hy is there a tree on top of the house?”
It was winter 1932, and I was standing with my parents in the mud where a street was going to be. I pointed up at the wooden scaffolding around a three-story house. The house looked to me as if it were climbing up the side of the hill. Vineyards still grew behind it. The roof of the house was flat, and a small spruce tree seemed to be sprouting from its top. To the tree was tied a red rag that waved merrily in the cold wind, like a flag.
My brother Hans came bounding out from somewhere in back, bursting with excitement.
“There's a perfect corner for an Indian tent back there, and I saw a great place for a tree house, andâ”
Mama interrupted him. “Look at your boots, Hans. Didn't I tell you to stay out of the mud?”
Hans looked guiltily down at his boots. Then he raised his curly red head and gave Mama one of those smiles of his. She never could resist them.
But my question hadn't been answered yet.
“Papa? The tree?”
“Well, it's just a custom, you see, Ollie,” he said. “No one really remembers why anymore. All I know is that whenever the last nail has been hammered into the framework of a new house, the builders celebrate by placing a tree on the roof. It probably goes back to very ancient times. Anyway, it's done all over. Does that answer your question, Miss Nosyface?”
“Is it done all over the whole
” I asked. Papa laughed.
“I don't know about the whole world, Ollie. All I know is it's done where we live, here in Stuttgart, Germany.” Papa pulled his shoulders back and stood straighter than that little tree high up on the roof.
“It's going to be such a beautiful house,” said Mama. Her eyes were shining. “We've waited so long for this. I can see it now. White stucco. Big picture window downstairs in the drawing room. I'll keep a rubber tree plant in it. It will grow and grow and climb clear across the ceiling, just like the one my aunt, Tante Julchen, had when I was a child. And we'll have a balcony all across the second floor where the bedrooms will be, andâ”
“I thought you liked our apartment,” teased Papa, with a perfectly straight face. I could tell how pleased he was, though, by his voice.
“Oh, I do,” Mama answered quickly. “But a house â¦ !
Just think, children. You'll each have your very own room!”
“And a playroom,” added Papa.
“And a garden with secret hiding places,” added Hans.
“And a roof that's flat with a tree on it,” said I.
Everybody laughed. “Silly,” said Hans. “The tree doesn't stay there.” My face must have shown my disappointment. “Never mind,” he tried to comfort me. “You're only five years old. When you get to be thirteen, like me, you'll know more stuff.”
“She already knows a lot of stuff,” said Papa. “And if you're so smart, young man, how about scraping that mud off your boots before your mother has to speak to you about it again?”
“When will our house be finished, Daddy? Will we move into it soon?” He had called him Daddy, the way English children addressed their papas. I knew he was trying to impress him. But he did start scraping his muddy boots on one of the bricks lying around. Papa sighed deeply.
“I certainly hope so,” he said.
oving vans finally arrived near the end of summer that same year. All our good dishes and glasses and silverware were packed in boxes. The three big oil paintings of my grandfather and his father and my great-great-grandfather were carefully wrapped in burlap to go in the van. Great-great-grandfather, Herz Levy, had lived to be a hundred and three years old, so Papa always told us. And grandfather Maximilian had been the founder of Papa's publishing firm a very long time ago, in 1871. But he and grandmother Eugenie died before I was born. I often wished I could have met them. There had even been room in the van for the grand piano and for Papa's rolltop desk and favorite leather armchair. But a lot of the heavy old dark stuff was left behind. Mama wanted only new, modern things in our new house. “They have to fit in with the modern style,” she said. She picked out a lot of glass and shiny chrome and brightly upholstered furniture. Hans and I got new beds.
Everything was in a big mess, and all the adults were very busy. “Go play somewhere, children,” we were told. “Stay out of the way.”
“Want to explore the place?” Hans asked me. I was thrilled. It wasn't often that my big brother included me in any of his games. “We'll start in the cellar and work our way up,” he informed me. I tagged along behind him.
