Tilde's War

Chapter 1

September, 1940

T

ilde studied the round cheeks and long lashes of her sleeping child nestled in the pink blanket Oona had knitted, the rosewood cradle Charles had made.

“You’re perfect,” she whispered, stroking her daughter’s soft cheek.

The baby made rooting movements, but didn’t wake up.

She had fine black hair, about three inches long, the only thing about her that was disappointing. Tilde had hoped she would have her mother’s Aryan white-blond hair and her father’s Irish curls. Instead, she’d gotten straight hair from Tilde and dark from Billy. Oh well.

From the other side of the slightly ajar door Tilde could hear the argument continuing. Bits of it, anyway — murmurs punctuated by exclamations.

“She didn’t even have any clothes ready for her. Not even a blanket.”

That was Billy’s Aunt Oona, and it was so unfair: how could she be expected to sew baby clothes while she was in a mental hospital?

The sounds outside the door changed from voices to footsteps and doors opening and shutting. She knew soon the door to the nursery would open, and it did, swinging wide to reveal Oona, her face filled with alarm that thawed to relief.

“There you are,” Oona said, quietly in deference to the sleeping child.

“You’re going to have to get used to me being alone with my baby,” Tilde said, just as quietly.

“Of course. It’s just that I… That we wondered where you were,” Oona said, hands fidgeting with the hem of her sweater, eyes on the cradle. She stepped outside the door and stage whispered, “She’s in here.”

The baby woke, crying. Oona hurried to her, but Tilde was closer. She picked up the stiff bodied, red faced infant, who drew a deep breath, squared off her mouth, and wailed again.

“Baby will need her diaper changed,” Oona said in a normal tone. “I’ll show you how.”

“I’ve changed diapers for my nieces and nephews,” Tilde said, but she let Oona take the baby anyway because there was a contest going on and it would be a point in Oona’s favor to see Tilde fumbling through the drawers of the changing table, trying to find the diapers and safety pins and wash cloths.

She was immediately sorry for the decision, because the baby stopped crying the moment she was in Oona’s arms.

It tore at Tilde’s heart.

Charles came in carrying a basin. “Here’s the water, and I have a bottle warming.”

Oona smiled at him and cleaned the baby’s bottom. The child sucked on her fist, waiting to be fed. Charles took the dirty water away, while Oona confidently wrapped the squirming baby in a diaper and pinned the folds in place.

They have a routine, Tilde thought. She looked around at the soft pink room with it’s white organdy curtains, white wicker changing table and rocking chair. A brown teddy bear lay in the crib, and a nearby shelf held a doll with yellow hair, a music box, a stuffed rabbit. How quickly they’d put it all together. Money can do that.

“Baby needs fresh clothes. Could you pick out a romper or sunsuit from the armoire?” Oona said, nodding toward a French Provincial cabinet painted with pink roses.

It was better quality furniture than the wicker pieces: meant to last, not to be outgrown. Tilde opened the door onto an array of shelves stacked with tiny knitted sweaters and caps, cotton sunsuits, booties, rompers, and selected a pink romper with bunnies embroidered on the bib. The smallest sweaters were cotton, but there were next-size-up ones made of cashmere, and dresses of velvet and corduroy clearly for an older baby, for winter.

They hadn’t bought a crib, just the cradle, which was good, but she didn’t like what the armoire seemed to say about the permanence of the arrangements.

“I don’t remember seeing this armoire before,” Tilde said, handing Oona the romper.

“I’ve had it forever. Aren’t you the prettiest Baby?” Oona cooed.

Baby cooed back.

Charles came in carrying a bottle of milk. “Here we are,” he said, walking toward Oona.

“Let me,” Tilde said, intercepting the bottle. She sat in the rocking chair and held out her arms. “Give her to me.” She smiled when she said it, but neither Charles nor Oona smiled back.

Tilde bared her wrist and shook the bottle so that a drop of milk flew out onto her skin. The milk felt body temperature.

“I checked it before I brought it to Baby,” Charles said stiffly.

“It’s always better to be safe,” said Tilde. She set the bottle on the table beside the chair and held out her arms.

“Mind you support her head,” Oona said, handing her over as though transferring a piece of fragile crystal.

Charles left the room.

Tilde put the nipple in the baby’s mouth and the child sucked hungrily, her body intent on feeding. As her need grew less, her posture softened. So cuddly, such a warm, soft weight, and so fragile.

Tilde looked up and caught an expression on Oona’s face that just about broke her heart.

