1916 The Letter
Agnes joyfully takes the unopened letter from the post boy and runs back upstairs to the apartment. On closer inspection, the letter looks very formal, crisp, and officious, not the normal mud-splattered affair she usually receives from Emil.
‘This looks unusual,’ she says to her mother-in-law who has just arrived for a visit. The women stare curiously at the official looking envelope. ‘Mutti, please will you open it?’ Agnes asks feeling suddenly afraid.
Paula Heitmann looks back with a steady gaze, ‘Agnes liebchen, the letter is addressed to you,’ she says gently. Paula then asks her step-grandchildren to play quietly, instructing Emma to keep an eye on her siblings because, ‘Oma and Mutti are busy with a letter.’
Emma nods, she is well used to the responsibilities of being the eldest. Paula opens the cupboard hoping to find a crust to bribe the baby into silence, and is amazed by the amount of food she finds there. She turns, about to question her stepdaughter-in-law on the issue, when she sees the opened letter on the table and Agnes stood by, pale and trembling.
Agnes struggled to translate the document into English, doubting her understanding of the text. The women cry as they begin to register the words. The stepmother realises sooner, that she has lost her stepson; the wife, with limited German, takes a little longer. It then dawns on her. Agnes is now a widow.
‘Mutti, Oma vas is falsch?’ Emma is the first to enquire what is wrong.
The other children soon join in. Unable to articulate the tragedy, the women simply hug them while they weep.
‘Mizpah my darling Emil,’ Agnes whispers in English. ‘May the Lord watch between me and thee while we are apart.’
Her heart is rent in two.
From the book Mizpah Cousins. Remembering the events of 100 years ago this year.