When Mom said to my brother Casper, “They’re going to live in the top floor apartment of the old convent,” I suddenly became aware of the conversation at the table. Putting down the huge hamburger I’d been about to bite into, I waited to hear more.
When nothing more was said, I frowned and blurted, “What? Who’s going to live there?” Self-absorbed at fourteen-years of age, I often missed a lot of what was going on around me.
Mom prompted, “Riet and her two boys…” Seeing my puzzled expression she explained, “Fritz and Riet are friends of Agnes and Jim. They met when Jim and Fritz were stationed together in Germany.”
I nodded. When the Berlin wall crisis began five years before, my brother-in-law Jim joined the army and was deployed to Augsburg, Germany. My sister Agnes and one-year-old nephew went with him. Although both Fritz and his wife Riet were born in the Netherlands, Fritz was in the US army with Jim. Riet and Agnes became good friends.
Once I realized who we were talking about, I questioned with surprise, “Just Riet and her two boys? Where will Fritz be?”
My brother Billy said grimly, “In Vietnam. There’s a war being fought there, you know. Riet and their children can’t go with him because of that.”
Stunned, I looked down at my hamburger. I had sort of known there was a war going on in Vietnam, but until just that moment, it seemed far away and had nothing to do with Central Wisconsin.
Attempting to take the sting out of the topic, Mom enthused, “It’ll be nice having Riet in Stratford. She can visit us on the farm whenever she wants and we can visit her.”
A few weeks later I began my freshman year in high school. Since I needed to attend religion class at the church each Wednesday night, Mom and Daddy decided to drop me off at the Catholic school and then visit Riet and her children. After class was over, I would walk to the apartment to join them.
Walking the half block from church was easy and rather pleasant. I didn’t mind it even though the night was dark and chilly. The old convent where Riet lived wasn’t fancy, resembling a large farmhouse. It was located next to the school when I attended first grade. When I was in third grade the convent building was moved half a block down the street and converted to apartments. Much to the aggravation of our teacher, the classroom was perfectly located for the students to watch as the new convent was built in its former place.
Looking forward to seeing what the apartment looked like, I opened the side door and began to climb the stairs. Hearing me clump noisily up the three flights, Riet met me at the door and greeted me as though I were an adult. I felt self-conscious.
Sitting down in her living room with Mom and Daddy, I became aware that Riet had held off serving tea until I arrived. I felt shocked at being given this respect even though I was just a kid. When she handed me a cup of tea, I wanted to laugh. Coffee and tea were things only adults drank.
The beautiful scent of the tea drifted up to my nose and I looked down into the hot fragrant liquid. Tentatively, I took a sip and was surprised at how much I liked the taste and warmth. Bringing around a box, Riet held it out to each of us and offered, “Have a chocolate.” The chocolate, unlike any candy bar I’d ever eaten, melted quickly in my mouth and was smooth as silk; the perfect accompaniment to the tea.
That Wednesday night set the pattern for the rest of the year. Riet didn’t always have chocolates from her homeland, but tea was a constant. I was a young adult just waking up to the world outside myself. I like to think Riet played a big part in helping me realize that I was leaving the invisibility of childhood behind.