Brigitte could not remember a time before the suitcase flanked the front door on the right, opposite the coat closet to the left. Just like the faded floral wallpaper, the yellowed silhouettes of the stair-step Schmidt sisters, and the frosted glass sconces in the foyer, no one even seemed to notice the weathered hard-shell Samsonite anymore. Most of the time, Brigitte simply felt its presence as she walked in and out of the house on her way to school or a viola lesson or to visit the corner market on an errand for Mother.
For a long time, Brigitte had anticipated the day she would come home from such an outing to find the suitcase gone. She always pictured the scene the same way. She would walk in the door, put her saddle oxfords neatly on the shoe rack in the closet, hang her coat up with the buttons facing left, and place her schoolbooks or her viola on the shelf sandwiched between Anneliese’s and Cornelia’s. The shelves were labelled from top to bottom in Mother’s careful calligraphy: A, B, C. Merely out of habit, she would glance at the suitcase. On some seemingly normal day, she would look over her shoulder after putting her things away and discover the suitcase gone. Even though the moment felt inevitable, thinking about it caused a lurch in Brigitte’s stomach and a burn in the back of her throat. In all her years of imagining, not once had she pictured the scenario that was unfolding. Never had she considered that the suitcase would remain and Mother would not.
Mother had been gone three days. Without a word to anyone, she had simply left the house, as if going on some mundane errand, and not returned home. Brigitte had been first to worry about the break in routine. The family had attended Mass, as always, and eaten a big Sunday dinner at two o’clock sharp, as always. Anneliese had spot-treated the white tablecloth and napkins while Cornelia cleared the table, Mother washed the dishes, and Brigitte dried them and put them away. The Schmidt females worked quietly and efficiently, the three girls eager to join their father in the family room for the weekly round robin of backgammon and Mother just being her quiet and efficient self. During the first game, between Mr. Schmidt and last week’s champion, Anneliese, the front door had creaked opened slowly. Father and daughters had all heard the click as it was pulled shut. Cornelia, looking up from her sketch pad, commented without alarm, “I wonder where Mother’s going.” When their father shrugged nonchalantly, the game resumed, Cornelia returned to her drawing, and Brigitte tried to focus on her knitting.
After several minutes, the middle girl found an excuse to run upstairs: a measuring tape she didn’t really need. On the way to the stairs, Brigitte trained her eyes on the floor straight ahead. She had to know whether the suitcase was in its place but wanted to postpone any painful discovery as long as possible. She savored the minute in the bedroom she and Cornelia shared as if it were the last minute of oxygen on Earth. Slowly, she left the tidy room, which was decorated by Mother in sensible beiges with just a few accent pillows in sage and lavender. As she began her slow descent, Brigitte remembered the care with which her mother had hand-stitched and embroidered the Roman shades covering the windows that overlooked Mother’s orderly garden. At the landing, she forced her eyes to the spot just to the right of the front door. Seeing the Samsonite undisturbed in its place released a flood of relief through Brigitte’s softening body. She bounced down the last few steps, grabbed the newel post, and spun herself in the direction of the backgammon tournament just as her father announced his victory over his oldest.
“Who’s got winner?” Mr. Schmidt asked, looking to Brigitte and Cornelia as Anneliese paused before plopping down onto the brown corduroy sofa to plant a kiss on her father’s head. “Thanks for going easy on me, Dad.”
Mother had many things to say about curiosity. Often, she had told her daughters that curiosity was unbecoming of a lady. She had admonished them against asking too many questions and chided them for being “nosy-bodies.” Anneliese, in her compliant way, had channeled her curiosity into books. She read every book she could get her hands on – the classics, spy and romance novels, nonfiction. It didn’t matter. Anneliese was on a first name basis with all the librarians at the local branch. Every one of them set aside new acquisitions for their favorite patron.
Cornelia did not appear to be naturally inquisitive. She had little drive to know, but a very strong drive to create. She devoted every moment unoccupied by her studies or chores to making things – baked goods, paintings, fairy houses, music, stories. She was particularly good with her hands; every project she attempted was a success. Her father and sisters had often wondered out loud how to account for her creative talents. Anneliese and Brigitte once teased her about being adopted until Mother had sternly forbidden such nonsense.
