If her turning fifteen included Dad’s suddenly watchful eye every morning while she ate breakfast, Juliana had very little hope that she would be allowed to get her learner’s permit next year.
Juliana loved having Dad home on a regular basis now that he had quit his trucking job, but she could feel his eyes on her as she ate her cereal.
“You have to stop staring at me, Dad. I’m not a baby!”
“I’m just worried about you. You used to eat slower in the mornings. And healthier. Well, usually. Sometimes you eat healthy and slow at breakfast,and sometimes you don’t. I’m trying to figure it out. All this variance is very inefficient.”
Inefficient. Dad’s new favourite word since starting his new job two weeks ago.
Juliana took a deep breath. “There’s nothing to figure out. Rachel and I talked for a long time last night, so I’m running late.”
Rachel was Juliana’s best friend in Calgary. Since Juliana’s move halfway across the country to her grandfather’s house in Kitchener, Ontario, six months before, they only saw each other online ,and the two-hour time difference sometimes made it a challenge. But yesterday had been Juliana’s birthday, so they had made the time to chat. Only three hours later, at close to midnight, had Juliana fallen asleep. With final school exams around the corner everyone was too busy to celebrate right now, though her dance friends had thrown her a little party at the studio.
Apparently, Dad still wasn’t finished observing. “See? If you’d gone to bed earlier, you would’ve slept better, gotten up earlier, and eaten slower. It’s so simple. I don’t get why I didn’t notice this before!”
Dad’s new job required him to take two college courses: Health & Safety and Finding Efficiencies in Logistics.
“It’s at least whole-grain cereal.” She carried her bowl and spoon to the dishwasher. “Besides, family nutritionist,” she said with a twinkle in her eye, “I eat a wide variety of foods for breakfast. You should be lucky I didn’t wolf down cake from the studio birthday party.”
“Goodmorning, sweetheart,” Dad said as Mom came into the kitchen.
Juliana rolled her eyes as she always did when her parents used lovey-dovey language. “By the way, Mom, one of my pointe shoes celebrated my birthday last night too hard and broke.”
“You’ll need new ones fast — your Father’s Day recital is coming up.” Mom pulled a bowl out of the cupboard, grabbed a spoon from the drawer, and served herself cereal and milk in less time than Juliana needed to do a shuffle-off-to-Buffalo step in tap class. Juliana did her best to hold back a laugh at Dad’s wide-open eyes.
“I don’t understand it,” Dad said.
Mom’s cheeks were stuffed like a squirrel’s. “Understand what?”
Dad waved a hand in exasperation. “I thought you were so health conscious all these years, and here you and Juliana are wolfing down your breakfast.I don’t get it.”
“I’m also practical.”
Juliana took advantage of the distraction and rushed out of the kitchen to grab her backpack. But because her grandfather’s house was small and the walls and doors were paper-thin, Juliana could hear her parents’ entire conversation.
“Who made you foreman of the breakfast shift?” Mom asked sarcastically.
“Kids need their parents to supervise their meals.”
Juliana could imagine her mother rolling her eyes. “That’s not how it was when you were growing up, and that’s not how it was for us either. Our parents were often on different shifts at the factory, so we always fed ourselves, and we turned out just fine without someone supervising our breakfasts.”
Juliana heard Opa coming upstairs from his bedroom in the basement. He had let Mom and Dad sleep in his bedroom when the family moved in.
“You’re still watching everyone eat breakfast, Paul?” Opa said.
Juliana burst out laughing in her bedroom.
“I heard that!” Dad shouted down the hallway.
“Are you the foreman of this breakfast shift?” Opa asked.
Now Mom laughed. “That’s exactly what I said!”
Opa and Oma had worked for many years in a rubber factory in Kitchener. Juliana had never asked Opa about his work, and he had never raised the subject. They talked about his family and his life back in Romania before he immigrated, but rarely about his work here in town.
Juliana zipped her bag shut and rushed out of her room in time to see Mom patting Dad’s stomach.
“Why don’t you lead by example, Paul?”
Juliana giggled as Dad pulled up his jeans at the waist. “I’ll have you know I stopped bedtime snacking after my first Health & Safety class and I’ve already dropped a pound.”