“It's cold down here,” I complained, hugging myself. “And it smells funny. What are all those bottles?”
“That's wine. Grown-ups like to drink it. When I'm grown-up, I will drink a glass for every meal.” We were standing on a dirt floor. I had goose bumps on my thin arms.
“Even for breakfast?” I asked.
But he ignored my question, choosing to respond to my complaint of the cold. “It's supposed to be cold in a wine cellar. It's good for the wine.”
How did he know all that? I wondered in admiration.
I skipped ahead, into another part of the cellar.
“Look, Hans. This is where Frieda can do the washing and ironing.” This was something I knew about. I had watched our nanny often enough. Here was the washtub, with the corrugated washboard in it. And here, next to it, were the two heavy flat irons. I had seen Frieda use one of these on Papa's starched white shirts, while the other was heating up over a coal fire. Frieda liked to sing while she worked with the irons. Maybe it helped her forget what hard work she was doing. After all, ironing
Papa's shirts and button-on collars was only a part of her work. Frieda looked after me from morning till night. She had been my nanny for as long as I could remember.
Now Hans was pushing a door open. Sunlight came streaming through it from the garden. I followed him outside. A path led down the hill toward the street and all around the front of the house and up again on the other side, where a flight of steep steps led to the main entrance. As usual, Hans got there first. This time I tripped up the steps and scraped my knees. I didn't cry. This sort of thing happened to me almost every day. I always wore Band-Aids on my knees.
We ducked past some moving men into the front foyer.
“Better wipe our shoes off,” I warned Hans, remembering. “You know how Mama feels about mud. Look! White floors!”
“What are these for?” Hans asked, pointing to a neat row of felt slippers lined up by the umbrella stand.
“I think Mama wants us to wear them in the house. So as not to scuff up her white floors.”
We unlaced our shoes and stuffed our feet into the slippers.
“Wheee! You can skate in these!” cried Hans, demonstrating.
“You better not!” I giggled. “Come on. Let's go.”
We found the drawing room and peeked in. The floor-to-ceiling bookshelves were still empty. But a mountain of boxes filled with books was sitting there, waiting to fill
them, as you would expect in the house of a publisher. Papa and my uncle, Onkel Erich owned a company that made nothing but children's books. Grandpa Maximilian Levy had been the founder of it. Even though I was only five, I could already read some of the easier ones. I think Mama, and even Papa, were quite proud of me for that.
One of the moving men came in carrying a rubber tree plant.
“Where do you want this, ma'am?” he asked. I hadn't noticed till just then that Mama was in the room too.
“Right here on the window sill,” she told him. I smiled, remembering how she had imagined her house that winter afternoon, when we were all standing outside in the mud, looking up at nothing more than a framework with a tree on top. But this plant was so tiny! How would it ever grow big enough to reach the ceiling? Would I grow bigger too someday? Just then I heard a peep. I turned and saw another moving man carrying Piepsi, our canary, inside his cage.
“Right under the plant,” Mama directed. Piepsi began to sing.
“He likes it here,” said Hans. “That's because he can look out the window.”
I stepped closer. “Maybe it's because he can see our reflections in the window,” I said. I was looking at Hans and myself in the glassâa lanky boy in short pants, his curly red hair a foot above the light blue ribbon tied into
my own straight, blond hair; my enormous eyes matching the ribbon; my skinny legs in their brown woolen stockings, skinny arms sticking out of my flower-print cotton dress. Every night I prayed that I would soon grow taller and fatter, but so far I hadn't.
Piepsi's singing had drawn Mama's attention to us.
“I thought I told you two to stay out of the way,” she scolded. We laughed and quickly ran through the open glass door that separated the drawing room from the dining room. As we ran, the movers were carrying in the piano, groaning and swearing under their breath.
