By Shelly Reuben
My Mostly Happy Life: Autobiography of a Climbing Tree Chapter 24

Illustrations by Ruth McGraw

Chapter 24 – When the Lights Go On Again

Night had fallen and the stars were already out when Esther finished helping her grandmother turn a temporary disaster relief station back into a family home. 

Ghita was drying a last few dishes.

Esther approached the older woman, put an arm around her shoulders, and said, “Grandma, you’re a hero.”

Although Esther was her late husband’s favorite grandchild, Ghita had never quite known what to make of her. She was very like Sam in her quick mind and independent spirit. But she was unlike Sam in that he had a strong streak of domesticity and he loved children. All children. Particularly his own. Esther, though, was bored by infants, and when asked outright if she ever planned on having babies, would say without hesitation, “Absolutely not.”

As a result, Ghita felt less of a kinship with Esther and more with her other grandchildren. 

But there was something about her – about the girl herself. When Esther smiled, the whole world smiled. When her eyes danced, one wanted to pick up a tambourine and dance along with those eyes. 

Ghita may not have understood Esther, but Esther enchanted her.

What she did not realize, and could not perceive when it was pointed out to her, was that Esther in her mid-twenties looked exactly as Ghita had looked at the same age. Ghita and her granddaughter had the same mesmerizing eyes. The same tentative smile. The same glossy black hair. The same high forehead, high cheekbones, and oval jaw. 

When Ghita looked at Esther, she was looking at her younger self. A self, perhaps, with a greater spirit of adventure and a lesser need to be coddled, but a mirror image in a time machine nonetheless.

Ghita affectionately patted her granddaughter’s hand.

“I’m not hero,” she said. “Just organized. Speaking of which, what are you planning to do with the aerial ropeway you rigged up?”  

Esther glanced toward the window.

“No hurry on that. Tomorrow, when Merritt and his buddies are through leaping tall buildings at a single bound, I’ll ask them to bring back the fire truck and take it down.”

Ghita tossed her dish towel on the kitchen counter, briefly closed her eyes, and sighed. Esther’s eyes followed the towel’s trajectory, saw a portable radio on the counter where it had fallen, and impulsively turned it on.

“What channel do you usually listen to?” she asked her grandmother.

“The one that plays oldies. Songs from when I was a girl.”

Esther fiddled with the dial. A familiar melody filled the room. She put one hand on her grandmother’s shoulder, the other around her waist, swiveled her around, and began to waltz the older woman around the room.

At aged 74, Ghita was slim, erect, and stylish. Her once black hair, now luminously silver, was like a nimbus of spun glass. It framed her head in loose curls, giving softness to an essentially angular face. The skin around her eyes and mouth had a delicate tracery of creases, but a perfection of bone structure dominated her face. 

As a young woman, Ghita had been stunning. As an older woman, she was beautiful.    

She laughed as Esther led her in a graceless ballet between the sink and the hall door, around the kitchen table and back again to the door.

My Mostly Happy Life: Autobiography of a Climbing Tree Chapter 24

 

Two minutes later, Ghita stopped and pushed her granddaughter away. “Enough,” she said.

 

And then asked, “Coffee, darling?”

 

“I’d love a cup, Grandma. But let me get it for you.”

 

Ghita nodded gratefully, pulled out a chair, and wearily sank into it.

 

Esther busied herself with coffee, milk, sugar, and two cups. She put one in front of Ghita and the other in front of an opposite chair. She sat.

 

“Grandma,” she asked pensively, “What was it like during the war?”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“I mean what was it like here at home?  What was it like waiting for grandpa?”

 

Ghita stared at her granddaughter, an expression of gentle incredulity on her face. After a long moment, she raised an eyebrow and smiled.

 

“Darling, when the war ended, I was only ten years old. Your grandfather and I didn’t meet until a decade later. He was twenty-four years older than I.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Really.”

 

“So you don’t remember the war?”

 

“I didn’t say that. I remember it perfectly. Your great grandfather – my father – was overseas, and my mother worked in the garment district, making uniforms for soldiers.”  

 

“How long was your father gone?”

 

“The whole time. Until after Japan surrendered.”

 

“Did you miss him?”

 

“That’s a silly question. Of course I missed him. We both did, terribly. And we never stopped worrying about him.”

 

“So how did you get through it all?”

 

“Through what?”

 

“The fear. The worrying. The wondering.”

 

“Why are you asking, dear?”

 

Esther stood and walked to the open window. Her slim, proud shoulders slumped with fatigue, and her graceful body sagged against the window frame. It had stopped raining and the air felt heavy and wet. She looked outside. All that could be seen in the blacked out city were phantom silhouettes. Water covered every sidewalk and street. Water sloshed against the rocky perimeter of the park and huddled against exterior walls of apartment buildings. Cars had been overturned by the onrush of the tide, tree branches floated amid debris, and off in the distance, a man rowed a canoe around a corner and out of sight.

