In his new novel, “Bliss, Remembered,” author and radio commentator Frank Deford crafts a memorable love story set at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and in America during World War II. The novel unveils the saga of Sydney Stringfellow, a young swimming hopeful from Maryland who finds her way to the Olympics and has her first love affair with a German man named Horst Gerhardt. The affair ends abruptly when political forces tear them apart and Sydney returns home.
Back in the States, Sydney is still grieving when a young American, Jimmy Branch, begins to pursue her. The war takes Jimmy into the Marines, when, incredibly, Horst appears in America. Horst is a German spy who hates the Nazis and wants to defect. Sydney gets caught up in his efforts to expose Nazi subterfuge in America, and is faced with a major dilemma that she will conceal for the rest of her life. She waits until 2004, when she knows she is dying, to reveal to her son what happened so long ago. Here is an excerpt:
The summer after my mother found out that she was dying of cancer, she asked me to come visit and watch the Olympic swimming on television with her. It was 2004, when the Games were in Athens. Mom had been on the United States swimming team in the Berlin Olympics in 1936, when she was 18. While she never talked about that experience — she was, in fact, mysteriously silent on the subject — she would say, “That’s the only thing of any real consequence I ever did in my life.” That wasn’t true, but it was very much like her to speak so modestly. To put this in perspective: my mother was one of these people who gave much unto the world, brightened the lives of those around her and left us all better for her having been here among us.
You can be sure I understand if you think I am prejudiced, and I am, but nonetheless, that all happens to be the God’s truth.
Of course, she also could be herself, which was a handful.
She was an awful lot of fun; she had a way about her. Unlike most old people who seem to withdraw unto themselves, she became more expressive and confident of herself (and her opinions) as she grew older. She had developed an uncommon facility about the past, wherein she discussed herself back then with a certain out-of-body quality, as if that girl was someone else altogether. And while she certainly maintained the courtesy and graciousness that had always marked her, she felt less compunction to suffer fools. In particular: woe to the poor person who called her a “senior.” Mom, I think you could say, went out — well, if not with a bang, then certainly with a lot of sizzle.
I was, then, not altogether taken aback when, after I told her that I’d be delighted to come see her, she said, “I’ll have something in the nature of a surprise for you, Teddy.” But, although I pressed her in a good-natured way, she wouldn’t tell me what it was, and I had all but forgotten about it until I arrived, a few weeks later, at her garden apartment in Eugene, Oregon. After Daddy died and she sold the house in Montana, she came to Eugene because she had heard it was a nice place to live, and it was a college town, and while she wanted a more benign climate, she didn’t want to go to the Sun Belt and “play bridge with a bunch of old hags like myself.”
She made a lot of good friends in Eugene and enjoyed her years there, stirring the pot. She told me she was accepting of death, although her one wish was that she would not die while George W. Bush was the president of her country. Unfortunately, much to her chagrin, she would be denied that hope.
‘The real story’Mom, whose name was Sydney Stringfellow Branch, threw off her mortal coil, going on 87, on January 11, 2005. “Well,” she said, a few days before the end, when the die was cast, “at least I won’t have to be around for that damn fool’s second inauguration.” And she added: “You know, Teddy, I’ve always wondered what comes next, but at least I can die positively knowing that as long as Bush is president here, I’m guaranteed to be going to a better place.”
Anyway, it was the previous August when I visited her. I came by myself, for although Mom adored Jeanne, my wife, I could tell that she wanted to see me alone. So I’d left home, left behind Jeanne, left our empty nest (well, save for our dog, Elsinore), and come to Eugene at the time when the Olympic swimming started. Mom and I would watch it every night. She adored Michael Phelps, all the more so that he came from Baltimore, because she had grown up nearby, across Chesapeake Bay, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. “I wish he’d swim in the backstroke,” she said. That had been her specialty.
“You can’t swim everything Mother.”
“He can. He’s amazing.”
“I never asked you: why did you swim backstroke?”
“You really wanna know, Teddy?”
“Because when you’re on your back you don’t have your face stuck in the water. You can see the sky. I liked that.”
“Who woulda thunk it?” I said.
