My father had been traveling in Germany for two months, and now he was home. He brought gifts for us all – Marzipan, toys. books. For my mother and him to enjoy, two cases of good Rhine wine. My little sister and I each got special gifts. I still have and will always have two that he gave me at that time: a small stuffed fabric rabbit, and a book by Ludwig Bemelmans, author of the Madeleine series of children’s books, The Best of Times. My mother and father were obviously happy to see each other and we children scampered. That night at supper I was allowed a sip of Rhine wine from a small conical stemmed glass. It was very good.
At that time I could read only a few words but The Best of Times is illustrated with many of Bemelmans’ water colors of post WWII Europe, and a few photographs. I leafed from picture to picture without much enjoyment. It is not a children’s book, and my father clearly did not read it before he bought it for me. The sketches are of adults, cafes, piazzas and landmarks. At page 119 I stopped, puzzled by the full page photograph, and went to ask my mother what it was. “Oh Billy, don’t look at that,” she said, and put the book away. At this point in his narrative of ravaged post war Europe, Bemelmans’ colors failed him, he says, and he reproduces his “Christmas card for Hitler”, an image of a concentration camp victim, dead, sprawled on the barbed wire, mouth agape, face turned upward and outward.
I took the rabbit with me everywhere. It became increasingly shabby and my mother helped me to repair it with needle and thread, working at her sewing desk. The rabbit’s arm fell off and was lost, but I had learned enough sewing from my mother to be able to fabricate a replacement arm, which is still attached. Soon after repairing my rabbit, I heard my mother’s sewing machine and went up to her desk to help her sew, but she told me to find a book or go outside and play. My father didn’t want me sewing anymore.