Dedicated to Pierre Lioni Ullman and my grandmother, baptized with the name Maria Kilzer. World events converged on both of their lives as children, eventually taking them from the countries and landscapes and languages that they loved.
“I lift my eyes unto the hills, from where is my help to come?”
The Mountains—grow unnoticed—
Their Purple figures rise
In Their Eternal Faces
The Sun—with just delight
Looks long—and last—and golden—
For fellowship—at night—
“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.”
“It takes a broken heart to know one. Only the happy are hard.” from Abelard by Helen Waddell
“Hi, Pat!” So said the receptionist, each nurse who saw her, all the aides.
How many years had she been hearing this?
She put her bag in the cubby assigned to her in the nursing station and checked the roster. One resident had died. Two were being seen by the doctor that day.
There was a new resident. She took out the shawl she had knitted and the book she brought along and went to the room.
The woman sat in a wheelchair, belted in so she wouldn’t fall out. The patient looked up but said nothing.
As she always did, she put the shawl around the patient, knit with extra soft yarn and introduced herself.
“I worked here for decades, but when I turned 70, they told me I was too old for this work, so now I volunteer. I knit shawls at night to bring along. They are cozy, aren’t they?”
The patient looked at her but said nothing.
“And then,” she continued, “I get out the chapter book I’m reading and read you. Nice to have something to listen to, isn’t it?”
The patient said nothing.
“Today, I brought a book that is a love story. It’s called Abelard, but it is really about Abelard and his young lover, Heloise. In this part of the book, bad things have happened, and they can no longer be a couple. Heloise goes to the convent. I call her an accidental nun: she didn’t want to be a nun, and then became one of the most famous and successful prioresses in Medieval Europe. “
She read for about twenty minutes and then left to check in at the nurse's station.
“I really don’t know why you do this. They don’t understand what you’re reading. You worked in this dementia ward long enough to know that.”
She looked at the young nurse and weighed her words.
“First of all, reading out loud helps me with my English.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Seventy years. And, in case you want to ask, I will tell you. I’m 88.”
“And you still need to practice?”
“Yes. And the other reason I read to them is because I did work in this ward for over fifty years, and I watched the residents here closely. I cannot agree with you when you say they don’t understand what I’m reading. “
“You were only a nurse's aide.”
She had to bite her tongue and take a deep breath.
“Yes, only a nurses aide. I didn’t have the privilege of getting an education like you did. And lack of privilege does not mean lack of intelligence.”
She went to the next patient she planned to visit, feeling both angry and like she would cry.
Late in the afternoon, she returned to her tiny ranch home a twenty-minute walk from the nursing facility.
The day was especially clear, and now and then, when she wasn’t watching for cracks in the sidewalk that she might trip over, she’d look up at the mountains that circled the city. She moved to Denver to be close to the mountains decades earlier but had never, without a car or any close connections, been to visit them.
She planned her evening. She’d heat up some of the split pea soup she made for the week. After supper, she’d check her rock garden. The dry, relatively high altitude of the city was conducive to growing the alpine plants of her childhood.
When the sun began to set, she’d knit and read for a while and then check the computer.
Around 2000, the library announced introductory computer classes, and, being someone who had a commitment to learning, she signed up.
The best thing she learned was that she could access news from her native Austria. The state news station had news from each region.
After she purchased her own computer, she made is a daily habit to check the news from the federal state of Carinthia where she was born.
A few days a week, she went to the Basilica for daily Mass, attended an early Mass on Sundays, and Masses on the Feasts of Obligation.
The room was beautiful – high ceilings, white walls and columns, some extravagant art throughout. It wasn’t quite as extravagant as the churches of her childhood but closer than anything else she had found in the States.
She liked the daily services best: no sermon to argue with in her mind, no sentimental music to brace against.
She slipped in and out of the services. She was an old woman who was alone and without noticeable infirmity. In other words, she was invisible.
Like many large Roman Catholic churches, there was a rota of priests, and one day, a new one was celebrating.
She noticed him. He was tiny and had what she identified as a a Hispanic accent. Middle aged, maybe, and he had a profound limp.
A few weeks later, after a Sunday service, he made a point to greet her.
“I see you here so often. What is your name?”
“In this country, people call me Pat.”
He studied her face for a moment and then extended his hand.
“Pleased to meet you. I’m Father Miguel.”
A few weeks later, when she was reading the news from the federal state of Austria, her birthplace, a certain story captured her attention.
There was a picture of two young children holding up to the camera a very old envelope. They had found it in their attic in the city of Villach.
It was addressed to Fraulein Peppin Strasser, and the address was that of her childhood home.
Her heart jumped in her chest, and her throat clenched.
She searched for the email address of the news organization and wrote them an email.
A reply came two days later.