Neither a reader nor an artist, Brigitte had to find creative ways to feed her bottomless need for information, so she had become a spy. The idea came from Anneliese’s well-worn copy of Assignment in Brittany. Out of boredom, Brigitte was flipping through the first chapter when the thought formed. She had spent the last year perfecting the art of disappearing into the background. She had surprised her whole family by becoming an avid knitter after years of telling Mother that the craft was simply too hard for her. Knitting allowed her to pretend to focus on a difficult technique or to count stitches while she took in everything happening around her. Without acting unladylike or being a nosy-body, Brigitte obtained a lot of information not meant for children. This way, she had learned that Aunt Ingrid was in a psychiatric hospital, not on a Florida vacation as the girls had been told. She had overheard Mother telling Dad that the neighbors were unhappy that the new butcher was a man named Mr. Abramowitz. When spying failed to provide what she hungered for, Brigitte asked sparing and veiled questions of her father.
Since Mother’s departure had been relabeled a disappearance, Brigitte had done little else besides knit, observe, listen, and worry. She watched carefully as Officer Riley, whose uniform appeared dangerously close to busting off his doughy body, asked her father questions in hushed tones still audible to the self-taught spy. His ruddy face was kind, and he had a stick of gum for all three girls. Brigitte noticed a slight accent that she associated with New England. She could clearly see the concern his face betrayed even while his words offered reassurance. She noticed the look that passed between Riley and his partner, Officer Murdoch, who had spent his time in the Schmidt house snooping around.
“Somebody planning a trip?” Murdoch had asked, pausing by the suitcase.
“No, Officer, that’s just where my wife stores her keepsakes. Been right there for years.”
The sisters looked at one another, each hoping another would speak up. None could muster the courage to tell the officer that Mother often referred to the suitcase when she was displeased with their behavior. “One of these days, I won’t be able to take your nonsense anymore,” she would say. “My valise is ready for that day.” She never raised her voice, but her words were edged with anger.
As soon as the officers left, Cornelia offered to prepare dinner. Monday was Mother’s market day, so the pantry and refrigerator were somewhat bare. After poking around for a while, Cornelia announced that she would prepare omelets, bacon, and biscuits. Anneliese and Brigitte set about the unskilled tasks their little sister had assigned them. Brigitte took a break from cracking eggs to check on their father’s whereabouts, finding him lost in the sports section where he usually spent the hour before dinner.
“This is not good. Something terrible has happened; I just know it,” Brigitte announced in the same hushed tone employed by Riley.
“Brigitte!” Anneliese hissed as loudly as possible through gritted teeth. “Why would you say such a thing? Ignore her, Cornelia. She has no idea what she’s talking about! The policemen think Dad is right; Mother just needed a little break for a few days. She’ll be back.”
Anneliese crossed the kitchen to put an arm across her baby sister’s shoulders. Cornelia’s face had crumpled, and the tears the youngest girl had been holding back flowed freely.
Through her sobs, Cornelia reminded her sisters that Mother had often mentioned leaving. “That’s why she kept the suitcase ready.”
“That’s just it, don’t you see? Mother wouldn’t have left without it.” Brigitte could tell by their confused expressions that neither had thought about this. Even Anneliese was left wondering what to say. “Besides, Mother always mentioned leaving when she was mad at one of us. She wasn’t even mad on Sunday.”
Ten days into Mother’s disappearance, the Schmidts had settled into a new normal. Cold cereal for breakfast, an indulgent food that Mother had never allowed her daughters to eat. Mr. Schmidt left early for the office. Soon after, Anneliese walked to the Diocesan high school. The younger girls walked together to the parish grade school where Brigitte escorted Cornelia to Sister Marguerite’s fourth-grade classroom before heading to join her sixth-grade classmates.
For the past few nights, Brigitte had practiced a new level of stealth. Forcing herself to stay awake by drinking too much water before bed, she had waited until she could hear the deep, regular breaths that meant slumber from her little sister’s bed. Cornelia had been crying herself to sleep most nights since Mother left without a word, but the tears seemed to be lasting less and less time. Anneliese had lingered between Brigitte and Cornelia’s beds the first few nights, but with each passing day, she seemed to be disappearing inside her own grief.
