All Because of Stairs by Faith Jenkins
“I met him on the stairs.”
This is how Nana always begins this story... the story of how she met Pop-Pop, my grandfather, during WWII.
I’m spending the weekend with my grandparents, the first in a few years. When I was a young boy every day, I would visit my grandparents with them living only a block away—but when I began high school, my family, moved from New York to Arizona because my dad got promoted. When my parents told me of the move, I was less than thrilled because I knew that it meant having to start over in a new school, make new friends—which I already did not have a lot of, to begin with. One, to be more specific. But, even then, our only interaction is on the bus with hey and bye.
I’m not that good at meeting and befriending new people. I’m more of an introvert and being an only child didn’t help much, either. Besides those changes, it also meant that I wouldn’t see or spend time with my grandparents anymore who, to me, were not only my grandparents, but my only real true friends. No more going to their brownstone apartment after school where Nana always had a snack prepared for me while Pop-Pop puts on one of his favorite Jazz records quizzing me on the artist, and year the song was made. While sometimes taking Nana by the hand for a dance humming and swaying to the music together in the living room with her laughing, as he says, “I still got it.”
Those were the days.
I remember crying the day before the move with Nana reminding me they’re only a phone call away and that we still have the holidays. With Pop-Pop telling me to be strong and to strive to at least join one club as a way for me to enlarge my not very existent friendship circle.
Flash forward six years, back at my grandparent’s brownstone apartment I’m in the living room with the fireplace burning, warming the atmosphere from the brisk winter cold beyond the front door. Nana is in the kitchen. I can smell the sugar cookies as she opens the oven taking the last tray, putting it on top of the stove to cool. Having the atmosphere filled with the mingling scent of the sugar cookies and applewood burning fresh in the fire, Pop-Pop is in front of the bookshelf where he keeps his old Jazz records. After a couple of minutes, he finally decides on a record to play. Putting the disc on the record player, Vince Guaraldi’s voice booms through the room singing Skating.
Nana comes into the living room with a tray of sugar cookies and milk, setting it on the brown wooden coffee table taking a seat next to Pop-Pop on the love seat diagonal from me on the couch.
“So, where were we?” Nana asked.
“Danny boy here wanted to hear the story of how we met,” Pop-Pop explained to Nana.
“Oh, yes now I remember.”
“You’re not tired of hearing that story? I don’t know how many times we told you that story when you were growing up.” Pop-Pop asked me while taking another cookie.
“No, I’m not tired of it. In fact, I love it it’s my favorite story—it gives me a sense of hope that one day I’ll find true lasting love like you both did.” As I said the last part, they both look at each other lovingly with Pop-Pop giving Nana a kiss on her forehead.
“Don’t worry, Danny Boy, you will find her. I can’t say she’ll be as beautiful as your grandmother here,” Pop-Pop joked making Nana blush a little.
“Oh, stop it she’ll be beautiful I know it deep within my bones. But I do want you to remember, Danny, that no relationship is ever perfect, no matter how much it may seem as such. Your grandfather and I have seen and gone through a lot together over the course of our lifetime. Know and understand that marriage is a series of trials and tribulation and that love is pain.”
I won’t lie what she said definitely made me a little nervous because all my life I only ever seen my grandparents happy and in love, and thought this is how married life is gonna be. It hasn’t really dawned on me on how much they really went through. I realize now that of all the years hearing their story I never truly listened. As I ask Nana to tell me the story one more time, I make sure that this time I really listen.
“It was May 8, 1945. This day I’ll always remember because this was the end of the Holocaust and the day I met your grandfather who rescued us out of the Auschwitz death camps. By the time WWII ended, I had witnessed both the deaths of my parents and my younger siblings, Mary and Liam. My father and Liam, along with a few other men, were shot point-blank in the night by Nazi soldiers for trying to escape. Mary died of malnutrition and the flu. My dear mother sacrificed herself for me.”
