My father did a good job of bringing me up. He needed some help, of course. He was working full-time as a local newspaper reporter, so he was not able to be at home all the time. But he found an older woman in town to take care of me during the day. She cooked and cleaned and changed my diapers and played with me. Her name was Claire Wahl (rhymes with doll). But I always called her Aunt Claire because I loved her just like she was part of my family.
Later, when I was older, I found out a strange thing about Aunt Claire. That day, after she had left for home, my father and I were eating supper, talking about our days—as usual.
“What did you and Aunt Claire do today?” he was asking me.
I told him.
Then I thought of a question. “Father,” I asked, “where did Aunt Claire come from?”
He chewed his food thoughtfully before he answered me. “I put an ad in the newspaper,” he said. “For a babysitter.”
I thought about that for a minute. “But where is she from, Father? Did she always live here?”
“No, Vickie, not always. In fact, she had only been here a day or so when she saw the ad and applied for the job.”
“A day or so? Where was she before?”
“I don’t really know. She had some letters of reference—some names of people I could call to check on her. But I never did.”
“I don’t know—I just knew after talking to her for five minutes that she was perfect. I didn’t need anyone else’s opinion.”[i]
Aunt Claire had ideas of her own about how I ought to be brought up. “Girls should know how to cook and sew,” she always said. “And so should boys. How can you live in the world if you don’t know how to fix your own lunch or repair a rip in your underwear?” That was a good question. I didn’t want to go around hungry … or with rips in my underwear. Who would? She said, “These are not girl skills, Vickie. They are human ones.”
And so she taught me how to cook and sew, and by the time I was in elementary school, I was helping to cook for my father, fixing the rips in his shirts (not his underwear), replacing the missing buttons. By the time I was in third grade I made all my own clothes. And so I didn’t look much like other girls in Franconia. Usually, this didn’t bother me.
Aunt Claire taught me something else, too. German. She spoke the language fluently. And when Father was away, she would speak only German to me. I don’t remember this, of course (I was an infant), but Father told me that he didn’t know anything about it for a while. He just assumed that those sounds I was making were typical baby sounds—nonsense syllables. But when I started saying whole sentences in German, asking questions in German, he realized what was going on.
Aunt Claire told me about it later, when I was older. (She told me in German, but I’m going to write it in English.)
“Your father was a little bit upset,” she told me. “He didn’t know I was talking German to you.”
“Why didn’t you tell him?”
“I was afraid he would say no.”
“That’s the same reason I don’t ask him some things,” I said. “I didn’t know adults did things like that, too.”
“Adults are just children with jobs and larger clothes,” she said.
“But why did you teach me German, Aunt Claire?” I asked. “You’ve never told me.”
She looked at me strangely for a moment, then said lightly: “Who knows?” And she would never say another word about it.
My father never owned a TV set. He said that television was an invention designed to make people stupid and to want things they can’t afford. We did own a radio. But Father rarely turned it on, and he would not let me listen to it.
Not that I ever wanted to.
My father was my television, my radio. Our books were our television, our radio. He read to me every night, even when I was older and could read by myself. He would sit on my bed and read aloud until one of us fell asleep. When I was really young, I always fell asleep first, but by the time I was eight or nine, he would nod off before I did. I would gently remove the book from his hand and then use the edge of the cover to tickle his cheek. Then he would wake up—sort of.
“You asleep?” he would ask.
“Yes,” I would answer. “I’m sound asleep.”
“Good. I’ll talk to you in the morning. Guhnight.” And then he would struggle to his feet, turn off the light, and trudge slowly out of my room and down the hall to his own.
As soon as I heard his bedroom door click shut, I would turn my light back on and read on into the night. I don’t think I was fooling him, though. Because every morning my light would be off and my book would be on my desk—even when I knew I’d fallen asleep with my light on and with my book open across my chest.
Our house, as you might guess, was full of books. Every room—even the dining room—had shelves for books. We had bookshelves in the bathrooms! My father belonged to book clubs, he bought books at library sales, he ordered them from catalogues, he went on book-buying sprees in Columbus and Cincinnati. Both of us regularly brought armloads of books home from the public library.
I never thought anything was strange about that, not until I visited other houses and noticed that some of them had no books at all. I feel sorry for people who have no books. It’s worse than having no friends. Much worse. A friend can move away. A friend can betray you.