Juliana said goodbye as she ran through the tiny kitchen and down the two stairs to a landing that led to the basement in one direction and out the side of the house in the other.
“Wow, young lady,” Dad said. “Those shorts are really short.”
Juliana stopped, turned, and looked pleadingly at Mom.
“Paul, she has to get going.” Mom waved Juliana out the door.
As the screen door slammed shut behind her, Juliana rolled her eyes. Her most desperate wish had finally come true: Dad now worked a regular nine-to-five job, which meant he was home every day. She had wished for this change for years, especially after dance and school had filled so much of her schedule that she couldn’t ride with him on day trips in his truck. But now he was scrutinizing her every move as though she were five instead of fifteen. It’d only been two weeks, and he was already driving her up the wall.
Normally, Juliana loved buying new dance shoes. Pointe shoes were at the top of her list because she had a whole meticulously developed ritual to break them in properly. But where Mom would search online for ways to save Juliana’s pointe shoes for just a few more weeks (in case things had changed in the twenty years since she had danced en pointe herself),Dad had dived into learning about all the dangers of pointe shoe buying.
With Dad’s “safety meter” at a new level of alertness, Juliana had begged Mom to postpone pointe shoe shopping until she was free, but Mom had insisted Juliana go with Dad.
“Besides,” she’d said, “it’ll help your father see everything you do. He made this change for you, Juliana. We have to let him get used to things.”
Dad followed Juliana inside for what she was sure would be the most horrible pointe shoe shopping trip ever. But as she neared the pointe shoe area, her face lit up. She was saved!
“Jasmine!” Jasmine was her best friend from Kitchener Dance Academy. Thanks to Jasmine, Juliana’s dancing had improved by leaps and bounds — pun fully intended — in the last six months, and Jasmine had said that she’d even be happy to work with Juliana as a duet partner next year despite Juliana’s lack of skill.
Jasmine was blunt that way.
“I broke my shank,” Juliana said. A shank was the hard part along the sole of the shoe that helped keep the shoe stiff so the dancer could stay on her toes. “What are you here for?”
“I start at my first ballet intensive the week after school finishes. Mom wants everything ready to go.”
“Typical nurse, eh? Always prepared?”
Juliana’s dad and Jasmine’s mom chatted with each other as the sales associate brought out boxes with pointe shoes for Jasmine to try on. When the sales associate openedthe lid, Juliana was surprised. Jasmine’s mom was from Guatemala and her father from Serbia, so she always wore caramel-coloured tights and matte-brown pointe shoes. But in the box were ballet pink pointe shoes.
“Switching to pink?”
Jasmine slipped her feet into the first pair, the pink pale against her brown skin, and walked over to the barre where she supported herself as she carefully rose to the tips of her toes under the watchful eye of the sales associate.
“How does that feel in the toe?” the sales associate asked, interrupting their conversation.
“Not too loose?”
Jasmine shook her head, and the sales associate pinched the heel of the shoe, measuring to see if it allowed for too much slack. She asked Jasmine to lower into a demi-plié to see if her toes would squeeze in the shoe’s box — the hard part that supported the toes while the dancer was en pointe.
“And how’s the double shank?”
Jasmine rose back onto her toes. Juliana knew it was hard to evaluate the comfort of a new brand of pointe shoe in the store: without the elastic and ribbons on them to pull the shoes tight to the foot, it was a best guess based on previous experience.
“I think I’ll be good,” Jasmine answered. “I’m doing two ballet intensives and a dance camp this summer. Miss Ambrosia said I’d benefit from the extra support.”
The woman nodded and offered another brand for Jasmine to try. As Jasmine switched out her shoes, she answered Juliana’s question.
“I use pancake makeup to change the colour.”
That explained why Jasmine’s shoes didn’t have the sheen to them that Juliana’s had. Juliana had noticed, but had never asked. She’d just assumed the shoes came that way.
“Can’t you get shoes in brown? Seems like an extra step to colour them.”
Jasmine walked to the barre and rose to the tips of her toes again. The sales associate pinched the heel of the new shoes. “It is really annoying, but if I don’t do it I’m limited in the kinds of pointe shoes I can get. Very few companies produce brown-satin shoes.”