 

She turned away from the window and answered her grandmother’s question.

 

“All day, Grandma, I’ve been remembering Grandpa’s stories about World War II. How people suffered and what they endured. And all day, I’ve been thinking about what people are suffering now. This very instant. After this terrible storm. They’re cold and hungry. Scared and confused. They don’t know what to expect or what to do. Some can try to go home, but what if their homes are gone? What if they were swept away in the flood? What if their parents or children or lovers are gone? They must be asking themselves if they’ll still have a family tomorrow, still have a home, still have a job. Maybe they’re wondering if there will even be a tomorrow.”

 

Esther returned to the table and grabbed Ghita’s hands. 

 

“I know that what we’re experiencing today is small potatoes compared to what Grandpa went through, and I know that today is just one day out of thousands in our lives. But it was a terrible, terrible day, so I was wondering…”

 

What Esther was wondering drifted into a haze of conjecture, and her sentence hung unfinished in the air.

 

For ten seconds, Ghita said nothing. She stared at the ceiling, thinking, recollecting, and thinking some more. Then a few chords from a piano filtered into to her consciousness. She stood, walked to the radio, reached for the volume control knob, and turned it up. 

 

“Grandma?”  Esther asked, puzzled.

 

Ghita returned to the table, her lips curved into the barest hint of a smile, and her eyes focused on a faraway memory

 

“You asked how we got through the war, darling,” she said.

 

Lyrics and melody streamed from the radio speakers, glanced off the walls, floor, and ceiling, and made a soft landing in Ghita Swerling’s heart. 

 

“Music, Esther. Music. That’s how we got through the war.”

 

A radio announcer’s velvety voice supplanted the song. 

 

“Today, my friends, our city has withstood far too much in far too short a time, and we aren’t done yet. To get through the worst of it, we’ll need a whole lot more than strong arms and clenched jaws. We’ll need the kind of resolve that got our grandpappies and grandmammies through World War II. So, Folks, for the next twenty-four hours, we’re gonna let that wonderful generation be our guide. We’ll turn back the clock, play their music, listen to their songs, and remind ourselves that courage and optimism aren’t just words in a dictionary. They are a lifeline to hope.”

 

The announcer stopped talking, a big band orchestra began to play, and a songstress sang:

 

 It’s a lovely day tomorrow

 

Tomorrow is a lovely day. 

 

Esther walked to the counter, picked up the radio, and carried it to the kitchen window.

 

She turned the speakers toward the park, turned the volume up full blast, and returned to her seat. 

 

She and Ghita continued to drink coffee.  They continued to listen. 

 

The next song seemed to have been written, not only for warriors of days gone by, but also for our city, our storm, and our dwindling reserves of strength.

 

There’s A Land of Begin Again

 

On the other side of the hill. 

 

Ghita got to her feet. 

 

“Come, Esther,” she said. “Let’s go to the park.” 

 

Esther also rose. “Good idea.  Except…”  She hesitated. “We’ll have to walk down six flights of stairs with flashlights in the dark.”

 

Ghita gently slapped Esther on the back of a hand. 

 

“Don’t you worry about me, Child. But if you’re scared, I can carry you down on my back.”

 

Esther laughed, “Grandma, you’re wonderful.”

 

Ghita nodded, “Yes, I am.”  She opened the door to the hall. As it whooshed shut behind them, the radio sang:  

 

Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye,

 

With a cheer, not a tear, make it gay.

 

Esther and Ghita descended the stars, crossed the darkened lobby, and sloshed into the street, expecting the music from their radio to have vanished by the time they reached street level. Instead, though, the farther they got from The Darlington, the louder it became. 

 

We’ll meet again,

 

Don’t know where, don’t know when,

 

But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.

 

Esther looked up.

 

Ghita looked up.

 

All of the windows in all the apartments in all the buildings surrounding the Samuel Swerling Park were open.

 

They glanced from window to window to window, and in each saw the shadowy outlines of men and women illuminated by the flickering lights of candles. And reflected in the candlelight’s glow, they observed the metal knobs of portable radios

 

Dozens of them. 

 

One on each windowsill.

 

All tuned to the same station.

 

And all playing the same song.

 

Keep smiling through,

 

Just like you always do,

 

Till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away. 

 

Esther and Ghita climbed the steps to the Samuel Swerling Park and walked through the gate.

 

Esther turned one way.

 

Ghita turned the other.

 

As Sam’s granddaughter strode through the midnight darkness along the brick path, she was approached time after time by companionable strangers whose faces she could barely see, but whose hands she eagerly shook. She was thanked by tearful neighbors who identified themselves with their street addresses or apartment numbers, and by children who proudly held up the stringed cat’s cradles that they had learned to make on the park’s bridge. A boy with big amber eyes and a brave heart tugged on Esther’s sleeve and challenged her to a game of Tic-Tac-Toe; a girl told of a magician who had pulled a silver dollar out of her ear; and an elderly couple who had known her grandfather twenty years before said that they still missed him, and thanked the Swerling family for giving them refuge in the park. Every few feet, she was greeted with more gratitude, more recollections of Sam, and more love.