“Dear Frau Strasser, Thank you for writing. You are the only person who has contacted us which leads us to believe that you are indeed Pepin Strasser. However, to communicate further, with the prospect of sending you the envelope from 1943, we more proof of your identity. Do you possess any documentation that would aid in this? If so, please scan it and email it to us.”
She read and re-read the email and turned off the computer.
Then she went to the closet in her bedroom and took a box off the top shelf.
Sitting on the edge of her bed, she held it on her lap, smoothing her hands over the top. There were emotions that threatened to flood her beneath the lid of the box.
She shook her head. Why would it matter if they did or didn’t? There was no one to witness and, frankly, no one who would care either way.
She felt the eighteen-year-old girl she once was watching over her shoulder. She missed that girl, and she missed that girl’s hope.
And, to honor that girl, whose heart had been enclosed in that box for seventy years, she lifted the lid and found her Austrian passport, various immigration papers, a few pictures.
Tears ran from her eyes.
The scent of a different time and place had survived in a box she had not opened in decades.
There were enough papers with enough information and even a photo of her standing in front of their house.
With the help of the office staff at the nursing facility, she scanned all of these things and attached them in an email.
An email reply came a few days later, and the news station promised to send the letter to Denver, Colorado in the United States.
Six weeks later, a large, brown envelope from Austria arrived.
She sat with it on her lap, afraid to open it. It was the first time in seventy years that she didn’t want to be alone.
After some contemplation, she called the Basilica and asked to speak with Father Miguel.
She and Father Miguel met two days later in his office at the Basilica. She explained the news story.
“So,” he said, “you’d like to open it with someone nearby?”
“Maybe you could tell me why this is so important first.”
She began, “I was born in Villach, Austria. It was a nice life in a modest city. Wherever you looked up, there were views of the mountains.”
“Like Denver. Is that why you live here?”
“Yes. I came through Ellis Island at age 18. I’ll tell you more about that in a moment. I trained as a nurse’s aide – nice work while I negotiated learning a new language on my own.”
“You’ve done well with that.”
“I’ve never stopped studying it.”
“After a while, I realized that I was never going home but maybe I could recreate a little of home. After doing some research and using my vacations for bus trips to different parts of this country, I decided on Denver.”
“As a Roman Catholic priest, I am assigned here, so I didn’t choose Denver. But, I understand: being near the mountains helps me, too, as I grew up in the mountains of Mexico. But we are not here to talk about me. Please tell me about coming to this country and this envelope.”
“Oh, yes, well, Villach was bombed in 1943. Our home wasn’t damaged, but my parents were. They packed what we could carry. They made us voluntary refugees. There were plenty of people displaced in Europe at that time, so there was nothing unusual about our situation. Eventually, they got us to America.”
“You said Ellis Island...”
“Yes, where we were, truthfully, detained, given shots, given American names.”
“Which is why you’re called Pat.”
“How did you feel about leaving?”
“War completely disorients a person, but the hardest part at the time was leaving Christoph.”
“We had planned to marry. He was two years older, though, and was drafted. I never heard from him after that. And, then, of course, we left.”
“Did you ever think of looking for him?”
“It wouldn’t have been as easy in those days as it is now. How would I communicate across the ocean? What address would I send a letter to? And, even if we found each other, well, then what? I had no discretionary income to make it over there. And would he?”
Father Miguel nodded. “Let’s open the envelope.”
She looked at the front of the envelope and ran her hand over the address which contained her birth name: Pepin Strasser. Preceding her name was “Frau”. When she left Austria, she was still “Fraulein”.
Inside the envelop was a cover letter from the news agency and the discovered envelope in a clear, plastic sheath.
She removed the very old envelope and looked at the front. It was addressed to her and sent by a government agency.
It crumbled some as she opened it. Inside the was a letter and yet another envelope.
The letter stated that Christoph had died in battle. The other envelope had been found in his uniform, and they were sending it to her.
She translated all this for Father Miguel and then opened the third envelope.
“My dearest Pepin, my treasure, companion of my heart, the one who my body longs to hold: I don’t want to tell you what it is like here. I don’t want the images to infect your beautiful mind. And I don’t have long to write. Just please know that I think of you every moment of the day. The only thing that allows me to endure this is the thinking about the day when we will be reunited, fulfilling our dream to be married and to build a life together. I cannot tell you where I am, but I can say that I cannot see our beautiful mountains. Look at them for me. Dream with me of the day when we will walk there, hand in hand. Your devoted, Christoph.”
Pepin turned her head towards the window. It was a clear, early autumn day in Denver. Father Miguel’s office was on the second floor the parish office building, so there were no buildings to obstruct the view of the mountains.
Tears ran down her face, and she forgot her habit of vigilant decorum.
“Every day, I feel like I am going through the motions, doing my best because any other option would just make life even more painful for me.”
She paused, holding the letter with both hands, reading its short, potent message.
“I have waited seventy years to hear my name spoken. I have waited seventy years to hear Christoph’s voice and to be assured of his love.”