The English Lesson
They stopped at 410 Stadler. Sy kept the gas guzzling, early eighties Plymouth idling, as Ruthie got her folder together and clamped her purse shut.
“Got everything?” Sy asked.
Ruthie had her lesson plan in hand. “Yep, all here.”
Ruthie thought about her student, Mrs. Frankel, a seventy-five-year old widow who had been forced to learn English since the recent death of her husband.
Only ten years younger than Mrs. Frankel, Ruthie had recently retired after a thirty-year career as secretary for the County Social Service department. She’d tried staying at home, but felt antsy and unproductive.
She’d wanted to help others, so she took classes on how to teach English and tutor people in their own homes. If she’d known her students could be as difficult as Mrs. Frankel, she might have stayed home and watched re-runs of Dick Van Dyke.
Ruthie considered herself to be in pretty good shape. She walked or swam daily, slept well and maintained a healthy diet. It gave her pause when she thought, “but by the grace of God” she could end up as bent and spiteful as Mrs. Frankel.
“She’s one of the rudest women I have ever met,” she told Sy. “Do you know what she said to me last week?” She didn’t wait for his answer. “She said, ‘Sit up! You’re not a teenager; this important class.’ She treated me like a little kid!”
Sy pecked his wife of thirty-four years on the cheek. “Come back for you in an hour?”
Ruthie closed the car door with a solid thud and blew Sy a kiss as he drove off in a cloud of white steam rising from the exhaust into the cold, fall-morning air. She tied her dark green scarf tightly around her neck, smoothed out her off-white, below-the-knee skirt and approached Mrs. Frankel’s aging home; a fortress of red brick and peeling, dirty paint that seemed to dare someone to approach or disturb its occupant. The porch had a metal grate topping off the brick base and an eight-foot, iron-bared gate. Using their secret code, Ruthie rang the doorbell three long blasts, then a short jolt, to seek permission to enter her student’s premises. She gave a start as Mrs. Frankel suddenly appeared and unlocked the rusting gate.
“Frau Ruth. You’re late!” Mrs. Frankel admonished; her small, upturned nose flaring as she turned towards the living room. Her short, curled, gray-haired wig bounced with each step, briefly revealing the dry skin on her bent neck.
“Good to see you,” Ruthie forced a smile and followed the neatly-attired, rickety old woman through the parlor, into a living room cluttered with antiquities. Mrs. Frankel plopped her spine-shrunken body into her polished maple chair of propriety, while Ruthie crossed the fraying, deep-red carpet to sit on her designated seat; an early twentieth century sofa with curled armrests and club feet.
Hilda, the fat, brown-stripped cat, lay on the rug, barely lifting an eyelid to acknowledge Ruthie’s presence. Hilda was nearly as old as the furniture and moved about as often.
The sitting arrangement was, to say the least, a bit awkward. It was quite a feat to explain the lesson from across the room to the hard-of-hearing learner. Inevitably, Ruthie would have to rise, cross the room and repeat her self several times, then return to her preordained position.
“You think I am a stupid, not?!” Mrs. Frankel shouted.
“What?” Ruthie replied meekly.
“You heard me! You think I stupid?!”
“Stupid, no, stubborn, yes!” replied Ruthie, surprising herself.
“Stewburn?” Mrs. Frankel said awkwardly. “Is stewburn good or bad?”
“I mean,” Ruthie shouted. “You are one hard nut to crack.”
“A cracked nut?”
Mrs. Frankel looked like a deer caught in headlights. Ruthie laughed, in spite of her best intention to the contrary. Obviously insulted, Mrs. Frankel’s pale blue eyes narrowed like two tiny laser beams on an enemy target.
Ruthie took a deep breath for reinforcement and put a lid on her natural reaction. “It’s an expression. It means you are hard to figure out,” she explained, “difficult to know.”
Mrs. Frankel looked down at her wrinkled, spotted hands, then sighed and said, “You think I like this?” She raised her head and looked directly at Ruthie. “I am proud woman. I never want to be in this crazy country. I come because I need to follow husband.” She looked at the cat and sighed. “Now, it just Hilda and me.”
“I’m sorry,” Ruthie said sincerely, not sure if her condolence would be received or accepted.