At this part, Pop-Pop takes Nana’s hand stroking it tenderly. While also rubbing her back as she begins to cry into his shoulder. Telling her in a soothing calming voice “Its, alright I got you, you’re safe now.” After a few moments, Nana recomposes herself and begins again.
“When I was fifteen a Nazi soldier tried to have his way with me. He ordered everyone out of the room explaining that whoever tried to come in will be killed. My mother, not caring for the consequences, ran into the room. Laying her body over mine as a way to protect me, pleading with the soldier to stop and to take her instead, the soldier agreed. Then he proceeded to drag me out of the bed onto the floor and out the door. All the while with me screaming, crying and reaching out to my mother. After all was finished, instead of sleeping in my own bunk, I curled up next to my mother in her bunk. Stroking her hair as she always would do mine while I hummed “Durme, Durme” (Sleep, Sleep) in her ear, like she used to sing whenever my siblings and I couldn’t sleep. My mother became pregnant but ended up dying during childbirth. The baby a girl lived but only for a few days before the soldiers took and killed the baby. By the time the war ended, I was a seventeen-year-old orphan and an only child.
“It was a beautiful day the sun was fully out as I sat on the steps doodling in the dirt with my stick. I was looking up at a few birds flying above when I heard a bunch of commotion and footprints running everywhere. I overheard one person say, “It’s freedom day. God has delivered us,” as they ran towards the entrance of the camp. There were soldiers everywhere, carrying rifles, shooting at and arresting Nazi soldiers. while other soldiers were leading some people to the entrance of the camp. Scared and confused I got up staying partly hidden between the door frame and the wall when I heard a man approach.”
The phone rang startling all of us. Nana said she’ll get it and asked Pop-Pop to continue with the story.
“At this time America got wind of what was taking place in Germany with the greatest recorded genocide in history. We allied with Europe to end Hitler’s Nazi regime. When the Second World War ended in 1945, we stormed into the camps. I was only nineteen years old when I got enlisted and helped storm Auschwitz. We were split into two main groups. The first groups were to find, arrest and/or kill any Nazi soldier. While the other half was to find and rescue all the Jewish victims. I was a part of the first group. I’m not gonna lie I wanted to be in the second group because, as you know, I can’t take seeing a lot of blood, let alone a dead body. After seeing all the blood and men getting shot on both sides, I couldn’t take it. I started throwing up really bad. One of my buddies had to take over for me as I went off to the side somewhere to get relief. Once my stomach finally settled down, I decided to look around for survivors. I was wandering around for a while not knowing I was on the women’s side of the camp, when I was checking the white houses, each packed inside with bunked beds and some tin gray buckets.”
“When I got to the last house in the row, I noticed a drawing of birds in the dirt. Then I heard a slight sneeze putting me back on alert. Pointing my gun out in front of me asking whoever is hiding to show themselves. When the person sneezed again, I had a feeling that this person was a girl because the sneeze reminded me of how my mother sneezes. I loosen my grip on my gun, lowering it as I reassure the frightened girl that I won’t hurt her. Explaining that I’m an American soldier here to take her away from this place, forever. Your grandmother slowly comes from her hiding position behind the door frame. I can see she was still scared and wary of me. So, as a way to get her to trust me, I take one slow step onto the first step. Then I reached out my hand as I introduced myself.”
“’My name is Private James Longwood. I’m a part of the United States Army. I won’t hurt you, you’re safe now.’ Your grandmother pondered this for a second, then she walked down one step, putting her hand in mine, telling me her name is Avigail.”
By this time, I noticed Pop-Pop reached his hand out to Nana, interlocking their fingers together with Nana asking if she could finish the last part.
“As I held onto your grandfather’s hand, as he leads me down the steps, we both stopped. As I looked into his blue eyes, I knew I would be safe for the rest of my life.” Nana concludes, all the while looking into Pop-Pop’s eyes with Pop-Pop adding, “I knew at that moment looking into those dark brown eyes I wanted to keep you safe for the rest of your life.”