While Jasmine decided which shoes to buy, the sales associate asked Juliana what she wanted, and Juliana explained her preferred brand and size.
“My arches aren’t the strongest,” she told Jasmine.“Even single shanks are hard for me to break in. I was surprised when mine broke. My shoes usually last the year, even through the summer.”
Jasmine picked up the winning pair and closed the box lid. “I guess it was just a way for your shoes to wish you happy birthday?”
“That’s what I thought!”
When the sales associate returned with Juliana’s pair, Dad stopped the sales process in its tracks and picked up a shoe to inspect it.“The tips on those ones are skinnier than on Jasmine’s,” Dad said.
“I like a tapered box,” Juliana said. “It makes my legs look longer.”
Not releasing Juliana’s shoe, Dad walked over to the wall of pointe shoes and began matchingthe platform — the tip the dancer stood on — of the shoe in his hand with each one on the wall display. Juliana’s face turned hot as Jasmine’s gaze travelled to her.
“Before you say, isn’t this what I wanted, it is!” Juliana whispered. “I just didn’t want Helicopter Dad to replace Faraway Dad!"
Despite Juliana’s frustration, Jasmine burst out laughing. “Oh my god, Juliana, that is so sweet!”
Without warning, Dad turned around to Jasmine’s mom. “You said you were a nurse? Which shoes decrease the likelihood of Juliana breaking her ankle?”
Jasmine covered her mouth with her hand to stifle a giggle, while Juliana rolled her eyes.
“You have to sit still if you don’t want me to poke your eyes out!” Maria said to Elisabeth.
Elisabeth tucked her hands under her legs as she adjusted herself on her bed in the front room. Maria sat opposite her on a wooden chair she had turned around from the table. “Maybe I should sit on a chair, too, so I don’t bounce.” The straw in the mattress cracked as she shifted again.
“But it’s the perfect height,” Maria said. “In the hair salon in Temeswar, the hairdresser was as high as I was when she cut my bangs.”
Elisabeth released her hands and parted the hair that hung over her face to past her waist so she could see her best friend. “I don’t know if I can do it.” She studied Maria’s modern haircut. “But I love it on you!”
Maria grinned from ear to ear. “Then let me do it already!” She held the scissors up while Elisabeth pushed her hair over her face again.
Several months before, on a family trip to the beautiful city of Temeswar, Maria’s mother had allowed her to cut the hair at the front of her head, leaving her with “bangs” as the hairdresser said they called it in America. The look was fashionable with the rich families— likeMaria’s— and also in the big, modern cities, like Temeswar, where Maria had even seen telephones and electricity, two things that didn’t exist in their tiny village of Semlak. Maria still wore the rest of her hair in a braid attached to the top of her head, like all unmarried German girls in Semlak.
Maria lowered her hands. “But are you certain? Because once I’ve cut these, you’ll be old and grey before they grow back!”
Elisabeth’s heart thumped and her skin tingled. “Oh, I don’t know! What will Stefan think?”
Maria laid the scissors on the large wooden table behind her. “You’re asking this now?”
Elisabeth crossed her arms. “You did ask if I was certain!”
Maria sighed. “I’m nervous about being the one responsible for cutting your bangs! If you don’t like it, can we still be friends?”
Elisabeth squeezed her best friend’s hands. “Of course! But now that you’ve asked again, I do worry if Stefan will like it. That’s important.”
“Well, has he complained about my hair?”
Elisabeth tried to think of any objection mentioned during any of the many conversations she and Stefan had had over the months, and finally shook her head.
Maria continued. “Konrad has always liked mine even though he’s so traditional. He says he likes how my bangs make my face look.”
“But Mammi said they’re useless and will poke my eyes out when they grow too long.”
The girls giggled at Elisabeth’s mother’s comments. She sometimes worried about the strangest things, though Elisabeth suspected it wasmostly that she didn’t want things to change.
“But she said you’re allowed to do it nonetheless?”
Elisabeth nodded, and then her eyes opened wide again. “But what will Tata think?”
Maria considered the question. “He did write you a postcard and sent it to me in that magazine from America, right?” The magazine had been filled of pictures and drawings of modern American women.
