Caroline’s Birthday

 “Today was the best day of my life, and the worst,” were the first words Caroline wrote in her diary on August 15, 1856.

When the sun peeked through the window next to her bed, her eyes popped open. She was now ten years old. Old enough to decide some things for herself. She jumped out of bed and quickly put on her favorite gray and red plaid dress with the puffy sleeves. This was the one she saved for special occasions. The nights before, Mama said her birthday certainly was a special day.  As she buttoned the front, the dress seemed a little tighter than the last time she wore it. “Do birthdays make you swell,” she wondered. Any tightness was hidden by the white pinafore Caroline slipped over the dress and tied with a bow in the back. 

Down the stairs she raced to the kitchen where Mama had breakfast laid out on the table.  Caroline’s brother Fritz, only a year older, was still in bed.  He was always the last one to get to school, sliding into the bench at the last possible second was the way he liked it.

Caroline usually looked forward to breakfast, but today she was in a hurry. Mama struggled to braid her hair while she ate fresh rye bread with cheese, ham and sweet butter. Coaxing Caroline’s wispy brown hair into two even braids was a challenge even when Caroline wasn’t bobbing her head to the food and wiggling. Today the snarls were especially large, and it hurt Caroline’s head when Mama tried to get the comb through the tangles. As Mama tied matching red ribbons to the end of each braid, she asked what Caroline wanted her for her birthday dinner. That was a new question. Without a second thought, she shouted, “Eintopf!” Then she flew out the door, poking the last bit of bread in her mouth. Down the steps and off to school she dashed.

Caroline loved school. Her teacher, Miss Bach, knew more than anybody. Sometimes she asked Caroline to stay after school to help her with something. That was the best part. Then they talked about everything, just the two of them. They spoke in English, sometimes in German. Miss Bach was the only grownup who never treated her like a child. She was more like the older sister Caroline had chosen.

When Miss Bach dismissed the other students at the end of the day, she motioned for Caroline to wait.  As soon as they were alone, she said, “Caroline, I  know it’s your birthday. Happy birthday. I have something for you.” She was smiling and her blue eyes sparkled. Little crinkles appeared near her eyes and the dimples in her cheeks.

Miss Bach always called her Caroline, never Carrie or any of the other awful nicknames some people used. Walter Schmidt and his friends at school called her Scary Carrie. The boys were a year older, but Caroline was smarter and knew more than they did. Miss Bach said teasing was their way of showing they liked her.  Caroline wasn’t so sure.  She didn’t care if Walter Schmidt liked her or not. Caroline was her proper name, pronounced Caro-leena with a long “e” sound and the stress on “lena.” Papa called her Lena, but only when he was saying something Caroline didn’t want to hear and he was trying to soften the message with his special name for her.

 Miss Bach opened her satchel and took out a package. “Open it,” she said excitedly. Caroline untied the ribbon and removed the wrapping. Inside was a beautiful book. It had smooth, brown leather covers and the edges of the pages were gold. “Tagebuch” was written on the cover in gold letters. “What was the story inside?” Caroline wondered. Eagerly, she opened the book to find out. The pages were blank. Puzzled, she looked up at Miss Bach.

“Caroline, I love how your mind works,” Miss Bach began. “You watch what’s happening around you. You listen carefully and remember what you hear and experience.  You have strong opinions, too, that’s for sure. But the special way you have of putting words together is a gift. You need a proper place to write down the thoughts in your head. A special place to tell your story.”

Caroline’s eyes moved from Miss Bach down to the golden word “Tagebuch” and back to her teacher. Her very own diary. Caroline’s soul filled with happiness.  She dreamed of being a writer as long as she could remember, but thought it was her secret.  Somehow, Miss Bach figured it out.

“Oh, Miss Bach, thank you ever so much,” Caroline gushed over and over again. It’s the best birthday present ever!” Somehow, words weren’t enough. Caroline impulsively flung her arms around Miss Bach’s waist and gave her a huge hug.  When Miss Bach reached down to hug her back, Caroline planted an enthusiastic kiss on her cheek before dashing out the classroom door. Miss Bach smiled and gently touched the spot Caroline kissed. Never had she had a student quite like Caroline.

