by Janice Shefelman
Illustrated by Tom Shefelman
CHRISTMAS EVE, 1861
Dear Reader, I am afraid for us.
Terrible things are happening to Germans like us because we are on the wrong side of the war. We are Unionists in a state that has left the Union and joined the Confederacy.
What an awful way to begin my new journal - especially on Christmas Eve, the time of peace on earth and good will to men. But I have promised myself to write only the truth here.
This Christmas there is no peace and good will. There is a war going on, the war between the states, between the North and South. I don't mean that battles are being fought here in Texas - not yet anyway. But I have read stories in the newspaper about Germans being hanged for their belief in saving the Union.
By Union I mean the United States. We Germans want this country to stay together. But the southern states seceded and formed the Confederacy. Now only the North is called the Union. And we are killing each other to decide whether we are one country or two.
So I worry whenever Papa is late coming home, like tonight. He had gone on a hauling trip for Faltin Mercantile Store. I tried to forget my worries while I hung ornaments on the cedar tree. Still, I listened for Max, our sheepdog. He always makes happy yelps when Papa is coming. All I heard was the sizzling fire in the fireplace and Mama talking to Willie in the kitchen.
"Put the forks on the left, Liebchen," she said.
Setting the table is a girl's task, but Willie doesn't know. He is only three years old. The door between us was closed so he could not see the Christmas tree until after supper.
I took the glass strawberry out of the box. Last Christmas it came from Grossmutter, my grandmother, who lives in Germany. This year we did not get a package from her because President Lincoln has ordered a blockade of our Gulf ports.
I hung the strawberry and started worrying about Papa again. What if the Vigilance Committee waylaid him? I thought if I went out on the gallery to watch, he would come. So I took my woolen shawl from the hook beside the door and stepped out. Wonder of wonders! Snow was falling! Never in the twelve years that we have lived in Texas has it snowed on Christmas Eve. Big flakes floated down, covering Mama's flower garden and the paths. Nothing evil could happen on such a magical night.
Max came to me and licked my fingers. I knelt to stroke his black fur, the white around his neck, and the blaze down his nose. Suddenly his ears pricked. He lifted his nose, sniffing the air, and with a yelp bounded off toward the side gate. I knew it was Papa. Draping the shawl over my head, I followed Max and opened the gate. Together we ran down the road toward Cypress Creek.
And then I saw him through the white veil. He walked beside the two oxen as they pulled the wagon up the hill - his head high, his back straight. A sprinkling of snow lay across the broad shoulders of his coat and on his hat.
"Papa!" I called. "You're home! I was getting worried."
"Ja, kleine Sophie." He is the only one who can call me little Sophie.
When I reached him, he put one arm around my shoulders, and I fell into step while Max jumped all around us, yelping for joy. Papa smelled of cold, fresh air. I looked up at him and let the flakes land on my face. He is a tall, handsome man, my papa. Everyone says I favor him. We both have dark, curly hair, dimples, and a widow's peak. He does not wear a beard, but no one would take him for a boy.
"How are Willie and your mother?"
"They are both well, Papa." I knew he was concerned about Mama because she is with child. "How was your trip? Did you sell any paintings?"
"Only two - Cypress Cathedral and Sheep Safely Grazing. San Antonio is not exactly Dresden."
I ran ahead to open the wagon gate, and Papa turned off the road. As we headed toward the barn, the front door opened, and Willie darted out, squealing about Papa and the snow.
Mama was behind him, her blonde hair braided and wrapped around her head like a halo. "Friedrich!" she called.
Papa strode through the garden gate, swept Willie up and enclosed the two of them in his arms.
"Where is the Weihnachtsmann?" Willie asked. That is what we call Santa Claus.
"He's coming yet, Willie. Now go inside before you catch cold - and don't look at the tree!" Papa set him down and started for the barn with Max at his heels. Then he turned. "Bring a lantern, will you Sophie?"
By the time I got to the barn, Papa had driven the wagon into the passageway. I hung the lantern on a hook and closed the barn doors. While he removed the yoke I put some hay in the manger for the oxen.
Then Papa climbed into the wagon, ducked under the canvas cover, and handed me a large bag of oranges. I embraced it, inhaling the tangy smell.
"It wouldn't be Christmas without oranges," I said. Papa smiled, but I sensed that there was something on his mind. "What's wrong?" I asked.
He chuckled. "Nothing escapes you, does it Sophie?"
"Nein . . ." I replied, waiting.
"I think you should know about this, but you must not speak a word to your mother."
I shook my head, dreading what was to come.
"On the way home I passed by a German farmstead. The house had been burned to the ground, and the owner hung from a tree out front."
I gasped. "Why, Papa?" But I knew why.
"For being a Unionist, Sophie. For wanting to save the Union."
I could not speak for a moment. We could be next. Papa draws newspaper cartoons that criticize the Confederacy.
"Was it the Vigilance Committee?" I asked.
"Oh Papa, please, I beg you . . . don't speak out anymore! At least don't send cartoons to the Zeitung. Couldn't you just pretend to be for the Confederacy?"
He shook his head. "Nein, Sophie. I'll not pretend. I'll not condone slavery."
"But couldn't you just keep your thoughts to yourself?"
Papa stepped near and clasped my shoulders. "Sophie, that is why we left Germany - so we could be free to say what we think. Ja?"
I said nothing.
He looked at me for a moment. "A man is not a man if he cannot speak his mind."
"I know, Papa. He is a dead man surely." I clapped my hand over my mouth. What if saying makes it so?
Papa's arms dropped to his side, and he took a step back.
"There are things worse than death, Sophie."
"What? What could possibly be worse?"
"Not being true to oneself."
