Hands across the waters, a Christmas story, Part I
By Algie Ray Smith


Posted on January 1, 0001 12:00 AM



Algie Ray Smith is an accomplished writer who is the author of several books. For many years he wrote a locally based Christmas serial for the local print newspaper. Now, 17 years after that tradition ended, he resumes it online for The LoJo. Part One is beginning, appropriately, on Veterans Day.

 

Russellville, 1940

Allegra Browning had one rule the Browning family did not venture to break. Dinner was on the table promptly at six, and everyone’s presence was expected.

The early May sun that foreboding afternoon in 1940 had not quite finished its westward trek. Although the day was pleasantly warm, and purple bingo pansies, yellow microlas, and orange and white zinnas lent a palette of colors to the small front yard of the gingerbread latticed house off Main Street, the general atmosphere was winterish. Stark. Gloomy. Hushed.

The townspeople walked, rubber-soled, heads down, and when they passed each other on the near empty sidewalks, they greeted fellow strollers with whispers, if they greeted each other at all.

Troubling news lay heavy on their hearts, trouble that was not yet their own, but might be soon. Across the Atlantic Ocean, again, there was WAR!

Thomas Browning knew about war. He had lost heavily in the previous one: an arm and a brother. He named his first=born Charles in honor of his brother, who was an MIA and presumed dead.

That same son, 14-year-old Charles, was presently disrupting the peace at the dinner table by teasing his sibling, 12-year-old Muriel. Charles, a somewhat stocky bright-eyed boy after his father, while Muriel, petite with eyes that were pools of mystery, had many of her mother’s traits.

“I saw Muriel attempting to flirt with my friend Eddie.”

“Did not.”

“Did so,” Charles winked at his dad. “She practically stared holes in him the entire time we were shooting hoops in the driveway.”

“Did not,” Muriel continued to insist. “I was reading my literature assignment on the back stoop. How could I read and stare both at the same time?”

Her brother laughed so suddenly that he spewed soup from his nose. “You should have seen her, Dad. Oh, she was reading the lit book, sort of, she could read the words upside down, the way she was holding the book. If she can do that, she ought to be in a circus act.”

Mr. Browning, who would have normally intervened and come to Muriel’s defense, remained silent. He stirred at his bowl of chicken noodle soup as if his thoughts were miles away.

Mrs. Browning—returned from the pantry with a fresh packet of saltine crackers—good naturedly scolded her children. “That’s enough picking on your sister, young man.” And turning to Muriel, she reminded her “and how many times have I told you, young lady, have I asked you to leave the boys to their games? Must you always be watching them?”

“But I wasn’t, Mother.” Muriel was need tears, “I took my book to the steps to enjoy the afternoon sun. I love the way it feels.”

Muriel had inherited her Italian mother’s dark skin and hair. The sun hardly ever bothered her.

Mrs. Browning, as was her manner, dropped the subject and moved on. “Who needs more crackers? They are fresh from the box. Thomas, you’re not eating your soup. You’re stirring the heat from it. Is there anything the matter with it? I made it from your mother’s recipe.”

Thomas stopped his stirring and looked up, trying to smile. “Oh, no. No. The soup’s delicious, as always.” He made a great show of downing a large spoonful of it and smacking his lips.

Chicken noodle soup was one of Mrs. Browning’s specialties, and she served it twice monthly, winter and summer. The secret her mother-in-law had confided in her was in the chicken. She was to use large chunk of chicken breast, wide noodles, oregano, thyme, and a bit of red wine. Whether or not Thomas’ mother’s adding of the wine was because her daughter-in-law was from Italy was anyone’s guess.

“Well,” Allegra teased her husband, “if you don’t eat your soup, you’ll get no dessert.”

“Better eat your soup, Dad,” Charles chided. “It’s banana nut bread and pudding dip. Mom was slicing the bananas when I came in from school.”

