Leisel crouched behind the bakery counter. She knew that something important was about to happen, and she wanted to be part of it, but she didn’t want to be seen. It was easy for her to hide here--though not so easy to resist the temptation to open one of the sliding doors and grab a delectable cookie or cream puff, as she might have done when she was a few years younger.
“Good morning,” Leisel heard her mother say from the other side of the counter. “Please sit down, everyone....”
For a moment, there were noises of chairs being moved and people filling them. Leisel imagined the bakery employees crowded around the few small tables where customers could sit to eat pastries or sandwiches.
“You probably know what I’m going to say,” said Leisel’s mother, with a little break in her voice. “We haven’t been doing very well for more than a year. Our suppliers are charging higher prices, our customer base is shrinking... and now, I find I have no choice. I’m going to have to give up the lease and close the bakery...”
Leisel hardly knew how she got outside, half-crawling on her hands through the large kitchen and out the back door. Tears glazed her eyes as she stumbled blindly down the alley to the back of the building where she lived. Gasping, sobbing, she climbed the stairs to the second-floor apartment. Her father had died when she was just a baby, and this was the first great tragedy of her young life.
“Gran-Papa!” she cried woefully, flinging herself into his arms. “Oh, Gran-Papa... Mama is closing the bakery!”
Gran-Papa was really her mother’s grandfather, a very elderly but active gentleman who had lived with Leisel and her mother for as long as she could remember. They sat down on the couch, and Gran-Papa didn’t speak until Leisel’s raking sobs subsided. Then he said gently,
“Yes, I knew she was going to close it. Well, it is for the best. I am very proud of her.”
“Proud of her!” Leisel choked back another sob.
Gran-Papa took her hand and squeezed it lightly.
“Did she tell you, little one, that she is going to work for Mertz’s?”
“Yes, the competition,” smiled Gran-Papa. “And did she also tell you that she is finding a job for every person who works for her? Did she tell you that she will pay every one of them until she does?”
“I... didn’t stay to hear that,” admitted Leisel.
“Ah, so you eavesdropped, did you? Never mind, little one. All will be well.”
“I don’t believe it,” said Leisel stonily.
“Why not? God is still in control, and we live in a great country. Do you know what makes this country great?”
“Freedom, I suppose,” Leisel said. She had learned that in school.
“Yes, you are right. Freedom, Leisel. Freedom to try, to succeed, and even to fail.”
“Freedom to fail?” Leisel didn’t understand how failure could ever be a good thing. Failure meant making a bad grade on her math test and having to bring it home for her mother to sign.
“Yes, little one, that is part of it, too. Freedom does not mean that everyone always succeeds all the time. That is something you will learn as you grow up.”
Leisel frowned. Freedom to fail... it didn’t make sense.
But Gran-Papa went on.
“You see, Leisel, in many other countries, in many other times, people had no choice at all. They were told what to do and where to go and where to work. That is still true today in some countries.”
“I wouldn’t like that much,” Leisel said.
“No, little one, you wouldn’t.” His eyes changed, became misty and distant. Leisel thought he was going to tell her again how he had once stood at the bow of a ship and watched the Statue of Liberty come into view. He loved to tell that story; Leisel had heard it dozens of times.
But instead he said,
“How old are you now, little one? Eight?”
“Well, then. I think it is time.” Slowly, he reached out a trembling hand and pushed back the sleeve on his other arm. Leisel stared down at it, her frown deepening.
“Gran-Papa... why do you have a number on your arm?”
And he put his arm around her shoulders and drew her near to him as he said,
“Let me tell you a story...”
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