“Let's get out of here,” cried Hans. I followed him. Now we were in the hallway. Behind a door to the right was the downstairs bathroom. Hans went in and banged the door shut. I kept running. At the end of the hallway I found the kitchen. After a few minutes, Hans joined me there. Cook was busy putting away pots and pans. She was completely surrounded by dishes and glassware and kitchen stuff.
“Shoo! Shoo!” she cried, holding a wooden spoon over her head. “Don't get in my way. You must have something better to do thanâ”
“What's that big white box?” I asked, opening my eyes wide and pointing to an unfamiliar object behind her. It worked. She stopped scolding and turned around.
“What box? Oh, the ice box! Your papa got us this,” she said, proud as could be. “When the man comes to put these big blocks of ice in itâup here, you see?âwe
can keep meat and milk and butter in it, and nothing will spoil. Not bad, huh? What won't they think of next?”
“Won't we need a pantry any more?” asked Hans. I knew he liked to steal stuff from the pantry when he thought nobody was looking. To tell the truth, so did I.
“A pantry? But of course we'll still have a pantry,” said Cook. “Right over here. Who ever heard of anybody not having a pantry?” she laughed. But then she remembered again. “Now get out of here, you two
before you break something. And get your hands off these wine glasses, Hans. They're your mama's best stemware. She'll have my hide if any of them break. Out!”
Hans turned to leave. But I still had something on my mind.
“Could I please have a chocolate sandwich first?” I asked, as sweetly as I could. Cook gave me a funny look.
“Later,” she promised, “as soon as I can find the chocolate. Who can find anything in such a mess?”
White bread and butter with a few thin, dark chocolate wafers between the slices was my favorite treat. Cook made it for me whenever I asked her. She loved to spoil me. But now her mind was set. “Out!” she yelled, waving that wooden spoon again.
This time we both knew she meant it. We were out of there before she could throw her spoon at us.
“Race you upstairs!” cried Hans, and again I followed him. My face felt hot and sweaty with excitement. He won, of course.
We opened doors and banged them shut again. First, the guest room. Mama's sewing machine was already waiting there. So was a chest with all its drawers out on the floor. The drawers were filled with sweaters and other warm clothes. Then, my room. The closets were built in, so that they looked flat in line with the walls.
“It's a nice blue,” I told Hans. “I like it. Mama said your room would be green.”
It was. The big bathroom next door had a tub in it. An inside door from this bathroom led straight into our parents' room.
“They're lucky. They have a balcony,” said Hans.
“So do you,” I pointed out. “See, it's all one from their room to yours.” I remembered Mama dreaming of a balcony that would go straight across the front of the house. We started running from one end to the other, yelling at the top of our lungs. We were making so much noise we didn't hear Frieda come up behind us.
“Stop this racket this minute!”
“Aw, Frieda! We were justâ”
“Never mind what you were just. Whatever will the neighbors think of two such noisy hooligans? Anyway, it's time to wash hands for supper.”
“Can we quickly go see what's up on the next floor? Please? Please?” I asked.
“Well, if you're quick. I'll give you five minutes. And stay out of my room,” she called after us. We were already on our way.
Up another flight. Frieda's room. Another little bathroom. A storage room, full of unpacked boxes and travel trunks. Our playroom, where some boxes had already been opened. My brother's train set spilled out from one, his fort and lead soldiers from another. My dolls and stuffed animals and games were piled up, and some of my play dishes. And more books.
“Here's another door!” cried Hans jubilantly. “Let's see where this one leads to.”
We stepped out on the roof garden. It had a tall chain link fence all around. In back was an overhang with a window, so we could look down into the garden below.
“Look, Hans. I can ride my scooter up here.” I shouted.
“The one I'm getting for my birthday. And roller skates, too.”
“Don't be so sure.”
“You're a horrid brother!” I laughed, and I chased him down three flights of stairs. Our supper of little sausages, called
and potato salad was waiting for us in the cluttered kitchen.