“Thank you for taking care of my baby when I couldn’t,” she said.

“It was an honor,” said Oona. She leaned against the armoire and crossed her arms. “Are you sure you’re well enough to look after Baby?”

“Yes. I am.”

“Because I think you were getting sick before she was born. I never heard of a mother who didn’t get some clothes set by for her baby…”

“I was in the hospital,” Tilde said, trying to keep from sounding angry and upsetting the child. But really, it was unreasonable…

“I mean before she was born. While you were still expecting her.”

“Oh.” Tilde looked down at the little face, mouth sucking more slowly now, eyelids drooping. Why didn’t I? “I don’t know. I meant to.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t be alone with Baby just yet.”

Tilde stiffened. “I’m quite well, thank you, and I would never hurt my child.”

“I know you wouldn’t mean to, but… Tilde, I would never try to take another woman’s baby. But don’t you think it’s better for her if you both stay here for awhile? We have room enough. And the summer house is plenty big enough.”

“How long is awhile?” said Tilde, thinking that “awhile” had no end in sight.

“I don’t know. As long as you need.”

Baby pulled away from the bottle and wailed.

“Gas,” said Oona, but Tilde had already put the child against her shoulder and was patting her back. She was rewarded by a loud burp and spatter of milk.

“Oh my. That was a big one,” said Oona, cleaning Baby’s chin and Tilde’s shoulder with a soft cloth. “She usually plays for awhile now. I spread a blanket in the living room and let her kick her little legs and exercise just as much as she likes, don’t I, Baby?”

We have got to give this child a name before she gets stuck with Baby for the rest of her life, Tilde thought.

They settled the child in the sunny living room, where Charles and Billy were seated reading the Sunday papers.

“Have they stopped bombing London yet?” said Oona.

Billy shook his head without looking up from the papers. “No.”

“It’s been over a week. I don’t much like the English, but they don’t deserve this,” Oona said.

“Who’s bombing London?” said Tilde.

“The Germans. Haven’t you seen the papers?”

“Not for weeks. How do the Germans get bombs into England?”

Now Billy lowered his newspaper and said, “Air raids. The Luftwaffe is carpet-bombing London.”

Suddenly chilled, Tilde said, “Are we at war?”

“No,” said Charles. “And I hope we won’t be. I hope we stay out of it this time. For her sake.” He pointed at Baby and smiled. “Do you know what she likes?”

He picked up a crystal prism, and for a moment Tilde thought with disbelief that he was going to give it to Baby to play with. Instead, he walked to the window and held the prism up to the sunlight. It broke the light into rainbow sparks that danced on the ceiling as Charles turned it now this way, now that.

Baby crowed with delight.

“She needs a name,” Tilde said.

“We were waiting for you, but we’ve talked about it,” Billy said. “I think we should give her a family name.”

“I was thinking that, too.”

“Name her after someone who cares for her.”

Tilde nodded. “Yes. I think we should call her Gerda, after my mother.”

Dead silence, and the emotional temperature of the room dropped to below zero.

“I said someone who cares for her,” Billy said.

“My mother loves her grandchildren.”

“She hasn’t been to see her or asked after her even once.”

“No. She wouldn’t, as things are. But we can’t be separated from my family forever, and it would bring her round. She’d forgive you ”

“She’d forgive me? She sent me to jail. She lied to the judge.”

There was more anger in Billy’s eyes than Tilde had ever seen, and his face was red. So was Charles’.

“She should be named after the person who’s taken care of her since she was born. She should be named Oona,” said Billy.

“It’s all right. Let it go,” Oona said, but her voice was shaking “You could name her Maureen. That might be best.”

“It’s not right, and Mom wouldn’t hear of it, after all you’ve done for the baby.”

“Then name her after our mother, her great grandmother Rosalie. Just don’t ask me to call her Gerda.”

There was silence while everyone stared at Tilde, who was very much wishing she was somewhere else.

At last Billy said, “I’ll never forgive your mother.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Tilde said. “She never thinks she’s done anything that needs forgiving. I thought it would make peace — I didn’t know it would upset everybody. Name the baby whatever you want.”

Oona said, “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” said Tilde, who wanted to win the war over where she’d live and thought ceding this battle could help her win the other one.

“How about Maureen Oona?”

“Maureenoona,” Tilde said. “It runs together into one long word. Better make it Oona Maureen.”

The corner of Billy’s mouth twitched, but he didn’t quite crack a smile. “Done,” he said.