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An Uncommon Family (Family Portrait, Book 1)
A chance meeting between a middle-aged woman, a widower, and a semi-orphaned child in the city of Zurich, Switzerland, brings together three people who grapple with a past of loss and betrayal. Six-year-old Karla, whose mother died in a car crash, has a hard time accepting the loss. Anna, her aunt and guardian, struggles with her former husband’s deception and her shattered confidence in men, and Jonas, artist and teacher, mourns the death of his wife.
While trying to help Karla, a talented but troubled child, Anna and Jonas develop feelings for each other that go beyond friendship. The budding romance, however, hits a snag when Anna discovers a sinister secret in Jonas’s past. While the two adults have come to an impasse, young Karla takes matters into her own hands. Together with a friend, she develops a plan to bring the two uncooperative adults back together. The plan, however, creates havoc and as it begins to unravel, Karla is forced to learn some difficult lessons.
An Uncommon Family is a story about loss, lies, and betrayal but also about the healing power of love and forgiveness. It takes place in Switzerland, New York City, and Guadalajara, Mexico.
An Uncommon Family
Karla licked the crispy cone, trying to catch the sliding droplets before they hit the ground. The raspberry ice cream was a dark purple, her favorite color. She wrinkled her nose as she caught another whiff of exhaust from the busy street along the Limmat River in the city of Zurich. It was August and hot in Switzerland. The six-year-old girl scanned the scenery in front of her with dreamy eyes.
A canoe was sliding by a tourist boat on the river. People with funny-looking sun hats and dark glasses sat on the benches of the boat. Along the river on the other side, the built-together stone houses looked like a row of uneven different-colored teeth, gray, yellow, white, and some with a tint of orange. Behind the houses, on top of the hill, the linden trees at the park shimmered in their pale-green foliage and a curtain of dark-green ivy hid part of the gray granite wall.
Karla took another lick from her ice-cream cone, then turned around and peered through the window of the art shop, where her aunt was picking up two framed pictures. When she looked back at the sidewalk, her breath caught.
“Mama?” she whispered.
She saw the woman only from behind, but the bounce in her step, the long, reddish-blond hair flowing down her back, swaying left and right, the tall, slender figure—it must be her mother. She tossed the rest of the ice cream into the trash can, got up, and ran after the woman.
“Mama!” she called as the woman got ready to cross the street. The light turned from blinking red to solid red, just as the woman reached the other side. Karla rushed after her, barely aware of the honking around her or of the shrill warning bell of the blue-and-white streetcar. She heard someone yell at her but by then she had arrived at the other side. The woman was walking along the river toward the Lake of Zurich.
“Mama, wait!” Karla bumped into someone.
A man stepped aside. “Watch it, kiddo.”
“Mama . . .”
The woman finally turned around and looked back, scanning the people behind her, then walked on. Karla stopped dumbfounded. It was the face of a stranger.
A wave of despair washed over her. Not believing that she could have been so wrong, she started to run again. She didn’t see the slight indentation in the pavement. As she fell, she barely noticed the searing pain in her knees; the disappointment hurt more. She covered her face with her hands and sobbed. Mama would have helped her. Mama would have picked her up, hugged her, and even sang a little tune to her to make her feel better. But her mother was gone.
“Are you hurt, honey?” a dark voice said. Karla felt a hand on her back. “Come on, let me see.”
A pair of strong arms lifted her up. She looked into a face with a gray-white beard and kind, blue eyes below thick tufts of eyebrows. The man was tall and sturdy. He had wildish white hair. He reminded her of Saint Nicholas. But it was summer and Saint Nicholas only appeared in December.
“Are you here alone?” he asked. “Where’s your mother?”
The question brought a new flood of tears. “I thought it was Mama,” Karla managed to say, her chest heaving with sobs.
“Karla, what happened? Why did you run away?” Aunt Anna came rushing toward her, clutching her purse and a large package. “I thought I’d lost you. Jesus, what happened to your knees?” She bent down, put the package on the concrete, and examined Karla’s legs. Brushing a strand of wavy brown hair out of her face, she peered at the man with her gray-blue eyes. “What’s going on here?”
“I just happened to walk by when she fell,” he explained. “She said something about looking for her mother. Are you her mother?”
Anna shook her head. “No, I’m her aunt. Her mother . . . died half a year ago.”
“I’m so sorry.” The old man gently touched Karla’s cheek. “But she thought she saw her mother.”
Anna sighed. “She still hasn’t accepted the truth.” She turned to Karla. “Tell me what happened, sweetie?”
Karla told her between sobs that a woman had walked by who looked exactly like her mama.
“But you know that’s not possible, don’t you?” Aunt Anna hugged her. Karla leaned her face against Anna’s chest and poured her sorrow into her sweater. It was soft but didn’t smell like her mama’s. Anna waited for her to calm down. “We have to take care of your knees.”
