In April 1945 the end of World War II was near and spring was in the air. It prompted me to roam the countryside in search of cowslip. Its Latin name, primula veris, should come as a welcome relief to those who pictured this 10-year-old combing the meadows for collapsed cows. My true passion was viola tricolor, the mini pansy known also as Johnny Jump Up. Alas, it grew in wild profusion only in the tangled wilderness of Babeli’s garden. She was the reputed “old crazy lady” seen climbing a ladder to get into her dilapidated house on the very outskirts of the village.
There I stood, transfixed, peering at the pansies from behind the rickety fence, when Babeli suddenly jumped up from behind fallen tree branches. She looked tiny and ancient; the eerie smile on her face spooked me. To my amazement her voice was rather sweet when she asked, “Would you like to have some of my pansies?” Seeing my face light up, she proceeded to dig up several clumps, then pressed them into my outstretched hands. In a state of happy shock, I ran home to transplant them into my own little garden. Oddly, I have no recollection of seeing the pansies thrive. We were suddenly homeless and split-up as a family. Dad and my brother lodged in the attic of the plumber’s home. Mom and I took rooms in a town nestled in the hills of Appenzell. There she became critically ill and I went to live with a family in yet another canton.
No longer geographically distanced by 1947, but living gratefully in our very own new house, we were happily looking forward to our first normal Christmas. A group of six-graders and I decided to revive an Advent custom by visiting some old folks in the village, bringing gifts of braided egg bread and a fresh pine branch festooned with gold star and red candle. We sang carols and some of us played the recorder. Our group scattered into the chilly December evening after an irate woman threw us out of her house. Her mother had sat up in bed to wildly gesticulate as if she were directing a choir. Cold and tired by then, we burst into uncontrollable laughter that added to the old lady’s obvious merriment, but was declared an inexcusable offense to be reported to the pastor.
Walking towards home with Heidi, an intrepid classmate, I spontaneously proposed that we bring the last loaf and pine branch to Babeli. Her house was bathed in erratic moonlight, winds tossing about clouds, when we nervously stood at her front door and repeatedly called her name. It took some time until she appeared ghostlike at an upstairs window and asked us in. We found the door unlocked and the house cold and dark. Babeli, dressed in nightgown and coat, ushered us into her parlor. In vain we fumbled for our flashlight, but managed to light the candle. An unbelievable ruckus ensued as mice scattered wildly in a room filled with ears of dried corn and broken furniture. We bravely sang our carols and I read the Christmas story from Luke 2. Then we waited and waited for some kind of response, enduring the eeriest kind of Silent Night, the odd glow in Babeli’s eyes unnerving us more and more. Suddenly she stirred, sat up straight, and in a clear voice recited a remarkably poignant verse in the German of her Luther Bible, “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and to those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has sprung up” (Matthew 4:16).
Tears are welling up as I recall one of the most sacred moments of my life, when a frail old woman’s faith, long safely hidden in her heart, had roused itself to ignite mine. An epilogue might be helpful for this story, in view of the PTSD that crept up on me and forced the visit with a heart specialist. Imagine my delight when I found out that Swiss settlers had brought Viola Tricolor to America in the 1800s, where it became known as Heartsease. It should come as no surprise that my desktop wallpaper features a fitting floral tribute to Babeli and, more importantly, to the Light of the World who shone so brightly on us that dark and holy December night in 1947.