, she closed the door and breathed in deeply. “Here we go.”
The large stone-covered mansion was intimidating, to say the least, but knowing that sweet Grandpa would be there was reason enough to breathe and soak in the moments. My biggest desire was truly to know his story. He would say so little about it without constant coaxing, so I still felt as if there was much more to learn about his tale of love and life. Chelsea greeted us as the massive wooden door swung open before we had a chance to knock or ring. A maid took our coats, as the butler pushed the door closed, leaving us standing in a marble-covered entryway sparkling from the chandelier that cast a thousand glimmering reflections around the polished foyer.
We were greeted by loving smile after loving smile accompanied with thanks for all the joy we had recently brought into Grandpa’s life. I️ was astonished at all of the praise, as I thought that we were the ones so blessed to know and spend time with our new friend. I counted eighteen people from “this cousin, child, grandchild, aunt or uncle” to that, until we finally entered a living room where he sat on a couch surrounded by even more people of all ages, each one calling him the same–Grandpa. In all, once we had made it to a large dining area, we were about fifty people, including the smaller great-great-grandchildren who had a table in an adjacent room, except for one infant who was passed around the main table from person to person. The room was loud and boisterous filled with laughter and so many stories of love and happiness. A moment of silence was held for the matriarch of the family, the beloved Margaret, and another for the second deceased wife who only lived eight years by Roger's side, but was beloved by the entire family, it seemed.
Dishes were cleared away, as people began to disperse into the game or tv rooms, and I hung back to sit with Grandpa while his grandson helped him take a seat on a long sofa. “It looks like you are feeling well, Pops,” he smiled.
“You’re the only one who still calls me that,” Grandpa chuckled, releasing his grandson’s hand.
“I’m not the youngest generation anymore,” he smiled. “You can be grandpa to anyone, but you’ll always be my Pops.” He smiled, bending down to kiss the forehead of his aging grandfather as I observed a special bond that I wished I could still experience with my own grandfather who hadn’t seen past the age of seventy.
As the grandson exited the room, his mother Chelsea entered. “I do hope that you have enjoyed our family holiday, Nikki.”
“Oh, yes, thank you so much for inviting us. We really consider it an honor.”
“Well, the honor is ours. I can’t thank you enough for caring for my father over the past few weeks. He’s had a new burst of energy because of you girls. It’s been exciting to see. I am retiring in about a month, a few years later than I should have, mind you, but knowing that someone is spending time with him over these last few months is so comforting to me. I️ can finish this semester in peace, I️ believe.”
“Oh, truly, it is my pleasure. I’m fascinated by his story, though I still feel as if I know so little,” I paused, not knowing how to ask for more information about the history I found so fascinating. “So, you said 'finish the semester'. Do you only teach now, or do you play still?”
“A little of both. I teach at the Chicago Conservatory and also play with the symphony on occasion. My fingers don’t move like they used to, though. It’s much easier to teach these days,” she laughed. “In fact, we have a free holiday concert, which is simply a recital that our students perform for this semester. You girls should come.”
“I’d love that!”
The Family Relation
Grandpa dosed off at the end of the sofa, looking more feeble than I had expected him to. I suspected that the reason his grandson had led him to the sofa was more than a polite gesture. He looked as if he needed the help, but I️ wouldn’t let my mind wonder about his health. I grinned at Chelsea after noticing that he had begun to sleep, as she took a blanket from a chest in the corner of the room, placing it over his knees and chest. He slouched a little further down, resting his tall head and shoulders on the high back of the furniture.
“He needs his rest these days,” she whispered.
Many of the guests had moved into the tv room to watch the traditional Thanksgiving football games while others congregated in a game room, playing cards and table tennis. Young mothers sat in other corners of our room rocking young children, and discussing parenting among themselves. “You have quite the family, Mrs. Aberheim.”
“Please call me Chelsea. You don’t need to be formal with me.”
“Well, may I️ ask you more about your family? Your dad said that your mother was from Poland?”
“Ah, yes. He told me that you were interested in his story. Are you writing a collection of stories, or just his?”
“Honestly, I’m not working at all these days. I’ve hit the proverbial writer’s block. But I️ am fascinated by your family history. I️ think I️ would like to write about it someday, if you wouldn’t mind.”