“There’s a pharmacy right over there. I’m sure they have something to clean the wound and some bandages. May I?” Saint Nicholas gave Anna an inquiring look.
Anna nodded and the man lifted Karla up. His thick hair tickled her cheek. Karla wrinkled her nose. He gave off a faint whiff of smoke, which reminded her of Anna’s woodstove. It felt a little comforting.
At the pharmacy, a friendly lady took care of Karla’s knees. She wiped them clean, trying not to hurt Karla, who flinched and gave an occasional sob. “Sorry, honey, but we don’t want it to get infected.”
While the woman bandaged Karla’s legs, Anna unwrapped the package she had been carrying. She handed Karla one of the pictures and held the other one up for her to see. “Don’t they look beautiful?”
Karla nodded with a weak smile. They did look nice. She barely recognized them again behind the glass and surrounded by a fine wooden frame. One of them showed a woman, sitting on a chair and holding a little girl in her arm. The woman had long reddish-brown hair and the girl’s hair was black. They were sitting in front of a house. The stones in the wall had an irregular shape; they looked a little bit like cobblestones. It had taken Karla a while to make them look right. The other picture showed a tree with large purple and cream-colored blossoms. It was the chestnut tree in front of Karla’s old home. She had painted the pictures with her favorite pastel pens.
“They’re gorgeous,” Saint Nicholas said in his deep voice. “Who painted those?”
“Karla did,” Aunt Anna said.
Saint Nicholas stared at her, then at the pictures, then at Karla. “How old is she?”
“Six,” Karla said, brushing the last tears off her face. Anna handed her a Kleenex.
“And she painted those by herself, without help?” The man squinted as he scanned the pictures. The wrinkles on his forehead and around his eyes deepened. He truly did look like Saint Nicholas.
“Yes,” Aunt Anna said.
“This child is very talented. Does she get any instruction?”
“I’m actually looking for a teacher for her. She loves to draw and paint. If it was up to her, she’d do it all day long. And it seems to help her with . . . you know, the loss.”
“Amazing.” Saint Nicholas shook his head and continued to scan the pictures. “Well, I happen to be a painter myself. I also teach a few children.” He looked at Karla and Anna with a serious face. “I’d love to have her as a student.”
“I’ll think about it. That would be great,” Aunt Anna said.
“Why don’t you check me out?” The man pulled his wallet from his back pocket, opened it, and took out a small gray card. “Here is my address and phone number and on the back a few references.” He handed Anna the card. “Whatever you decide to do though, you don’t want a talent like this go to waste.”
Aunt Anna studied the card. “Very interesting, Mr. Bergman.”
“Call me Jonas,” the man said.
“Anna,” Karla’s aunt said as the two shook hands.
“You’re not Saint Nicholas?” Karla asked, surprised.
Aunt Anna and the man laughed. “No, I’m sorry. You think I look like him?” He brushed through his wavy white hair.
Karla nodded. “But you wouldn’t come in summer, would you?” She looked down at her neatly wrapped knees. The talk of drawing and painting had pulled her out of her deep misery. “Are you going to teach me?”
The man smiled at her. “You talk this over with your aunt, all right?” Then he glanced at his watch. “Oops. I guess I missed my appointment.”
“I’m so sorry,” Anna said. “We caused you all this trouble.”
“Don’t worry. No problem at all.” He bent down and put a hand on Karla’s shoulder. “And, Karla, I know how much it hurts. I lost my dear wife a few years ago. We were together for over twenty years. I still miss her. But I can promise you, things will get better with time.”
Karla took a deep breath and nodded. She had heard the words many times before. “Maja lost her mother, too.”
“Maja is a friend of hers, a girl from Croatia,” Anna explained. “Her mother died during the war.”
At home, in their house in a small town near Zurich, Aunt Anna fixed lunch. She heated up the leftover bean and vegetable soup and made grilled cheese sandwiches with tomatoes. The smell of food awakened Karla’s appetite. She was quiet and thoughtful but no longer desperate.
“He was a nice man,” she said, folding the colorful paper napkins she had made herself with potato stamps. She put them on the blue-and-white placemats on the oak-wood table in the kitchen.
“Would you like to take drawing and painting lessons from him?” Anna poured the soup into bowls and slid the toasted sandwiches onto the plates.
Karla nodded. “Yeah, that’d be cool.” She smiled and traced her finger along the spots on the tabletop. The sunlight, filtered by the leaves of the magnolia tree in front of the kitchen window, had sketched a pattern of light and shadows on the table.
“Cool, huh?” Anna smiled and gave the girl a hug.