Once she was certain Cornelia was fast asleep, Brigitte would tiptoe down the hall, pausing outside first her older sister’s and then her parents’ bedrooms to make sure there was only silence. Any sound, even a snore, sent her back to her bed where she would count slowly to one hundred before starting over. If all were quiet upstairs, she would move slowly down the stairs, both feet on each riser, stopping by the front door. The first time she had done this, she simply rested her hand on the suitcase before returning to bed. The second night, she had pulled the suitcase away from the wall and then put it back in position, noticing that the suitcase was heavy. On the third night, she had repeated this maneuver and had gone a step further, laying the suitcase on its side. Each night, she stopped after every movement, one ear turned toward the staircase, and counted to a hundred. If all were clear, she proceeded, but if she heard anything at all, she would go to the kitchen, fill a glass with tap water, and head nonchalantly back towards her bedroom.
Last night, Brigitte had gone so far as to open one of the twin latches on the top of the Samsonite. When the metal rectangle slid open with a loud click, a cocktail of fear, thrill, and relief flooded through her. She had a plan in the event that the suitcase was locked but bristled at the thought of rummaging through her parents’ bureau drawers in search of a key.
Brigitte was ready. If all went smoothly, tonight would be the night she would open the suitcase, looking for clues. She truly had no idea what she expected or hoped to find inside. She simply knew that something had to fill the gaping hole created by Mother’s disappearance. Perhaps she would find that something inside the suitcase.
It had taken Brigitte two trips to get down the hall, the first one thwarted by a sneeze coming from Anneliese’s room, but all was still and quiet as she sat before the suitcase. Waiting for a full count of one hundred in between, she clicked open both latches. Another count and she had lifted the top ever so gingerly, slowing down when the hinges began to creak. Realizing her eyes were squeezed shut, she coaxed herself into opening them slowly. Apprehension compressed her chest. Brigitte knew that violating Mother’s privacy was both wrong and necessary.
Brigitte’s eyes adjusted slowly to the dim light cast from a streetlamp once they were fully open. They rested on a neatly folded cardigan in a pale gray with faux pearl buttons. Beside the sweater, a pressed white blouse and a pair of black slacks. Brigitte felt a lump form in her throat. She used the sleeve of her flannel nightgown to wipe the tears pooling in her eyes before they overflowed. She leaned in and inhaled deeply, barely detecting the scent of fabric softener.
Brigitte stared at the clothes while furrows formed on her forehead. Nothing remarkable about the clothing except for the faint smell. The suitcase had always been by the door. Brigitte had never considered the possibility that her mother ever did anything with it. Opened it. Emptied it. Packed and repacked it. Perhaps the scent of Downy could linger for years.
Remembering her mission, Brigitte shook her head as if to dislodge the questions distracting her. In all her careful and patient planning, she had not thought about the fact that finding out what was inside the Samsonite would mean she had to unpack it. She had imagined opening it, taking a quick peek inside, closing it, and returning to bed in less than five minutes, but now all she could see was clothing laid atop unknown objects underneath.
With a furtive glance over her shoulder up the staircase, Brigitte carefully lifted the shirt and slacks from the suitcase and set them beside her on the burnt orange carpet. The sweater she brought to her face, breathing slowly and savoring the softness against her cheek. Mindful of the passing time, she pulled herself away and placed the sweater on top of the pants.
The clothes had rested on several pieces of wrinkled tissue paper. Brigitte thought about how like Mother it was to save and reuse the delicate sheets. She thought about Christmases past, including the most recent one. On her last birthday, she had reached the age at which Mother no longer approved of “childish” gifts, giving instead practical ones. She and Anneliese had both received clothes and personalized stationery. Anneliese got two mystery novels and Brigitte four skeins of fisherman’s wool. The pang of jealousy she had felt watching Cornelia unwrap ice skates, oil pastels, and paper dolls revisited her. Brigitte had long ago outgrown her beloved skates. She had no use for art supplies or dolls, but they were meant to entertain.