 

When she finally made her way through the well-wishers to their preordained meeting place in the Children’s Garden, Esther warmly embraced her parents, her brother Noah, her Uncle Tennyson, her Aunt Honor, and Meg’s parents, Arthur and Pegeen.

 

She looked around for her best friend.

 

“Where’s Meg?” 

 

Meg’s mother pointed. 

 

Esther followed Pegeen’s finger with her eyes.

 

She blinked twice, not quite believing what she saw. For there, on a bench facing the statue that her mother had created years ago for Ethan’s Best Friend, was Meg Fitzgerald herself. 

 

And she was not alone.  

 

Sitting beside her was Carmichael Swerling. Esther’s brother Carmichael. The same brother on whom Meg had proclaimed only days before that she’d once had a “colossal crush.” 

 

Carmichael’s right arm was curved around Meg’s right shoulder, her head was resting on his chest, and she was sound asleep.

My Mostly Happy Life: Autobiography of a Climbing Tree Chapter 24

Esther chuckled. Then she said aloud, more to herself than to anyone else, “Destiny.” 

She turned to her mother and asked, “Where’s Grandma?”

This time, it was Donna who pointed.

Again, Esther followed a finger with her eyes.

They tracked a direct line out of the Children’s Garden, up a path, across the little stone bridge, and past several benches. 

They found Ghita.

But Esther’s grandmother was no longer alone.

During the half-hour since they had parted, Ghita wandered here and there within the park, greeting people she did not know, accepting praise for her late husband’s achievements, and graciously responding to the gratitude expressed by so many for the food, warmth, and shelter that her family had provided after the storm. Ghita inquired about their comfort, asked about their needs, and drifted from person to person, as gracefully as a hostess welcoming guests to a dance.  

She was on her way to me (for, as with her children and her children’s children, I was her favorite tree) when I saw it happened.

Esther saw it, too.

A little boy, barely visible in the darkness, darted out from behind a bush, crying, “Mommy!” and almost crashed into Ghita. In trying to avoid a collision, she swiveled abruptly and dropped her flashlight. The boy’s mother swooped up her child, apologized profusely, and disappeared into the darkness. Ghita scanned the ground for where it had fallen, but before she could kneel to pick it up, it was picked up for her. 

The man who did so had thick silver hair, broad shoulders, and perfect posture. His custom tailored three-piece suit was rain-spattered and rumpled. But neither rain nor storm nor dark of night could lessen his poise or diminish his elegant good looks. 

He handed the flashlight to Ghita.

My Mostly Happy Life: Autobiography of a Climbing Tree Chapter 24

Then he declined his head in a manner that suggested Arthurian chivalry, and offered her his arm.

“May I escort you somewhere?  Anywhere?” he said, his eyes riveted on the woman who had once been Samuel Swerling’s wife. 

Ghita studied his face.

“Do I know you?” she asked.

“Not yet,” he responded. “But you will.”

She took his arm.

They started to walk towards me.

But they had only advanced two steps in my direction before the man raised his right hand, held up a finger, and said, “Listen.” 

Ghita stopped. 

She listened.

And at exactly that moment, the words and music coming from each radio on each windowsill in each apartment drew the attention of every person in the park. One by one, parents and children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, lovers and friends, all ceased to speak. 

The music was loud. The words were clear.

When the lights go on again all over the world.

And the boys are home again all over the world.

Ghita and the silver-haired man resumed walking.  

Esther, who was following her grandmother’s progress, knew exactly where Ghita was headed, and got to me first. She scrambled up to my third highest branch, thrust her back against my trunk, and watched.

And rain or snow is all that may fall from the skies above.

A kiss won’t mean “goodbye” but “hello to love.”

Esther had recognized the man with her grandmother, and so did I. 

There was as much inevitability about Ghita finally meeting him as there had been about the coming together of Carmichael and Meg. For Esther and I both remembered when Samuel Swerling, seeing the silver-haired man seventeen years before, had called him “Mr. Corporate America” and mused, “Now, he’s the man that your grandmother should have married.”  

When the lights go on again all over the world.

And the ships will sail again all over the world.

As the last few lines of the song spiraled down to us from above, Esther peered through the branches at her grandmother.

The lyrics brought tears to many eyes. 

But they brought great gladness to my heart.

Then we’ll have time for things like wedding rings and free hearts will sing.

When the lights go on again.

All over the world.

And at that very second, the lights did come on again.

In the Samuel Swerling Park.

In the apartment buildings surrounding the park.

And all over our world.

 

 

 

Copyright © 2017, Shelly Reuben

 

Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her work, visit www.shellyreuben.com