George Helmstetter looked up at his wife. She was, as always, enjoying her Penne Vodka with a meticulous solemnity usually reserved for monks at chapel. George smiled inside, but outwardly showed no emotion and returned to his own dinner plate. They ate together in comfortable silence. After many years of marriage, their daily routine now bore all the precision of a Swiss time piece, perfectly crafted in form and function, and priceless.
After her fourth bite and swallow, Rose spoke of the weather, and George replied in kind. The second hand ticked effortlessly. She dabbed at the corners of her mouth with the linen napkin. The waiter, an unobserved ghost, refilled their water glasses then drifted off to other tables.
George remembered the first time he and Rose had sat down in this small Manhattan Trattoria. It had a different name then, maybe eight or nine owners ago. The war was over. The world was weary and peace sounded like permanence. He looked at Rose again, then back down at his dinner. Maybe next time he would order the Risotto and clams.
George was handsome in his youth. The young girls of Heidelberg would attest to that with easy smiles and secret kisses behind their father's shops, back in the days when Hitler was just another ambitious politician. Germany still lay wounded then, its pride fractured from the first world war. His father, assigned to the German Sixth Army, had died in the trenches at Vimy Ridge. George was only one month old. His mother never fully recovered from her loss. "Mutti", he would say, "You must let Oppa go and move on with your life." She would only shake her head. "Hurry along Georgius, or you will be late for your lessons." She will never love another man, he thought to himself as he grabbed his violin case. What a waste of life not to have love in it. Mutti watched with soft eyes as Georgius ran out of his father's house, late for his lessons again.
When he was thirteen, his mother told him a fabulous story. "Your Aunt Hildegarde is a Princess and your great, great, great Uncle Maximilian Joseph, was once King of all Bavaria. We don't talk much of this in these times. Many blame our family for the great war, but we had little to do with its beginning or its end. Your father, God rest his soul, would never allow the word Prince or Princess to be spoken in our house. Nicht während Ich bin lebendig, he would say. I should not even tell you this, Georgius. Someday, we will sit with Aunt Hildegarde and you will properly learn your heritage." George smiled inside as he remembered again his mother's words. Rose mentioned the Frosts would be arriving for cocktails at seven, as usual. He nodded, as usual.
George thought back to the last time he saw his mother alive. George had just turned twenty-one and was looking forward to completing his studies at Heidelberg University. One evening, George returned home to find a strange man in the house with his mother.
"Georgius, this is Herr Ferdinand, your cousin from England. You remember playing with him at Modena when we travelled there? You were very young. He is here to take you to England for a vacation. I have packed a bag for you." George saw both fire and fear in his mother's eyes.
"Mutti, I have my studies to complete. I can not vacation now."
"Your studies are at an end. Hitler will take us to war soon. All young men will drafted into service. I lost your father to war, I will not lose you. Now you must go and go at once." Mutti suddenly looked formidable, not to be denied.
George pleaded, "Mother, please do not do this. I must stay with you. Germany is my home and I must defend my home if war should come."
"You would disobey your mother and die in some filthy trench in France? War comes because Hitler brings war upon us. We have learned nothing from the great war, fachkundig nichts. Now go, Georgius, and promise me you will write. Finish your studies in London. You can stay with Ferdinand there, is that not so, Cousin Ferdinand?" Mutti managed a weak smile.
"George, there is plenty of room in our home. Come join us. I have a friend at Oxford. We will speak to him about your studies." Herr Ferdinand smiled warmly as he patted George on the shoulder.
It was clear all had been decided well in advance. George hugged his mother tightly for a long time, then he softly kissed her on top of her head. He hadn't realized how much taller he had grown these past few years.
"I shall do this out of love for you, Mutti. But you must promise me you will stay safe until I return." They stood there, holding each other as his father's clock ticked loudly in the next room, George's heart racing twice as fast, and Ferdinand standing by the door, watching the road. As soon as darkness fell and was deep in all the shadows, George and Ferdinand left Heidelberg, by train bound for Switzerland
"How is your Penne this evening?" George said to Rose, his voice barely a whisper.
"Al dente, but I don't mind. We should mention to the waiter, however." Rose briefly looked up, her dark hair in colored denial of her own advancing age. George gingerly poked a fork at his food as the silence settled in around them, like snow.
(to be continued)