It was quiet now, except for the chirping of crickets and the occasional hoot of the owl in the forest near Anna’s home. The air was still warm after the hot summer day. Anna had opened all the windows, hoping for a cooling breeze. It had been an unusually hot summer in a country that wasn’t exactly known for its heat waves. The strong pungent scent of basil in between the tomato plants reminded Anna of her gardening chores she kept putting off because of the heat.
After her turbulent day in the city, Karla had finally fallen asleep. Anna sat on the patio, watching the darkness descend upon the trees and meadows and erase the last smirches of crimson and purple on the horizon.
A loud scream, followed by crying, interrupted the peaceful evening. Karla had another one of her nightmares. Anna shot up and rushed into the child’s bedroom. Karla sat in bed, shivering in spite of the warmth, her eyes wide open.
“Wake up, sweetie. It’s just a dream.” Anna sat on the bed next to Karla and hugged her.
Anna watched as the dream subsided. The expression in the child’s eyes changed from confusion and fear to a flicker of hope and then to sadness. Anna pressed the trembling and sobbing body against her chest. “Just a bad dream, honey. I’m here, it’s okay.”
After Karla had dozed off again, Anna tiptoed out of the room and left the door open. It was the first nightmare in quite a while, perhaps triggered by Karla’s experience in the city, when she thought she saw her mother.
Right after the accident, Karla had been plagued by bad dreams almost every night. It was always the same. Screams followed by desperate crying. When Anna woke her up, Karla was distraught. She mentioned fire, flames, red paint, which Anna assumed was blood. In the morning, Karla couldn’t remember much of the dream. She didn’t remember the actual accident either.
Anna sat in the living room, gazing out the window. By then, the last tinges of color had been swallowed by the night. Tears gathered in her eyes. On days such as these, the pain of loss and the doubts flared up again. She would never forget that fateful day half a year before. She still heard the solemn voice of the police officer telling her that her mother and sister had been killed during a head-on collision with a drunk driver. They told her that a child had been in the backseat in her booster, that the little girl had a shock but was unhurt. They needed Anna to identify the two women. For days and nights afterward, Anna saw the mangled bodies lying on the gurneys and the pale face of her little niece, whose normally vivid large dark eyes now stared at her with an empty look.
From one day to the next, Anna, single and childless, had become the guardian of her niece. She was the only close relative who lived nearby. Laura, her younger sister, had been a single mother. Karla’s biological father lived in Peru. With the death of her mother and sister, Anna had lost the last members of her immediate family. Her father as well as her grandparents had passed away years before. There was an uncle, a kind man, who had offered to help Anna financially, should she need it.
It wasn’t the money, though, that worried Anna. She was the head of the library in her hometown and owner of the only independent bookstore. The bookstore wasn’t a big moneymaking enterprise, but together with her salary and her freelance writing, she would be able to support herself and Karla. Fortunately, the home she had inherited from her mother was paid off. No, it wasn’t the finances; it was the responsibility for her little niece that weighed heavily on her.
“Why? Why did you leave me like this? Don’t you realize how much I still need you?” Anna whispered, tears streaming down her face
Jonas Bergman put the grocery bags on the floor of the old elevator, which slowly lumbered up to the top of the four-story building. The elevator cabin was open, walled in only by a crisscross of iron bars. He lived in one of the heavy medieval stone houses in the old part of Zurich, called the Niederdorf or Low Village, at the east side of the Limmat River.
Upstairs, the old elevator stopped with a rattling sound and Jonas stepped out. One day, I’m going to be stuck in here, he thought, giving the old but so far reliable cabin a suspicious glance. He only used the elevator when he had heavy things to carry. He reached into his pocket, searching for his keys. “Damn it,” he muttered as he dropped them. They made a metallic crunching sound on the hardwood floor.
“Let me help you, Mr. Bergman.”
Jonas turned around. A stout elderly lady with curly gray hair came out of the apartment next to his. She bent down and picked up the keys.
“Oh, Mrs. Schatz, don’t bother. Well, thanks anyway and excuse my language.” Jonas watched as the woman slid his apartment key into the keyhole.
“That’s okay, I’ve heard worse.” Mrs. Schatz chuckled.
She gave him a critical look, then pointed at the grocery bags. “Looks like you were at the market. Good. Seems like you’re eating properly again.”
“Yes, Mrs. Schatz, I took your advice to heart,” Jonas said. He held one of the bags and tried to pick up the second one. His neighbor grabbed the second bag and followed him into the apartment.
“Thanks again,” Jonas said. “What would I do without you?” He winked at her.
“Come on, Mr. Bergman. What you need is a woman of your own. I’ve told you many times.”
His neighbor had been trying to fix him up with someone for about a year without any success. Mrs. Schatz was married and believed that a single man, particularly a widower of Jonas’s age, was doomed.