“It’s flattering that you’d find our story of interest, I️ don’t mind at all. Where would you like to begin?”
“Well, he said that he met your mother when she was nineteen.”
“Yes, that’s true. Met and married, in fact. He was older than her by a few years, but she was a good match, for sure. I have photos. Would you like to see them?” She asked, standing and gesturing that we should exit the room.
I wasn’t sure if I contained my excitement well, as Chelsea escorted me to the library. The room was lined with rows of white wooden built-ins stacked high with books and trinkets, a quintessential example of what a wealthy home library should look like. She handed me a large photo album with thick black pages. Picture after picture, I was engrossed in a story of love, hardships, and happiness.
“She said "yes" to father knowing enough English to understand that he was her saving grace. He was the reason she was able to stay in this country and start a new life.” Chelsea stroked the pages of the photo album as she spoke.
“But she loved him?”
“Oh very much. In the beginning, it was less about love and more about survival, I️ think. For a young Jewish woman to survive a Polish concentration camp and marry an American was more than she had hoped for.”
“And this?” I pointed to a photo of a young family of four, right next to the wedding photo that Chelsea was touching.
“This was her family. My mother is the young girl here, This is her brother Tobiasz. These were her parents.”
“And they all stayed in your father’s home after the war?”
“Not all of them. Only mother and her father came. She was lucky to be reunited with him. They found each other after arriving in New York. There was a Rabbi who felt it was his calling to reunite as many people as he could after the war. That’s how she found dziadek, and after that, they made their way to Chicago where there was more work promised. He was a dishwasher here, but in Poland, he was a first-chair violinist in the city of Krakow.”
I gazed wide-eyed at her in amazement. “That’s unbelievable. It’s where you get your love of the instrument, I suppose.”
“Indeed. I never knew him, really. But it must be in the genes,” she chuckled.
“And your grandmother? She wasn’t reunited with them?”
“No.” Chelsea spoke in a whisper, and I️ nearly regretted the question as soon as I️ spoke it. “She died at Auschwitz.”
“I’m so sorry.” I sat in silence.
“And uncle Tobi was never heard from again. We aren’t sure what happened to him even to this day, though my mother never stopped searching. There would be lists and lists of names that would come up, and she would search them all. Even up until she died.” Chelsea glanced up at me, resting her back against the chair. “You know, she took us to Poland one year. She couldn’t bring herself to visit the camps, but in Poland, every young person is required to visit Auschwitz during their time in school. So, she thought that we should see it too. And so we did…” her voice trailed off in silence as she flipped to the next page of the album.
“That’s us there. Mother saw the photos we took at the camp and couldn’t believe we were in the same place. There was no green, she told us. If there was grass, they would eat it. If a flower would begin to spring up, they’d pluck it before it had a bloom. Everything was bleak and grey. These photos of green fields and flowers–the eerie beauty that sprang forth after the devastation–was a strange sort of comfort to her. As if there was some kind of victory. I’m glad we went.”
The room stayed silent for a few moments as I thumbed through the next few pages, trying to keep tears from dripping onto the pages. Photos pictured brick barracks lined with relics left behind, stored inside glass casings to show what the Nazi regime took from the humans who perished there. Young Chelsea was pictured touching a wall where the name of her grandmother was displayed in memoriam. Large fields pictured dilapidated stone fireplaces line after line, after the regime set the wooden camp ablaze fearing that they had been compromised. An imploded crematorium lay at the foot of the train line that led only to the demise of millions. Among the emptiness stood three teenaged children, descendants of those who had survived. It was more than I could process. I️ closed the book.
“Thank you. Thank you for sharing this. I️ can’t imagine.”
“Thank you. If we cannot share our story, we cannot learn from the mistakes of the past, can we?”
She leaned forward and hugged me. I felt more warmth in her embrace than I had felt since childhood, safe in my own mother’s arms. I breathed in deeply as she looked into my eyes.
“So, do you think you can come to father’s birthday party? He’ll be one hundred in a few weeks. We’re having at the Drake, but it’s a complete surprise.” She stood, crossing the room to a desk, and pulling an envelop from the drawer. “Here, please come. Both you and Kelly. I️ would be so happy if you did.”
“We wouldn’t miss it.”