Mrs. Frankel suddenly sat up as straight as her crooked body would allow and turned to her present endeavor. Holding up the learning sheet and turning it slightly towards Ruthie, she pointed at the first line with renewed obstinacy and demanded, “Now . . . what this?!”
Ruthie started to rise and move closer, but was frowned at fiercely. She squinted in the dimly lit room and tried to decipher the line from where she sat.
“I say, What this?!” Mrs. Frankel held the page aloft, shaking it like some offending piece of evidence. “I not understand!”
Ruthie strained to see.
“Come here!” Exasperation clung to Mrs. Frankel’s command.
Ruthie approached to a respectful distance. She bent over, looked briefly at the sentence and said with all the pleasantness she could muster, “Where is the bathroom?”
Mrs. Frankel frowned and pointed. “Down there. What wrong with you? You not remember?”
Inwardly Ruthie smiled like a kid at the carnival, but kept the amusement from her face. “No. No,” she pointed at the page. “The sentence says, ‘Where is the bathroom?’”
Mrs. Frankel let the paper collapse in her lap and turned her back. Red blotches arose on the back of her neck. Was she actually blushing?
Mrs. Frankel squared her shoulders, slowly turned around and held the lesson aloft. “Let us continue,” she said, as if they had just sat down to supper.
“Over there,” Ruthie read, after clearing the tickle from her throat. She went to the next line. “Thank you.”
“Thank you,” Mrs. Frankel repeated, with a strong guttural k on thank.
“You are welcome,” Ruthie read.
“You are welcome.”
“Very good!” Ruthie unconsciously touched the sleeve of Mrs. Frankel’s dress.
Mrs. Frankel stiffened, but perfectly copied her instructor’s speech. “Very good,” she repeated.
Ruthie giggled. “No. That’s not in the book. I mean, you are doing very well.”
Again Mrs. Frankel blushed, then rolled her eyes and nodded aggressively at the page. “Continue. No need for good good . . . how you say . . . flatternity?”
“Flattery.” Ruthie started back towards the sofa.
“No need to sit so far,” Mrs. Frankel said, “bring chair here.” She pointed at a small, round-bottomed, upholstered chair that stood nonchalantly in the corner, then wagged her finger at the adjacent space next to her own seat.
Ruthie cautiously moved the chair next to her unpredictable student.
“Now,” Mrs. Frankel almost whispered, “please help me read next sentence.”
Ruthie almost fell off her seat at hearing the word “please”.
“Would you like to go for a ride,” Ruthie read. “I can pick you up on Sunday morning.”
“Wud you like to go for a rhide? I can pike you up on Soonday morgan.”
“Sunday morning,” Ruthie corrected gently.
“Better, much better.”
Ruthie glanced at the page. “No,” she said, it doesn’t say thank . . .”
“No,” Mrs. Frankel put her hand on Ruthies. “Thank you. Thank you for helping me.”
Mrs. Frankel turned back to read. Ruthie struggled to regain her emotional balance, after her student’s kind words. In spite of her steadfast and prudent policy to never mix personal and volunteer time, she asked, “Would you like to go for a ride with my husband and I next week?”
Mrs. Frankel looked astounded. “No. No,” she said nervously. “I not intrude on you and husband. No. No.”
“It’s no problem. We’d love to take you with us. We were thinking of going for a drive to a little winery outside town.”
Mrs. Frankel shook her head emphatically. “No. No. Too kind.”
“Please,” Ruthie insisted. “It would be my pleasure.”
The grandfather clock yawned and announced the half-hour with a raspy clang.
Mrs. Frankel glanced at the oval-framed photo on the yellowing wallpaper. “Maybe,” she said, turning back towards Ruthie. “I think of it.”
Ruthie looked at the black and white picture; a dashing young man in a three-piece suit and French beret. “Your husband?”
“Yes.” Mrs. Frankel gazed at the photo.
“What’s his name?”
Her pupil hesitated, blinked several times, then replied mournfully, “Claude.”
“No. Born and raised Germany like me.”
“Tell me more.”
Mrs. Frankel hesitated. “You really want know?”
“Yes, I really want to know.” Ruthie took her elderly students hand to provide some solace. Mrs. Frankel turned her palm upward, squeezed back and cried quietly.