Without so much as a crinkling sound, Brigitte lifted out the tissue paper to reveal what was beneath. Something large and rectangular wrapped in newsprint and masking tape. She held the package in both hands and inspected it closely, looking for the best way to unwrap it. There was no turning back now; if she pulled the tape off, it would be impossible to restore the tidy package to its current condition. Brigitte set her jaw as she tugged several pieces of tape loose and watched the newspapers bloom open slowly to reveal two frames nested inside one larger wooden frame. The faces in the photograph were immediately recognizable: Grandma and Grandpa Weber holding tiny Baby Josefine hugging a teddy bear. The Schmidts had not visited the Webers in a number of years, but Brigitte instantly recognized Mother’s parents. Privately, she had asked her father why the occasional visits had stopped. Mr. Schmidt, who tried to be patient with his ever-curious middle daughter and to answer every question as best he could, did not know himself why Josefine had quietly stopped phoning and visiting her parents. She offered no explanation to him, so he had simply shrugged his shoulders when Brigitte asked the question.
Beside the picture of the Weber family from close to forty years ago lay a framed letter typed on formal stationery. The fancy script of the letterhead was difficult to read, so Brigitte allowed her eyes to skim down to the body of the letter: Dear Miss Weber, it read. On behalf of the faculty and staff of the University of Pennsylvania, it is with great pleasure that I inform you of your admission to the freshman class of 1947… Brigitte’s hand shook as she did the math in her head. Mother would have been eighteen in 1947. She tilted her head to the side as she tried to make sense of what she was seeing. Mother had not gone to college. Brigitte was sure of that. In fact, Mother had discouraged Anneliese from getting any “wild ideas” about pursuing an education after high school. “Women belong at home tending house and raising children.”
Brigitte ignored the niggling whisper in her head, something faint about time. She placed the two smaller frames behind her on the floor, removing more crinkled tissue paper to reveal the contents of the larger frame beneath. She gasped softly before her hand to her mouth could stifle the sound. Slowly, she took in a beautiful piece of art unlike anything she had ever seen except in books. Swirls of color, irregular forms, a glow just off-center that seemed to emanate light. She tilted her head one way, then the other, trying to determine the correct orientation of the frame, and then moved her body so that she was looking at it right side up. Brigitte had no idea what it was or what it meant but she knew that it was breathtaking and exotic. Full of color and movement. Full of life. She scanned it closely, remembering the unit in art class on different styles of art. This was an abstract. She was almost certain it was done in oil pastel. In the bottom right corner, near the burst of light, she noticed a darker set of strokes. Looking closely, she was sure she read JEW. This was not a word that made sense in this context. In fact, Mother had made the girls promise never to use that word. “It’s disrespectful,” Mother had told them. And then the letters began to make sense. Josefine Eloise Weber.
All the Schmidts knew that Mother could draw. She had often helped the girls design covers for book reports or decorate posters for projects. Her creative efforts were always very practical: attractive and money-saving curtains and pillows, plants arranged to maximize the garden’s vegetable yield, hand-knit sweater vests for Mr. Schmidt every Christmas. But this was something entirely different, something Brigitte could not reconcile with anything she knew about Mother. Curiosity intensifying to confusion compelled Brigitte deeper into the suitcase. She propped the oil pastel against the wall typically hidden behind the Samsonite.
Beneath the framed artwork, Brigitte found several more pieces of unframed art, each carefully separated from the next with tissue paper: a watercolor landscape of a forest stream with a stone footbridge; a still life of fruit and flowers in charcoal; a painting of a beautiful girl with a long blonde ponytail, piercing blue eyes, and a joyfully mischievous expression on her face; and a pencil drawing of a tiny infant with puckered lips, a furrowed brow, and an intense gaze. Beneath the drawing, Brigitte found a Certificate of Award to Josefine Weber for First Place in Self-portraiture. As Brigitte digested the meaning of the award, she looked back at the painting of the girl. And there it was, so obvious now: Mother as a teenager. She looked on the back for confirmation but found only a date, 1947.
Brigitte hurriedly checked the backs of the others, pausing to look longer at the landscape. There was something familiar about that one. Perhaps there had been a family picnic near that bridge long ago. Brigitte couldn’t be sure. All but one of the pieces of art bore only that same year. On the back of the drawing of the baby, she also found a word in quotation marks: “August.”
Even for a practiced spy, the number of clues and complexity of the information was overwhelming. Brigitte closed her eyes to commit the images into memory before setting the artwork aside. She would have to remember all the details if she were to make sense of the images later when she had time to puzzle through them.