"I don't care about that! I don't care about slaves or the Union. I don't want the war to come here. I don't want anything to change or . . . or die. Not ever, ever, ever!" There was a hard lump in my throat that would not go away even when I swallowed. And though I blinked to keep back the tears, they ran down my cheeks.
Papa took out his linen handkerchief. "Here, Sophie, wipe your eyes."
We stood in silence for a time. The only sound came from the oxen eating. I kept the handkerchief over my face.
"Sophie," Papa said at last, "everything does change whether you want it to or not. Everything that is alive grows and changes."
I looked at him. "And dies!"
"Sophie, you will grow into a young woman and marry and have children of your own, my grandchildren - perhaps another kleine Sophie."
"But how am I to get another papa?" I screamed, then turned and ran out of the barn, through the snow, to the house. I burst into the living room, dropped my shawl on the sofa, and began to decorate the tree, furiously. As I worked, the strawberry fell to the floor and shattered.
"Ach, nein!" I said, staring at the pieces.
Mama opened the kitchen door a crack. "Sophie, what did you break?"
I told her and began to sweep it up. My beloved strawberry was gone. Luck and glass - how easily they break. And all because of this dreadful war.
In the beginning I thought we were safe in our valley of the Guadalupe River with hills all around. The San Antonio Zeitung had stories about battles in faraway places like Virginia and South Carolina. But now the war is coming closer. You might say it is my war because it started this year on April 12, my twelfth birthday. Even so, what can I do about it? I'm just a young girl.
Soon Papa was stomping the snow off his boots out on the gallery. From the corner of my eye I saw him come in and set a bag on the floor by the tree.
"The Weihnachtsmann left this outside," he said. "You had better go in the kitchen while I put the gifts under the tree. I'll finish the decorating."
He hung his coat on a chair before the fire and stood there a moment with his back to me, warming his hands. In his brown waistcoat, his shoulders looked so broad and strong that suddenly I felt safe. Papa was home.
Turning around he said, "One last word, Sophie. Let's not waste the moment at hand for fear of the future. Or, as the Romans would say, carpe diem . . . seize the day."
I like to hear Papa speak Latin. It has a noble sound.
"Now, off you go, Sophie, and get my supper ready," he said. "I'm surely starving!"
Earlier Mama and I prepared herring salad, sweet potatoes, and ambrosia. The kitchen table was draped with a dark green cloth and set with our Meissen plates. In the center stood a white swan bowl filled with pansies from our garden.
Mama was in the bedroom changing Willie's dress. Papa will be glad when Willie is old enough to wear trousers. I think Mama does not want to admit that he is no longer her baby boy.
In a moment Papa opened the door and closed it quickly behind him. While he rubbed his hands over the cooking stove, Willie and Mama came into the kitchen. She had changed into her red silk Christmas dress. It lent her face a glow. Or maybe it was Papa's homecoming. I hope so.
All during supper Willie kept looking at the door to the living room. He swung his legs and scarcely ate anything.
"The Weihnachtsmann surely does not visit little boys until they finish supper," Mama said, which prompted Willie to eat a few bites.
At last Papa said, "I'll see if he has come, Willie."
Presently we heard the little brass bell ring, and Willie squealed, "He's come, he's come!"
Papa opened the door, and we all gasped. Our tree glowed with candles. Though the strawberry was gone, the orange and apple ornaments sparkled in the candlelight. Cookies hung waiting to be plucked and eaten. Under the tree and in its branches lay gifts.
Willie stood looking at the tree. "A little horse!" he said and started toward it. Mama took his hand. "Ja, Liebchen, but first we sing, remember?" She led him to the piano in the far corner. Willie climbed up on the bench beside her. Mama rubbed her hands together a moment and began to play. We sang "O Tannenbaum," even though our tree was a cedar, and Tannenbaum means fir tree.
"O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum,
How faithful are your branches.
Not only green in summertime,
But also in freezing wintertime . . ."
Outside the wind gusted against our log and stone house but could not get in. We were snug and safe - at least for now, and according to Papa that is all that matters.
As soon as we finished singing, Willie rushed to the tree and reached for the little horse. Only then did he see a wooden man with yellow hair straddling a branch above. He took both and sat on the rug before the fire, intent on fitting the man on his horse.
Beneath the tree lay a small leatherbound book with a cover of blue marbled paper.
"For you, Sophie," Papa said. "The Weihnachtsmann brought it all the way from Venice."
I picked it up and ran my hand over the cover. "How beautiful!" I opened it and turned through the blank pages. "A journal!" I looked at Papa. "How could the Weihnachtsmann know this is the very thing I wanted most?"
"He knows everything," Willie said.
"You are right, Willie Boy," said Papa and turned back to me. "If you want to be a writer, Sophie, keeping a journal is as important as an artist keeping a sketchbook."
"I'll start it tonight, Papa."
For Mama there was a black silk shawl printed with red roses. Papa draped it around her shoulders. She looked down at the shawl, smiling, and then up at Papa.
If only they were always so loving. It seems there is a strange war in our household. Mama does not like Texas and wants to go back to Dresden. But Papa could not go back even if he wanted to, because he would be put in prison - or worse.
Later, after Papa banked the fire, I took my journal and a candle and climbed the stairs to the half story where Papa has his studio and I have my room under the eaves. I put on my nightdress, robe, and slippers. With a blanket wrapped around me I sit at my writing table in front of the window and dip my quill in the ink bottle.
I will write this journal like a novel, with the words people say as best as I can remember them. The book will be called Sophie's War, because I have a feeling that the coming year will be about the war. And I will write only when I have something significant to record.
Outside the snow swirls, piling even higher on the branches of the peach trees. In here I am safe and warm, separated from the rest of the world by the falling snow.
But tomorrow who can say?