Back Up

ONE RAINY AFTERNOON, after we’d eaten our fill of cookies on the back stairs, Katie-Ann and I crept farther up. Gramma didn’t like us there. I guess it was ‘cuz she couldn’t see what we were up to. But it was a rainy day in Detroit, so what else were two cousins to do?

On the left side, at the top of the stairs, was an immense, deep ledge. We passed it every night on our way up to bed, and again every morning on our way back down. It was stacked to the ceiling with boxes, folded Afghans, pillows, lamp shades, a dressmaker’s dummy, an army helmet, hat boxes, a brass-and-marble pedestal ashtray with a greyhound-shaped handle, tattered paintings, a battered steamer trunk, a lumpy green duffel; and that was just what we could see from the stairs. Katie-Ann and I wondered what else was stashed there, and why we’d never thought to have a look before. But we hadn’t. Until now.

The first boxes we opened were filled with useless oddities: rubber nipples from baby bottles, tops from Mason jars, clothes pins. We laid these boxes aside. The next box contained a blue metal airplane with military decals on its fold-up wings. I yanked it from the box and flew it around the landing, vrooming away as I banked and dipped. Katie-Ann found a beat-up doll that she tossed aside and lunged for my plane.

“Lemme have it!” she said, grabbing hold.

I gave her a push as I snatched the plane back, not noticing that I had shoved her toward the stairs.

But the crash got my attention!

I whipped around and found Katie-Ann sprawled out on the ledge where boxes and blankets used to be. Piles of paraphernalia disappeared down the steps.

The kitchen door squeaked opened and Gramma called up, “You kids upstairs? Was macht Ihr? Are you all right?”

Our eyes fixed on one another as we heard her feet treading up the stairs.

“What is all this? What’re you kids doing? Are you all right?”

The look on Gramma’s face as she rounded the corner said everything we needed to know.

“Sorry, Gramma,” I said.

“Sorry,” echoed Katie-Ann. “We’ll clean it up.”

“What were ya doin’? You’re not supposed t’ be up here,” she said as she gathered up a couple of displaced pillows.

“I see ya found Uncle Max’s airplane," she said to me. "He loved playin’ with that when he was your age.”

I had a hard time imagining crotchety Uncle Max ever playing with anything, and wondered whether, at my age, he already had wiry hairs poking out of his nose and ears.

“Papa’s letters!” sighed Gramma. She bent over to collect the yellowed envelopes strewn about the stairs. A photo slipped from one and fluttered toward the kitchen.

Katie-Ann raced to get it.

“Who're these people?” she asked, handing the photo to Gramma.

“That’s my Pa and his sister Berta. I'm named after her,” she said, smiling at the happy pair who smiled back at her. “He was your great-grandpa and she was your great-grand-aunt. And these are letters they wrote to each other when they were just a little older than you two.”

There were lots of letters. How many could two kids write?

Gramma sat on the top step and began ordering them. She became very quiet, like she was thinking about something else. She smiled.

 “Why would they write letters to each other?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Katie-Ann. “They lived in the same house, didn’t they?”

Ach, Ihr Liebe! You don’t know about Papa and Tante Berta, do you?” she asked, pulling a letter from its envelope. She unfolded the delicate old paper and began reading it to us...