When Brigitte’s focus returned to the suitcase, she found two stuffed animals. Instantly, she recognized the tattered and faded teddy bear. In the Weber family photo, Baby Josefine clutched an earlier version of it under her chin. Now its fur was patchy, and one button eye dangled loosely. The well-loved bear appeared shabby next to one of similar color and size. The second bear’s body was covered in soft, brown fur and it stared up at the ceiling with two well-secured button eyes. The mint-condition bear sported a baby blue bowtie in contrast to the tattered bear’s pink gingham bow.
Deeper in the suitcase, Brigitte found a familiar object she had not seen in a long while, a shawl she had knitted for Mother’s birthday last year. It was wrapped in brown paper decoratively stenciled by Cornelia. Brigitte had never seen Mother wear the shawl and had worried she disliked it. She had used her sleuthing skills to figure out that Mother’s favorite color was baby blue and then enlisted her father’s help to get to South Philadelphia to the fancy knitting shop where she had spent all her savings on the softest light blue yarn in the store. Seeing it stowed away with Mother’s other treasured possessions caused a lump to form in the back of Brigitte’s throat.
Nestled beneath the paper-wrapped shawl, Brigitte discovered a pristine copy of Little Women. Instantly, she flashed back to the summer a few years back when Mother and Anneliese had taken turns reading chapters aloud after dinner. All the Schmidt girls loved the novel, especially Anneliese who fancied herself to be the Meg of the family. Brigitte opened the cover and read the inscription: Happy birthday, Mother (Marmee). I have worn the pages of your book thin because I love it so. I want you to have a nice, new one of your own. With love, Anneliese (Meg).
Brigitte placed the book in her lap on top of the shawl and surveyed the remaining contents of the suitcase. Somewhere, she knew there would be something symbolic of her little sister. When nothing seemed to fill the bill, she picked up a scrolled piece of paper wrapped with string. After gently pushing the string off the end of the tube, she unrolled the paper. A sheer piece of tissue paper floated down to her lap revealing an oil pastel much like the framed abstract Brigitte had determined was the work of Mother. This one contained similar smears of color but also had a representational quality that made Brigitte think of sand, ocean, sky, and sun. Expecting to find JEW in the bottom right corner, it took a pause for her to decipher the initials CES. Cornelia Eloise Schmidt. Careful not to smear the pastels, she checked the other side. Cape May, 1964. She turned the picture back over and felt herself transported to that weekend. It was one of the happiest times of her life. Something about that trip had seemed to bring Mother back to life. While Mr. Schmidt fished in the surf, Mother had led her daughters on a shell-searching expedition. Brigitte had been surprised by Mother’s expertise on the various types of shells they discovered that day, treasures with names like whelk, angel wings, auger, sand dollar. Mother had brought the whole shells home and left them on the patio so that the sun would dry them. For months, they had perched on the windowsill above the kitchen sink. And then one day, they were gone. Brigitte’s curiosity had gotten the better of her, and she had asked about the shells one night over dinner. “They were just gathering dust,” Mother had said dismissively.
These memories sparked something inside Brigitte, and for the first time since opening the suitcase, she rifled hurriedly through its few remaining contents. Her ears found them before her eyes or fingers had the chance. The unmistakable jingle of seashells. Mother had put them in a velvet drawstring bag and tucked them into a satin pouch stretched along the inside wall of the Samsonite. Brigitte opened the bag and inspected the shells one by one, noticing their various contours and colors and trying to remember which shells had been found by which family member. The last shell she pulled from the bag was a tiny perfect burgundy- and cream-colored auger. She distinctly remembered finding this one and running to catch up with Mother to show off her discovery. “Very nice, Brigitte,” Mother had said. “This one’s a keeper.”
As Brigitte tucked the tiny shell inside the elastic at the wrist of her sleeve, she said to herself, “This one’s a keeper.”