When Caroline burst into the house after running all the way home from school, Mama was at the cook stove tasting the seasonings in the eintopf. The smell of kohlrabi, carrots, onions, potatoes and bratwurst, the good German sausage, all stewed together in one pot filled the air. Mama learned to cook by watching her mother, and never followed a written recipe. A little more nutmeg, a pinch of salt and Mama pronounced the eintopf perfect. Mama sent Fritz to buy bread at the bakery around the corner. Rich, dark bread was the best to sop up eintopf gravy. 

Mama’s first question when Caroline came from school was always, “What did you learn today.” She said every day you learned something new was a good day. Mama had a saying for everything.

“Miss Bach wants me to be a writer,” Caroline said as she held out her diary for Mama to see. Mama wiped her hands carefully on her apron before touching the book.

She smiled and said, “What a thoughtful present, Caroline. 

“Miss Bach said I have strong opinions and a story to tell. She wants me to write my story in my diary.”

“Miss Bach is right about one thing. You are not shy about saying what’s on your mind.”

 Mama loved words too and how they were put together.  When she read stories out loud in the evening, she often stopped to say, “This is so beautiful. Taste the words and make pictures in your head.” Then she read the part again.

“When will you start writing in your diary?” Mama wanted to know.

“Today,” Caroline answered. “It’s the best birthday ever and I have important things to say.” Mama went back to making sure the eintopf was perfect. Caroline was setting the pewter dishes, forks , knives and spoons on the table when Fritz returned. The aroma of fresh bread surrounded him as he placed the loaf on the cutting board.

After Papa and Uncle Frank came home from work and washed up, Caroline showed them her new diary. “Miss Bach wanted me to have a place to tell my story,” she explained.  She said I was a good writer. Do you think she’s right.”

 Papa chuckled. “No doubt,” he said. “You can do whatever you put your mind to, that’s for sure. But right now, let’s put our minds to having that birthday dinner of yours.”

            They took their places at the table. Papa sat at one end and Mama at the other on chairs Papa made. Fritz and Caroline settled on a long bench on one side of the table. Uncle Frank’s place was on the opposite bench. Uncle Frank was Mama’s younger brother.  He was only fourteen when he came with them from Germany in 1849. When he was old enough to work during the winter at the meat packing plant, he rented a room in a boarding house. He said he needed his independence. That lasted only until Mama put dinner on the table. He came back every day for dinner. He was a teaser and liked to say things people wanted to hear. “Catherine,” he told Mama, “you are the best cook in Cincinnati.” Caroline wondered if that could be true. Mama’s response was always, “Oh, Frank, you say that to everyone,” as she gave him a sisterly squeeze.

            Papa was not to be outdone with compliments. “Mrs. Beck,” he said, “you create tastes and smells from ordinary meat and vegetables that make my heart sing. My stomach is very happy too.  Let us give thanks for the food and the hands that prepared it.” Caroline peaked across the table at Uncle Frank. His eyes were closed.  His mouth made a happy up turn as he joined in the prayer.

“Now, because it’s Caroline’s birthday, she must be served first,” Papa declared. “Happy Birthday, to my favorite daughter.” Caroline loved the special treatment, but wasn’t she his only daughter? “Happy Birthday,” they all chimed together. Even Uncle Frank and Fritz showed patience as Papa put the first scoop of eintopf on Caroline’s plate.

            Not much talking went on as they savored the rich stew.  Only murmurs of satisfaction could be heard until the last drop of gravy was sopped up from the plates.

After dinner, they usually gathered in the corner with the fireplace. In winter, a fire blazed, warming the room and upstairs too. Tonight the window was open to let a little cool night breeze fill the house.

As Fritz and Caroline cleared away the dishes and stacked them ready to wash, Papa said, “Come back to the table and sit a bit. We have something wonderful to tell you.” Fritz and Caroline looked at each other with surprise, left the unwashed dishes by the basin of wash water and went back to their bench. The table was where serious family meetings took place.

Papa looked at Uncle Frank, then at Mama. Uncle Frank smiled broadly as if he was just bursting with a big secret. Mama nodded for Papa to speak. Her eyes were wide open, staring hard at Papa, and her lips were tightly closed. This was the serious look Mama used when she had to agree to something  she didn’t like.

Papa took a deep breath, as if to screw up his courage, and announced, “We’re moving to Minnesota.”

 

     © 2022 by Nancy Noyes Silcox