“That’s true... and now that he’s lived in America since Advent of last year, he’s probably used to girls with bangs.”
Maria held up the large metal scissors. “So...?”
Elisabeth agreed, sat on her hands again, and told Maria to start. Maria brushed Elisabeth’s thick, blonde hair so that it hung over her face like a smooth curtain, with only Elisabeth’s nose poking through.
“This is how the hairdresser in Temeswar did it.” Maria placed her hand at Elisabeth’s eyebrow and trapped a few inches of hair between two fingers.
Elisabeth held her breath and squeezed her eyes shut once she saw the scissors coming close to her face. A few moments later, Elisabeth heard the snip and opened her eyes.
Maria held a lock of long hair in front of Elisabeth, and Elisabeth grasped it in her hands. Butterflies in her stomach wouldn’t stop fluttering. Had she made the right choice? She loved her hair, and holdingit this way, separated from her head, made her hold her breath for a moment.
Then she let it out. What she thought about her decision no longer mattered:she couldn’t well run around the village with only a chunk of hair missing!
She had placed the lock of hair next to her on her bed and had closed her eyes, readying herself for the rest, when Mammi burst into the room from the kitchen.
“What is it?” Elisabeth asked.
Mammi either stormed into rooms or entered quietly. Angry and serious were her two emotions. But this reaction was one Elisabeth had never seen: Mammi had tears in her eyes. Even when Mammi had had great difficulties with her pregnancy over the winter she had not turned to her daughter for help.
This was very important.
Maria looked away out of respect. “Maybe I should go.”
Elisabeth grabbed Maria’s hand as though to say, “You can’t leave me liket his!” She returned her attention to Mammi and pushed the rest of her long hair out of her eyes. “What is it?”
Mammi held a small piece of paper. It looked like a telegram.
But didn’t telegrams only come when someone died? Elisabeth’s father worked in a cigar factory in America. What if there had been an accident?
Mammi couldn’t speak. Elisabeth’s stomach rose to her throat. Mammi never searched for words.
She handed the telegram to Elisabeth, who forced herself to read it.
A moment later she jumped up and screamed, startling Maria, and gave Mammi a tight embrace. Then she placed the telegram on the table and resumed her position: back straight as a board, hands nailed under her legs. “Quick! Finish cutting my bangs!”
“Can’ t I know?” Maria asked.
“If I tell you, that will make two of us who can’t sit still, and you’re the one with the scissors! But it is good news!”
Mammi wiped her nose using a handkerchief and a moment later her usual demeanour returned. She pointed at Elisabeth’s bangs. “Such a useless thing to do with your hair.” She left the two girls to return to her workshop to keep making shoes.
As the large scissors neared her eyes again, Elisabeth focusedon the crucifix that hung above the doorway. She prayed with all her might that Jesus would give her the strength to sit still.
As Maria cut her hair, Elisabeth’s cousin Georg came to mind: this news would make him very happy. Only a few years younger than Mammi, Georg had fought in the great war that had almost torn Europe apart. He now suffered from nightmares. But in her father’s absence, Georg had almost become like a father himself. Perhaps sharing this news would offer him some relief.
A moment after Maria announced she was finished, Elisabeth grabbed the telegram, bolted from her chair, and darted out the house door without even inspecting her new appearance in a mirror.
“What’s the good news?” Maria called after her. “And where are you going?”
In her excitement to share the news with Georg, Elisabeth had forgotten Maria.
“Lissika!” Maria called as she chased her friend. “Your hair isn’t up!”
Something else Elisabeth had forgotten in her excitement.
By the time Elisabeth reached the second gate, Maria had caugh tup with her and grabbed her by the wrist. “What did it say?”
Elisabeth began jumping up and down but then stopped when two older women walked past her house, their curious eyes focused on the girls. She whispered the good news to Maria, who promptly grabbed both of Elisabeth’s hands and jumped up and down with her. The older women scowled at them.
“I have to tell Georg!” Elisabeth said and bolted again. “He needs something happy!”
“But your hair! What if Stefan sees you?”
“I don’t care!”
