My Mother's Secret(2)
Author:J. L. Witterick

    The more expensive homes in town are made from bricks. However, the majority of people live in homes made from wooden boards that are considerably cheaper. Fireplaces are used to keep warm in the winter, when it can be mercilessly cold. It’s not unusual for people to wear almost as much to keep warm indoors as outdoors in the coldest months.

    For water, people go to a well that’s in their neighborhood. Farmers sell their produce and meats in the market, where most people shop. Only those with money shop in the stores, which carry imported goods from Germany and other places.

    At the market, my mother sells eggs from our chickens, and garden vegetables that she grows in season. My brother works at an oil refinery a few towns away, so we only see him on his days off. He brings supplies and takes care of us more than my father ever did.

    When my brother comes to visit, the first thing he does is pick me up and whirl me around as if I were a small child. I am dizzy with this but love the feeling. Over six feet in height, he towers above me. I have to look up at him because I am barely taller than my five-foot mother.

    “I don’t know how two plain-looking people like your father and I could have produced such attractive children,” my mother says.

    It seems we did inherit the best features from both our parents.

    I have my father’s brown eyes and chestnut hair, which flows with a natural wave hinting at its origin from his tight curls. My brother has my mother’s fair skin and light hair, and I am envious of their gray, sparkling eyes.

    Damian always brings me an apple when he comes to visit.

    It’s love and sacrifice disguised as a piece of fruit.

    He brings my mother chewing tobacco, which she adores.

    On my seventeenth birthday, Damian surprises me with an apple tree. “Now you can have apples whenever you like, Lena. You don’t have to wait for me anymore,” he says. “Show me where you want it planted.”

    I choose a spot just outside my window. It will be the first thing I see when I wake up.

    I can’t wait until I can earn money too. I want to surprise him with a present, and I already have something in mind.

    There is a beautiful brown leather jacket in a store on the way to the market, which would be perfect for Damian.

    I keep thinking to myself, Please, please don’t let anyone else buy it before I can get the money.

    Chapter 6

    In the local newspaper, there’s an ad for a secretarial position, assisting the general manager of a garment factory in town. I confide to my mother that even though my chances are slim, I want to try. “There are going to be so many girls competing for this job,” I say.

    She says to me, “Do you remember when you first learned how to type? You wanted to be faster than anyone else in your class, but we didn’t have a typewriter so you drew the keyboard on a piece of paper and practiced as if you were really typing. You always wanted to be the best, Helena, and you practiced day and night. Your teacher told me that she never had a student who could type eighty words a minute. You were the top in your class then, so why shouldn’t you be selected for this job now? Besides, how many girls speak German as beautifully as you?”

    I already knew everything she was telling me, but there are times when it feels good to hear what you already know.

    My mother somehow manages to provide me with the most beautiful dress I have ever seen for the interview. It’s made from soft wool, a fabric that only wealthy people can afford. The cream color is professional, yet fresh and classic. The dress is fitted from the waist upward with three-quarter sleeves and a V-neck. At the waist, it flares out to a full skirt, flattering my figure. Around my neck I wear a simple pearl strand, which is the only jewelry that my mother owns. My shoes are old, but I shine them up with some polish. This dress transforms me and gives me the confidence to compete against girls who I know will be better educated and from far more prestigious families.

    Before I leave, my mother says to me, “They would be smart to hire you. You’re capable, honest, and hardworking. When you smile, Helena, your face lights up and there is nothing more beautiful, so if it is a man interviewing you, smile.” That’s my mother—always knowing what to say and providing insightful advice as well.

    • • •

    MR. KOWALSKI, a man in his late twenties, is younger and more handsome than I expect. With him is Ferda, an older, heavyset woman who is also part of the interview. He tests me with conversation in German and asks me to type a short letter, which he dictates rather quickly in Polish.

    I know my German is good, and I type faster than anyone I know, so I’m scoring well on both accounts. His final question is, “Helena, if you could choose one thing to possess, what would it be: breathtaking beauty, worldly knowledge, or financial wealth?”

    With this question, he’s trying to figure out what kind of person I am. It’s important to answer correctly, but I say what makes the most sense to me. “I would take the money.”

    He looks surprised, while Ferda looks openly disgusted at my crass response. This is neither the answer they expected nor the answer they have heard from the other candidates.

    He clears his throat a bit. “You would take the money? Why?”

    “Well, being beautiful doesn’t last. Having worldly knowledge is good, but money feeds hungry stomachs. Also, if I had money, I could study what I want and learn all sorts of things. I could afford books and teachers. Money gives you choices. It gives you freedom and the ability to look after other people. Yes, I’ll take the money.”

    I hear my own voice, and it sounds much more confident than I really am.

    Mr. Kowalski now has an amused look on his face. It’s not what he expected.

    He says, “Thank you very much. We will make our decision shortly and get back to you.”

    Before I turn to leave, I look directly at him and smile.

    I get the job.

    Chapter 7

    The apple tree in bloom is full of white flowers that fill the air with beauty and sweetness. When there is a breeze, the fragrance sweeps through my window. On these mornings, it feels like only good things can happen.

    I don’t know how it started, maybe it was the smile, but Mr. Kowalski clearly prefers my company over that of Ferda, who is the office manager. When there are project deadlines, he asks me to work late with him. He is always a gentleman, and I don’t feel uncomfortable in any way.

    One evening, he asks if I would like to have dinner with him since we were both working so late. I reply that I would be very pleased to, which is the truth. Over a simple dinner in the neighborhood restaurant, we take a break from talking about the company business and begin to know each other as two people sharing a meal might do.

    He is the son of a wealthy industrialist in Germany who owns the factory. His Polish mother was his father’s mistress. Although he admires his father, he resents that he and his mother lived in the shadow of his father’s legitimate family.

    I know that he is well educated, so his father must have paid for that. He also has the factory’s top job, which most men his age would just be working their way up to.

    I see that he knows that he is where he is because of his father, and there’s a vulnerability to him because of it.

    I say to him, “You may have obtained the job because of your father, but you do a good job because of who you are.”

    I think he appreciated that.

    Funny how even the most successful people still need reassurance, wherever it may come from.

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