“Now, it’s not so good when you’re in a race in an outdoor pool, because if the sun’s out, it’s in your eyes, but me just swimming the backstroke in the river, why, if the sun got in my eyes, I just turned over for awhile. You’ve got to remember, in the beginning, I just swam for the hell of it because the river was out our backyard. I imagine if I’d lived in Nepal, I’d’ve climbed mountains and been a Sherpa.”
“Aren’t the Sherpas all men?”
“For God’s sake, Teddy, don’t be so literal. Is this any better: if I’d grown up in Las Vegas, I’d’ve been a whore.”
Mom made certain to find out when the women’s hundred-meter backstroke would be shown. That had been her event when she’d made the U.S. team. “I want to tell you all about that,” she told me.
“You do? I could never get a word out of you on that.”
“Well, there was a reason.”
“What was that?”
“That’s what you’re gonna find out, antsypants. But things were connected.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“It means I didn’t ever want to talk about the Olympics because that was connected to other stuff, which I didn’t think was any of your damn business.”
“A woman can change her mind. So can a man, but most of you are too stubborn ever to do that.”
That reminded me. “I thought you had something for me.”
“What is it?”
“Teddy, just hold your horses.” She shook her head in despair at me — which was not uncommon, although I usually couldn’t imagine what exactly it was that Mom held me in despair of. “Nobody can wait anymore,” she said in exasperation. “One of the great technological advances in this world, which is actually a terrible step backwards, is cameras.”
At times like this, I had no idea where she was going. “How so?” I asked.
Mom liked a straight man.
“Much of the fun of taking pictures was not knowing how a picture came out. You took a picture and then had to wait till you got the roll back from the drugstore to find out how good the pictures were. And when you found out one of them — even only one of them — was a honey of a picture, it made your day. Now, with all this digital nonsense, you can see the picture right away. What fun is that?”
“Well, there’s something to be said for getting something right, isn’t there?”
“Oh sure,” she said, in that world-weary way, which I took to really indicate a weariness of me and my questions. “But the point is — the larger point, Teddy — is that there are no surprises left. You can tell on the phone who it is before you pick it up. All the children are on that Facebook thing, so there’re no blind dates left. Just peek-a-boo dates. Everybody has to know what sex their child is hardly before they’re out of bed and through conceiving. No, no, no, we think we’re so clever, but we’re a poorer world without surprises.”
Still shaking her head at the folly of us all, she got up and went over to her little antique desk, opened a drawer and pulled out one of those large acetate envelopes. It was a bright purple-violet, her favorite color. I instinctively reached out my hand for the folder. You would’ve thought that I’d have learned by now. “No, no, no,” she said. “Not yet. In fact, I’ve decided that I’m gonna tell you the first part of the story.”
“This is a story?” I asked, pointing to the envelope. “You’ve written a story?”
“No, no, Teddy. Not a story story. It’s the real story that happened to me long ago that I want you to know about.”
“My story, yes.”
“At the Olympics?”
“That’s part of it.” She grinned — and rather mischievously, I thought.
“That’s a lot of the part I’m gonna tell you.”
“Why do you wanna tell me that part?”
“Well, the first part is a lot of fun, so I decided I’d enjoy telling you that.” As she stood before me, she gently rapped the envelope on her thigh. “But the second part is more important, so I better let you read that to make sure it’s absolutely clear.”
“All right, I got it.”
“But Teddy: prepare yourself now. There’s some sex.”
That took me aback a little. “There is?”
“I hope you can abide that, Teddy. I promise not to offend your delicate sensibilities.”
“I’ll try not to blush, Mom.”
“And I’ll try not to spell it out.”
“Okay, it’s a deal.”
Her expression changed then, and in a voice so different that I thought at first she was putting me on, she spoke softly: “Some violence, too.”
I watched her closely before I realized she was serious. Even then, I wasn’t certain. “Violence? Really, Mom? Violence?”
“One day, yes.” But quickly, then: “Only let’s not get into that now. That’s a ways off.”
She put a smile back on her face, reached into the envelope, pulled out a little tape recorder and handed it to me. “You gotta use this.”
“But you said you’ve already got it all written out in there.” I pointed to the acetate envelope.