“And I helped,” Muriel added proudly. “I made the dip all by myself.” She recited the recipe in a sing-song fashion. “Squeeze of lemon, half cup of granulated sugar, egg whites and water.”

“I don’t know what we’d do without sugar in the house,” Mrs. Browning stated. “The children love it so.”

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After the banana nut bread was but a few crumbs and the dip wiped clean from the bowl, Muriel and Mom did the dishes. Charles went to his room to repair a kite he had gotten daught in a tree. Dad retreated to the den with his evening paper.

Later, Mom, slipping off her apron, joined Mr. Browning. “Thomas, are you feeling well? You really haven’t been yourself since you came home from work.”

Mr. Browning folded his paper and set it aside. He pulled off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose before he rubbed his eyes. “I suppose,” he declared as Allegra settled in beside him on the dark velvet sofa, “the conversation I had with our neighbor, Kunt Larsen, yesterday is troubling my reasoning.”

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Knut Larsen and his wife Bergitta had moved into the quaint Cape Cod house a block down the street the year before. They had migrated to Kentucky from Norway. Mr. Larsen obtained a job at the feed mill, while Bergitta remained at home with their six-month-old twins, Dag and Lisbet.

“I’ll declare,” Mrs. Browning had responded on her first visit to see the babies. “I can’t tell the bambino (boy) from the bambina *girl) or the bambina from the bambino.”

Mrs. Larsen didn’t catch the joke. “Gutten (boy) is in bla (blue); jenta (girl) is in rosa (pink).”

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“This conversation,” Allegra asked, “what did Mr. Larsen say to trouble you so?”

“Oh, nothing personal. He was the one who was upset. He had gotten a letter from his brother in Norway. His brother—I think his name is Rolf, Knut had not spoken of him before—wrote that the Germans had bombed a town on the mainland. It seems that the Germans have invaded Norway, a peaceful country.”

“Of course, I saw something about it in the paper, but it wasn’t big news, buried deep in an inner section. I was hoping it was an isolated incident.”

Allegra’s face paled. “I see. Let us hope for the best.” She squeezed her husband’s hand as they shared a mutual understanding.

Mr. Browning had served in World War I with the USARAF (the U.S. Army Africa). That is how he had met and fallen in love with Allegra.

In 1917 the USARAF, along with other forces, had engaged in the Battle of Caporsetto near Kobarid, Italy. After the battle the troops were marching through the town when Mr. Browning spied Allegra at the gate to her house. When the troops stopped nearby to eat their rations, he had gone over to speak with her. She was shy at first; and when he asked her name, she hesitantly replied, “Allegra.”

“Oh, cheerful and lively, are you?” And for the first time in days, she laughed. Her life, like the lives of so many more Italians at the time, had been drastically affected by the war. Her brothers Fabbrion and Balkus had both been killed in one of the early engagements with the enemies.

“What exactly did the letter say?

“Knut said his brother wrote that the first bombs fell on April 1 and that they did not know yet what it would mean for them. German soldiers were seen near the border, but had not yet entered Norway. He said that his brother’s family lived on the small island of Giske. He said that the island is flat, fit only for gardens and fishing, that he didn’t know if the Germans would come there. He couldn’t fathom why the Germans would even want the islands. Of course, they hadn’t bombed there. They had bombed the small inland towns.” Allegra shook her head sadly.  “I can see why he would worry.”

“Oh, very much. His brother has a large family—a wife and four children—he is certain to be deeply concerned about their welfare. And, you know, this possibly is why the brother and his family didn’t come to America with Knut. They are very poor, and it would be a great expense for six of them.”

Allegra kissed her husband’s cheek. “You and I know of the horrors of war. We thought that the war we were in would end it, that the world would wake up senselessness of it. Let’s hope that we are not to be plunged into those days again.”

Thomas signed, “I pray that we are not. It is peaceful here in this little Kentucky town. We fit right in. The people here had their share of losses back then as we did. They welcome us.”

“Yes, let us pray.”

Next, Part Two: Giske is invaded.




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