As they ran down the gravel street, lifting their ankle-length skirts just enough to let them run, heads turned. Yes, it was improper for any girl or woman to leave the house with her hair down. Elisabeth imagined her new haircut also met with disapproval. But she was going to explode if she didn’t share the news right away.
Georg’s wife, Eva, who was only a few years older than Elisabeth, had become a good friend to her. She was expecting their first baby and was scared because Mammi had lost her last one only a few months before. She had to tell Georg and Eva now, not only because Elisabeth herself was excited but because she was certain the news would make Georg and Eva happy, too.
Elisabeth turned a corner, running past a row of houses almost identical to hers. Most German homes in Semlak, in fact, looked similar to one another: a three-room house (front room, kitchen, back room) with a cellar at the back followed by a summer kitchen, stalls for horses and cows, a summer shelter for animals, and finally the outhouse. On the other side ofthe property were the gardens; the hambar for storing corn; stalls for the pigs; a shed for the wagon; coops for ducks, geese, and chickens; and the manurepile. Farmland lay outside the village, on parcels of land with their own dwellings called salasches.
As Elisabeth turned another corner, Maria’s footsteps disappeared behind her. A few steps in and she could see her destination: the other Schuhmacher house. But whereas Elisabeth’s property had a shoemaking workshop tucked into the summer kitchen, this Schuhmacher home had a blacksmithing workshop, with a forge inside and a chimney at the top, separate from the house.
“Georg! Eva!” she called as she opened the first gate to her uncle and aunt’s property. As was customary, Georg, the oldest son of four grown children, and his wife lived with Georg’s parents. Samuel, the younger son, lived with his wife outside the village on the family salasch. Georg’s sisters, Susi and Gretche, lived in the village with their husbands.
Usually, Elisabeth preferred to not draw her aunt and uncle’s attention — they were mean people — but today the happiness inside her silenced her dislike for them.
“Georg! Eva!” she cried again.
Georg came running out of the workshop .A large, powerful man, he wore a heavy leather apron, and his face was stained with soot. That a man his size could move so quickly never ceased to surprise Elisabeth.
“What is wrong?” Georg asked.
Before Elisabeth could answer him, she wrapped her arms around him, startling him.
Eva shuffled out the door at the side of the house, careful of the baby she was carrying inside her. “Elisabeth? What is it?”
Elisabeth gasped for air and her throat burned. Why did God make it hard to speak after running, especially when one had good news to share? She might look that up in the Bible later.
The telegram slid out of Elisabeth’s fingers while she still had her arms wrapped around her cousin. “Can I read it?” Eva’s voice was gentle.
Elisabeth released Georg from her embrace and nodded, still catching her breath.
Eva’s eyes opened wide as she passed the telegram to Georg. Elisabeth hugged her friend, mindfu lof her bulging belly, while Georg read the telegram.
“That is indeed good news.” A gentle smile on his face, he opened his arms for Elisabeth again and she gave him another hug. Georg rarely spoke or smiled, so Elisabeth took no insult in his quiet reaction ,though others often did.
Maria, out of breath and feet dragging, arrived just as Konrad-Bátschi stormed out of the workshop, also wearing a heavy leather apron over a linen shirt and pants.
“Where’s my turtle of a son? Get your lazy hands back in here and get to work.”
Georg swallowed and turned away from Elisabeth. Her blood boiled knowing the shouting and insults Konrad-Bátschi paid his son every day. Elisabeth had heard it many times and she had also seen her uncle hit his son when his fits and nightmares over came him.
“Well?” Konrad-Bátschi said. “Or do I need to set off a bomb under those pants of yours?”
Elisabeth and Maria exchanged looks: Georg had once mistaken a children’s ball flying through the air for a bomb and had pulled Elisabeth and Stefan to the muddy ground to protect them. Was his father trying to cause a nightmare?
Before Georg could answer, Margarethe-Néni, his mother, came out of the house. “What’s all this noise about?” she asked. “Georg! Why aren’t you helping your father?” Upon seeing Elisabeth, she clapped her hands together in amazement. “Goodheavens! Elisabeth Schuhmacher! How could your mother let you leave the house like this? And what have you done to your hair?”
Elisabeth didn’t care. She would not let her aunt and uncle steal her joy today. She blurted out the good news: “Tata’s coming home in two months!"