“That’s true, but I’m sure I’ll flesh it out some in the telling, so it’ll be a fuller picture. Probably more scintillating, too.”
“You want me to get this transcribed afterwards?”
“You can if you want, Teddy. After I’m dead and gone, you can do whatever you want.” She sighed. “That’s the point.”
Mom wasn’t fey when she said that. Rather, her voice was suddenly very trenchant, and, of course, it made me all the more curious. “What is the story, Mom?”
“That’s what I’m gonna tell you. You don’t need a preview of coming attractions. Can you work this gizmo?”
I may not be a technological wizard, but I knew enough to push the start button, and I said, “Testing, testing,” and stopped it and pushed the little backwards arrow and played it back. Sure enough: “Testing, testing.”
“I got it,” I said. “Whatta guy.”
“Let’s go outside,” Mom said, leading me out the French doors to where she kept a pretty little garden — flush with rhododendron, which had always been her flower of preference. It was a soft summer’s day, terribly quiet. She sat down and smiled at me in something of a conspiratorial way. It even left me a little uneasy, because it was obvious she had something up her sleeve. Sex, okay. But violence? My mother?
“When does the story start?” I said, laying the little tape recorder down on the table next to her.
“Nineteen thirty-four,” she said. “When I was 16, on the Eastern Shore. But, really, Teddy, you’ll see that this moves on from the damn Depression and becomes the last story about the war.”
“World War Two?”
“Yeah. It’s the absolute very last story about World War Two. I gotta believe all the others have already been told by now.”
‘Remembering makes me happy’Truth be told, I never knew all that much about my mother’s life Back East. She and Daddy moved to Missoula, Montana, when she was still carrying me, and so I — and, too, my younger sister, Helen — simply had no connection with that part of her life, where she was brought up, in Chestertown, Maryland, which is on the Chester River off the upper reach of the Chesapeake Bay.
Even if she wouldn’t talk about it, Mom was proud of having been on the Olympic team. Of course, she was always quick to add: “I wasn’t good enough to win a medal” — and that invariably concluded the conversation. As I got older and learned more about Hitler and the important political implications of those Nazi Games, I asked her more about them, but she always managed to be evasive on the subject. The one time I really pressed her on it was when I was in high school and was assigned to write a composition about something interesting that somebody in the family had done. But she brushed me off again. “You gotta remember, Teddy, I was only a wide-eyed little girl from the Eastern Shore, and I couldn’t’ve cared less about the politics.”
It rather left me in the lurch, though, because what I really wanted to write about was how my father had been wounded at Guadalcanal in the summer of 1942. However, Mom had always told me that, like so many of the men who’d fought in the war, Daddy wanted to forget about it, and so I was instructed never even to approach him on the subject.
So, Guadalcanal was out and the Nazi Olympics were out, and I ended up writing my paper on how my grandfather, whom I’d never even known, had won a music contest when he was a boy, playing the accordion. I didn’t even appreciate the significance of this achievement. Mother had to explain it to me, how everybody always looked down on the accordion, and despairingly dismissed it as a “squeeze box.” Apparently, however, my grandfather was a downright whiz with the instrument, and when he came up against all those other kids playing their fancy pianos and violins and cellos, the judges were unable to deny him his due. It was a big deal in Chestertown at the time, and it remained prominent in my mother’s family folklore, but frankly, to me, it seemed awfully insignificant compared to the Berlin Olympics and Guadalcanal. But, there you go: any port in a storm.
Once Mother got me settled in her garden and was convinced that I was actually capable of operating the little tape recorder, she went back and fetched a pitcher of iced tea. It was obvious to me by now that she was laying in for the long haul. Before she began talking, though, she looked over at me and broke into this glorious, even beatific smile.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“Oh, nothing really. I’m just remembering, and it makes me happy.” She stopped and pointed again at the tape recorder. “Now, you sure that’s working?”
I left nothing to chance. I played the rewind: “... makes me happy. Now, you sure that’s working?”
Satisfied, then, Mom sat back and began.
Excerpted with permission from “Bliss, Remembered” by Frank Deford (The Overlook Press, 2010).