After she put down the grocery bag on the kitchen counter, she turned to Jonas. “I’ll have a few friends over for tea tomorrow afternoon. Why don’t you come and join us?”
Jonas grinned. “These friends wouldn’t happen to be available women you’re trying to hook me up with?”
“What do you mean? I wouldn’t do such a thing,” the woman said in a huffed tone. “These are very respectable ladies. Many a man would be honored and pleased to be able to enjoy their company.”
“Of course, Mrs. Schatz, don’t misunderstand me.” Jonas tried to calm his neighbor. “I have only met charming women at your tea gatherings. And I’m very grateful for your concern. It’s not the women who are the problem. It’s me.” He gently tapped Mrs. Schatz’s arm. “You know, I’m just not ready yet. I know, it’s stupid, but I can’t help it.”
Mrs. Schatz seemed somewhat appeased. “Well, okay, I won’t push you. Just remember”—she shook a finger at him—“you’re not getting any younger either.” She looked him up and down and he instinctively pulled in his slight potbelly. “Well, I’ve got to go, have some baking to do.”
She shuffled across the hallway toward the door. Mentioning the baking was another attempt to lure Jonas. She was an excellent baker and well-known among her neighbors and friends for her cakes and pies. Her heavy hips and the bulges around her waist were a testimony to her love of sweets.
At the door to her apartment, she slightly raised her hand. “If you change your mind, you know where we are.”
“Thank you kindly, Mrs. Schatz,” Jonas said. “I have quite a lot of work to do, but perhaps next time.”
He closed the door and breathed a sigh of relief. In the kitchen, he unpacked the groceries. He put the lettuce, zucchini squash, tomatoes, basil, and a piece of mountain cheese into the refrigerator. Picking up a ripe apricot, he inhaled its sweet smell and bit into it, then went into the living room.
As usual, when he came back from an errand or a trip, he stood a while in front the photo of his wife, Eva. A beautiful face with wavy, shoulder-length blond hair, shiny blue eyes, and the touch of a cute snub-nose smiled at him. He smiled back and sighed. “Hi there,” he whispered.
His neighbor wasn’t the only person who tried to nudge him toward female companionship. His son in Denmark and his daughter, who spent a year in the United States, brought the topic up occasionally. “Dad, remember what Mom said before she died? You shouldn’t pine for her; you should live and have another woman in your life.”
He gently touched the frame of the photo. There is no other woman. Only you.
He pulled a bottle out of the liquor cabinet and poured himself a shot of whiskey, went into the kitchen and dropped a few ice cubes from the freezer into the glass. He shook the glass and watched the golden liquid swoosh around. Coming back into the living room, he opened a couple of windows and the floor-length glass door, which led to a small patio on the rooftop.
Jonas’s penthouse apartment was light and airy and tastefully furnished. Being of Danish background, he loved the uncluttered elegance of the place and the light colors of the sofa, drapes, and the simple wood furniture. A few of his paintings decorated the wall.
To the south, he had a view of a small section of the river and part of the lake. Across the river stood the Fraumünster Cathedral with its five stained-glass windows designed by Marc Chagall. If the weather was good, Jonas could see the mountains in the distance.
It was still warm on this hot summer day. The sun was setting behind the buildings, surrounding them with halos of gold. The strip of the lake Jonas could see from his apartment sparkled in the last light of the evening. Jonas was thinking of the little girl and her aunt. He sighed, remembering the look on the child’s face when he lifted her up. How well he could relate to that feeling of sadness and despair.
Jonas loved children and now that his own kids were grown and his grandchildren lived in Denmark, he made do with the children he taught privately. He enjoyed teaching. It made him feel needed and the company of his students helped him push away the loneliness for a few hours.
The thought of working with Karla, however, filled him with excitement for another reason. In the two pictures he had seen of hers, he had detected an unusual talent. Her drawings were still rough and unpolished, of course. But skill and craft could be taught. What was more important was the degree of passion and the level of personal expression, which was rare in a child so young.
What Karla needed now was the willingness to learn and to practice, which Jonas believed she had. He had seen it in her eyes when she asked him if he would teach her. How long her endurance would last, that was another question. Children changed as they grew up; they developed other interests, they got bored. He had seen it happen many times. He remembered his own children, the years of paying for piano and violin lessons and just when they were getting good at it, they became interested in video games and dating.
Jonas picked up his pipe, stuffed it with tobacco, and lit it. He closed his eyes, enjoying the earthy taste. He had stopped smoking cigarettes years before, but he treated himself to an occasional pipe. He stepped outside and stood on the rooftop patio, watching the last golden and orange hues of the setting sun fade into the approaching dark.
He smiled. “Well, Karla, what do you say? I think it’s worth a try.”