After several moments of silence, Mrs. Frankel closed her eyes and whispered, “That man save my life.” Her eyelids parted slightly. “After war, our town in ruin from bombs. Many months go here and there. Much poor, much, how say, puberty?”
“Poverty,” Ruthie nodded, choking down her urge to laugh.
“We have little to eat. Most people in country same. Our haus destroyed. No verk. Father dead.” A smile caressed her lips. “Then comes Claude. He intrepoter, inturp . . . you know, talk for. He verk with Americans because he speak Deutsche, English and French,” she blushed. “I just young girl. He came in night, after verk and ask my muter if he can take out me. She say, ‘Ask her, not me.’ Of course, I say yes. He is so nice and looking good.” She smiled so broadly that Ruthie could see her scrubbed white dentures.
“He bring our family extra bread and ration coupons. I not help but fall in love with man. He very gentle and true.” She stopped and caught her breath. “One day he tell me his story. Claude’s parents were arrest by Nazis, just as he home from school in afternoon. He been told what to do if something happen, so he go hiding and join sister, who already live in château in France, where brave owner save many refugee.”
Mrs. Frankel suddenly stopped, got up stiffly and moved down the hall. “I show something,” she mumbled, then disappeared into the back bedroom. Ruthie could hear her opening drawers and struggling to close them.
After several minutes she returned with a small, torn envelope and drew out its crumbling contents. She handed the paper to Ruthie who looked blankly at the German correspondence. “I found letter going through his thinks. It is to man who survive death camp and write Claude to tell him how his parents horrible finish. He know and see Claude’s parents go into gas death. Claude’s letter back to this man is scream of anger and how you say, griefing?” The handwriting was neat and precise up to the final shaky sentence. Mrs. Frankel read it to Ruthie. “His last words say, ‘I have to stop writing . . .’”
A shadow fell upon the room, as a limb outside the window blew in the gathering wind. Ruthie folded the letter with tenderness and handed it back to Mrs. Frankel.
Mrs. Frankel’s smile subsided as her story continued. “It hard to think my sweet Claude as soldier boy. He live in woods and mountain caves two years until allies, how you say, ‘parasite’ vepons from sky?”
“Parachute,” Ruthie gently supplied the word, not wishing to intrude.
“Yes, parashut,” Mrs. Frankel agreed. “Then they have guns and bullets to fight. He say he lost many friend . . . many French friend. He very brave. Not only he stood his place, but run back and forth during heavy fight to bring friends bullets. He grew above self and after war was honor the la Croix de Guerre by French guvermant.”
Mrs. Frankel took a blue and white embroidered handkerchief from the pocket of her plain, neatly ironed dress and blew her nose. “‘One of happiest day in life?’ he say, when he and thousand of French people greet American soldier boys and march down Champs de Elysees.”
“What was the other?”
“Happiest day of his life.”
She gazed at her husband’s picture. “When he meet me.” Her tears flowed freely. “He always say I best thing in his life.” She resorted to her hanky once again, dabbed her eyes and apologized. “I sorry. Please . . . I just old, sad woman. Not your problem.”
Mrs. Frankel blew her nose one last time and pocketed her handkerchief. “Enough.” She picked up the pages, pointed, and demanded, “What this say!?”
Sy was half-asleep, lounging in the car, when Ruthie left Mrs. Frankels. The wind had picked up, blowing a multi-colored curtain of autumn leaves around her. She stopped at the front gate to wave to Mrs. Frankel, who watched through the living room window. The shades had all been opened.
She went to the car. With the English lesson resting on her lap, she looked fondly down the maple and elm-lined street.
Sy sat up slowly and turned the ignition. The old Plymouth hummed to attention.
“How goes it?” He put the transmission into drive.
“Not bad.” Ruthie’s seditious smile lit her face. “Not bad at all.”
Sy put the gear back in park. “Not bad?” he said incredulously.
Ruthie buckled her seat belt and said, more to herself then to Sy, “Not bad, once you get to know her.” She leaned over and kissed Sy, who stared at her blankly. “I’m awfully lucky to have you,” she grinned.
“What brought that on?”
“Let’s go home,” she nodded towards the street. “I’ll tell you all about it.”