“Focus on a faraway place,” Miss Matchan wrote on the board, her chalk squeaking on the silent e.
Sören squirmed in his seat. He drew his thumb methodically along the pencil tray at the top of his desk, rubbing it as if to deepen its groove. His eyes wandered to the right, seeing nothing, so deep into his thoughts that he was blind to his classmate, Lloyd Thompson, next to him.
Lloyd squirmed, too. A faraway place? How far? Sebeka? Grand Forks? Thunder Bay? His pencil tip found its way into his mouth and his tongue pushed it out repeatedly. Lloyd looked at Sören’s dreamy face and half-grin. He saw Sören start writing so fast the tip of his pencil broke.
Lloyd…Lloyd, may I borrow a pencil?” Sören asked, but Lloyd already had a spare, sharpened pencil in his hand, held out to the older boy. Sören’s face broke into a full smile, “Thanks,” he whispered.
The only place on Sören’s mind was Osterhammar, Sweden. His mor had been talking to him last night about how she used to go berry picking in the summer on mid-summer’s eve. Sören could hardly imagine having the sun shine almost all day and night.
When my mother was a little girl, Sören wrote, she lived in Osterhammar with her mother and father. My mom liked to pick lignin berries and…
His nose scrunched. This wasn’t how he wanted to write. He wanted to write a story, a real story like Armstrong Sperry wrote when he wrote about Mafatu on an island in the Pacific. The young author drew a heavy line in pencil on his sheet and began again.
Astrid and her sisters bounded up the hillside, their metal pails banging against their thighs. With the ropes rigged so their hands would be free, they picked berries double-handed, tossing the fruit into their buckets. Without warning, a wild…
Sören put his pencil in the tray and massaged his right palm with his fingers. His lips pressed together tightly as he tried to remember. “Pssst, Sonja!” he whispered. His sister, seated a seat ahead of him, to his left, readily looked up, happy for the distraction from this writing task.
Sören glanced at Miss Matchan. She was squatted down next to another student talking quietly in his ear. “Sonja, what animals do you remember from Sweden?” he asked.
“Animals? Remember? Sören, I don’t remember any animals, we left when I was only three years old! But far sings that song about the weasel and the monkey so those must be animals over there.”
He gave a half-snort. “Sonja, there are no monkeys in Sweden. That’s just a folk song. It’s not real. Forget it, I’ll figure it out myself.”
Sonja stuck her tongue out at her brother. “Smarty-pants!” she mouthed.
Sitting next to Sonja, but paying no attention to her whispering, Becky’s thoughts focused on her cousin, not the one who was in the US Air Force, but her German cousin, Claus Schwartz. His mother was her papa’s older sister by three years. She wondered what he was doing still in Germany.
“Dear Claus,” she began writing. “I’ve been thinking about you in Warnemünde and wonder how you are. The Baltic surely is bitterly cold by now. Do you still fish with your father? How are Anne and Hilde? I miss my dear cousins and wish I could see you all. I hope you are fine even with the war and that you do not have to fight.Frank Kern hooted loudly. “You wish you could see Claus, he’s fighting in the war? And your father is in occupation! So who's Clausie?"
We are fine here in America. Heinz follows my father in occupation and now attends the university and then medical school. Betty and I attend school in District 11 and Burdee and Harold help mother at home until they are old enough for school, too.
Give my love to Onkle Dieter and Tante Tressie. Sincerely, Rebecca Rose Erdmann”
Becky jumped so quickly, her head connected soundly with Frank’s face. “Ouch! Hey, knock it off! What are you doing?” he cried out accusingly.
“You were reading over my shoulder!”
“You bet I was. I want to keep an eye on you Germans.”
“What? What are you saying? Your family is also German.” Becky’s whole body tensed in anger.
“But we’ve lived here for generations. My grandpa Kern owned the farm before my pop did. You? You’re probably not even a citizen.” Frank made a grab for Becky’s paper, but she clamped her hand down on it. It tore in half to Frank’s surprise and delight. He waved his half in the air. The upset girl frantically shoved the remainder into her desk.
Near tears, she fumed, “You give me my letter back, Frances Kern.”
Suddenly Miss Matchan stood between the two seething students. “Whatever is happening will end now. Frank, sit down. Becky, sit in the chair next to my desk.”
Both children acquiesced and went meekly to their assigned seats. “We’ll discuss this after lunch.” She clapped her hands twice, “Class, it’s time for lunch and recess. The sun is shining, I think you’ll be okay to spend time outdoors. Stay outside until I ring the bell.”