Over Labor Day weekend I stopped at our local coffee place one morning. I used the drive-through, and while I was waiting in line I watched the person ahead of me pay by phone. I thought to myself we don’t touch many things anymore – paper, money – everything is on a screen. When my turn came I paid by cash and was handed two pennies. I rarely look at coins, that too is of the past, but one of the pennies look old and worn from time. And it was – it was minted in 1942. Pretty amazing that it was still in circulation these 76 years. I started thinking and realized it was about then that the US entered World War II.
Such a long time ago, and hardly anyone left from that time. I put the penny on the console of my car and kept it, thinking about how far it had traveled and how many hands had exchanged it. I enjoy seeing it there, in its little place of honor, every morning when I get into my car.
A few days after I received my window into the past, I decided to do some stargazing. It was a prime time to see shooting stars and a number of planets were visible in the night sky. I was looking at them from my deck and the view was fine, but there is so much “light pollution” that it is hard to compete. The next clear night we took the truck and drove inland about 10+ miles to woods and fields. Off road we went and there it was – the glorious starry night sky. I couldn’t find the old binoculars which worked so well, so I used the zoom lens of my camera for a closer look. I saw shooting stars, and what I think was a dancing star. Not sure. I should read up on astronomy, and while I’m at it pick up an old telescope at a yard sale because now there’s an app to see stars.
About a day later, the penny dropped as the saying goes, and I made the connection between the penny and looking at the stars. I remember my father telling me about his grandaunt Celeste, which oddly enough means heaven in Latin. I vaguely remember her; she was very old when I met her and I was little, but I recall she was an incredibly loving, affectionate, welcoming person with a wonderful sense of humor. She died shortly after; I don’t know how old she was. The details are lost since there is no one left to ask.
I thought of my great-grandaunt Celeste, “Celia” for short, and remember her remarkable story. She was a young widow when the war was going on – perhaps in her mid-30s. Her husband had left her a farmhouse in Tuscany which was unoccupied. Celeste decided, to the shock of her family I would imagine, to leave her young daughter in the care of her sisters, and boarded a ship to Italy, traveled to Tuscany, opened the house and moved in. Right in the middle of the war. She had gone to help with the resistance, and she spent the ensuing years smuggling American soldiers on their way north to battle that would eventually end the war in Europe. It’s quite a story and all true. My father said at the end of the war she was bestowed with medals from General Eisenhower and General Montgomery of Britain.
After the war she sold the farmhouse, came home and resumed her life here. I have seen photos of her – a pretty woman with a mass of lovely hair and a beautiful smile. There are pictures of her with a shotgun on her shoulder – she had a lot of land in the country. There she lived out her days and passed away surrounded by the many friends and family and people who loved her.
Why didn’t I write down the salient details of this story as it was told to me? Oh well, I’m afraid it’s gone, and my imagination will have to do. As I looked at the night sky I thought of her all those years ago – almost a century. How remote and isolated Tuscany must have been, no wealthy tourists buying up and renting out renovated farmhouses for the summer. She was alone in that house, waiting for friend or foe to arrive. I imagine her looking up at the night sky which must have been crystal clear in those days. Was she afraid? She was risking grave danger: possibly rape, torture, execution. And, as she looked at the sky and heard a branch snap or a rustle of leaves, did her heart skip a beat as she went to the door and saw the relieved and grateful face of a young soldier?
Alan Lightman’s book Einstein’s Dreams captivated me when I read it. There’s a chapter – and I know I’m getting this wrong – where all events in time are still occurring; we just can’t see or access them. So, when I look up at the stars and the heavens I think of Celia, young and idealistic, looking up at the same night sky, and I hope and pray that her spun silver courage, her sense of adventure, her belief in what is right, reaches into and lives in me.
In loving memory,