Junior High had been an adjustment for Sondra. The students from Lincoln’s three grammar schools all came together under one roof, and she was chagrined to find herself sitting in classrooms where she did not know even half the kids. By the time winter break came, though, she had found her place as one of the better students and had been asked to serve on the newspaper staff. Also among the crew was Jane Tucker, whose father was a minister. Petite like Sondra, she had curly, blonde hair that she was always playing with. As vivacious as Sondra was self-contained, the two girls shared a love of books, learning, and daydreams. They became good friends.
Howie had also found his place. As a talented basketball player he immediately became part of the cool crowd. He was still the same Howie, but some of the things Sondra noticed his friends doing bothered her. When she saw a couple of them making fun of Charlie Borden, one of the special-education students, she decided to mention it to her cousin.
“Oh, Sondra, they didn’t mean anything by it,” Howie remonstrated. “Charlie likes the attention.”
“I don’t think so,” Sondra shook her head. “They ended up taking some money from him, too.”
“So what do you want me to do about it?”
“Talk to them.”
“Like they’re going to listen to me.” Howie’s voice was sarcastic.
“Why not?” Sondra was perfectly serious.
Howie made a face. “I’m not a preacher. I’m just one of the kids.”
“Okay,” Sondra could not hide her disappointment in her cousin and he was stung by her unspoken criticism. There was a subtle coolness between the two cousins for the next couple of days. It could have gone on forever if Aunt Irene hadn’t had her annual Hanukkah party.
She had it every year on Sunday, when the store was closed and no one could claim they had to work. All the family in Lincoln would come. This year Sondra was thrilled that her cousin, Bernice, was home from Oklahoma University for the weekend and would stay for the gathering. It always began with candle lighting and then came the food -latkes, chopped liver, various salads, and kugels. The emphasis was definitely on food and there had never been a gift exchange. This year there was a break in that tradition.
“I’ve eaten more than was good for me,” Oscar rose abruptly from his chair before the Hanukkah lights had burned down. “Are you ready, Uncle Simon?”
The old gentleman shook his head. “You go ahead. Berta will take me home, right?”
Cousin Berta nodded her head. It had been more of a command than a question.
Before walking out the door, Oscar gruffly handed out envelopes to Howie, Lisa, Bernice, and Sondra. He left quickly before they could open them.
Howie was the first to tear his open and was startled to see a check inside.
“Fifteen hundred dollars!” the boy exclaimed.
“Let me see that,” Herbert grabbed the check out of his son’s hand.
Immediately the girls opened their envelopes and found checks
for the same amount.
Dumbfounded, Julius raced outside to try and catch his cousin, but Oscar was already gone. He returned to the living room and a babble of excitement.
“Where did he get all that money from?”
“Can I buy a car?”
“Think what he could do with all that money.”
“Isn’t that just like Oscar. Hand out a small fortune and not stay to get thanked.”
“It’s money from Germany,” Uncle Simon spoke up from the easy chair he was reclining in. “Oscar doesn’t want it.”
With his cryptic explanation, the adults all began discussing their experiences with the endless forms they had filled out in order to receive their retributions money. Sondra did not know if she was the only one to notice her mother’s stillness and pale face, but after a few minutes Helga reached out and pulled at Julius’s arm. Quickly her father stood up.
“Well, Irene, it was delicious, but I have to get up early tomorrow and milk those
Cows.” He spoke jovially as usual and made his rounds saying good night. Helga said little to anyone and the short ride home was a silent one.
Later when he thought Sondra was upstairs in bed, Julius carefully broached the subject again.
“You know, you’re entitled to more money than I received. Don’t you think we should open a file?”
“The money can’t bring the dead back to life,” Helga snapped. “Why should I help the Nazis ease their consciences?”
“There’s a lot we could do with the money,” Julius spoke softly.
“I… I don’t want to talk about it,” Helga retreated into silence as she always did when anything to do with Holocaust was mentioned.
Thirsty from all the liver and latkes, Sondra had come down the stairs to get a drink. She stopped on the last step, not fully understanding the conversation, but knowing she was not supposed to have overheard it. Silently she went back up the stairs, ignoring her thirst. The dialogue between her parents was not forgotten, but stored it in her memory to puzzle over from time to time.
The next morning Howie couldn’t wait to talk about the money. The excitement of the gifts had broken the coolness between the two of them. Sondra listened patiently to what kind of car Howie wanted to buy. Her check would lie in the bank collecting interest for her college education. The two cousins agreed that they would not tell anyone at school about their gift.
Comfortable with their agreement and shared secret, both were careful not to cause another rift. Sondra resolved to try not to criticize her cousin. Howie decided that if some of the cool kids wanted to act like jerks, that was their business, but he would be extra careful not to copy them. The two of them were able to stick to their resolutions - for a while.