Suppressing a yawn and glancing over her shoulder up the stairs, Brigitte noticed the first rays of morning light just beginning to peak through the small windows flanking the front door. She figured she had just a few more minutes before she had to repack the suitcase and sneak back to bed. She seemed to have made it to the bottom layer of Mother’s belongings and all she could see was several articles of clothing wrapped in tissue paper and a pair of shoes: a neatly folded navy skirt, a pale blue linen blouse, two pairs of underpants, two bras, a matching nightgown and robe with a tiny floral print, a slip, two pairs of stockings, and a pair of black pumps. She set each piece of clothing aside, but as she placed the shoes atop the pile, she noticed something inside one of them. Brigitte opened the small gray hinged jewelry gift box. Inside she found a very familiar gold cross on a gold chain. She turned it over to find the inscription on the back: Josefine, 1937. Brigitte knew this had been a gift from Mother’s parents on the day she had received her first Holy Communion. Mother and Dad had given each of the Schmidt girls a very similar crucifix and chain at their first Communions. Brigitte had never noticed that Mother had stopped wearing the necklace and chided herself for missing such an obvious clue. She paused to ponder what it might mean to remove such an important symbol of faith. Mother had always been steadfast in her beliefs, scolding the girls should they express a doubt or ask a question.
Brigitte heard a rattle in the box when she picked it up to replace the necklace. She lifted out the cardboard insert. Underneath, she found a ring she had never seen before. It was platinum with a tiny heart-shaped diamond set between two even smaller round diamonds. It looked very much like a ring given to the girl next door by her boyfriend when he had left to join the Army. The Schmidt girls had been very excited that Betsy was engaged, but Mother had corrected them. “It’s a promise ring. It doesn’t mean that they are going to get married; it just means that Lloyd promises to be true to her until he returns home.” Brigitte assumed the ring in her hand had been her father’s promise to Mother. She replaced the ring and the necklace and nestled the jewelry box into the shoe.
Lying on the brown satin lining of the suitcase, Brigitte found a letter addressed to Miss Josefine Weber at her grandparents’ address in Germantown. Reading Mother’s personal mail felt like crossing a boundary sturdier than those she had already barreled past, but Brigitte did not pause to consider her actions. Before opening the envelope, she looked at the postmark. The letter came from Philadelphia in November 1946. The handwriting was messy and very difficult to read but she could make out enough to get the gist of it. Dear Josie, I am so very sorry … not what I want either, but what choice… Our parents will never allow… together. We have to think of our futures… hoping… college in Boston next fall… Maybe in a year, you can go too… more I could do. Take care of yourself. Sincerely, Christofer.
As she tried to make sense of the letter, Brigitte heard the floor creak upstairs. The smocking and left sleeve of her nightgown were now soaked through with tears. All that remained in the valise was a thin manila envelope with no visible markings. Accepting the inevitability of being discovered by her father, Brigitte opened the envelope and slipped out a single sheet of paper. It was a photocopy of an official looking document titled Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Certificate of Live Birth. Holding her breath, she searched the information boxes further down the page. Name: August Christofer Rosenstein. Date of Birth: 23rd day of March in the year 1947. Time of Birth: 12:33am. Place of Birth: Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. Mother’s Name: Josefine Eloise Weber. Mother’s Date of Birth: 15th day of March in the year 1929. Father’ Name: Christofer Adam Rosenstein. Father’s Date of Birth: 4th day of January in the year 1929.
Brigitte could barely breathe as she looked over the document again. She rifled through the stack of artwork until she found the drawing of the baby. She turned it over and reread the back: “August” 1947. Her thoughts swam wildly around in her head. This baby had been born on March 23, the exact date Mother had disappeared eighteen years later.
Suddenly everything and nothing made sense. Brigitte’s heart pounded as she looked around at Mother’s past. She could no longer suppress the sobs she had been fighting back, so she covered her face to stifle their sound. Brigitte had never known her father to lose his temper; nevertheless, she braced herself as she followed his footsteps down the hall above her. She felt him pause at the top of the stairs and tried to steady her breath. She could not turn to face him, so she waited helplessly for him to reach her.
Mr. Schmidt let out a heavy sigh as he sat down beside his middle daughter without a word. When he put his arm around her shoulders, Brigitte leaned into him. In his quiet way, he had always known what to do to comfort the girls when they were hurt or scared or when Mother was angrily silent. Together they sat for a long while, Brigitte’s cries slowly quieting as the rising sun flooded the front hallway. In the silence, Brigitte was able to assemble many of the clues she had unpacked. Much was still a puzzle, but she had solved important pieces of the mystery that was Mother. “Dad,” she whispered, “I think I know why Mother left.”