It was nearly the end of the day when the elderly woman in the wheelchair came into the Special Collections office. A much younger woman, perhaps in her late 30s, pushed her. The family relationship was unmistakable. The older woman looked weary, but alert. She wore a crocheted shawl in a way that suggested she was too cold, but I noticed she made no attempt to cover the worn numbers tattooed to her left forearm.
"I'm Naomi. I emailed earlier about seeing a book from the special collections. This is the number here." The younger woman handed me a scrap of notebook paper with the designation on it.
"Of course, go ahead and have a seat at one of the tables and I'll bring the book out for you."
The volume was small—about 8 inches tall, and no more than 50 pages. The cover was a washed-out blue with white and greenish striations across it, and red and black fuzzy little dots in an abstract pattern. The label read "Der Kleine Goldfischteich."
The two women nodded with recognition when I brought the book out and waited patiently while I set it up for them to view. As I was walking away, I overheard the younger woman asking, "Do you know which page it was on? Was it on a blank page or one of the ones with illustrations?"
The older woman spoke with a clear, deep voice that I would not necessarily have expected from her. "I recall it being on one of the illustrated pages, but it's been eighty years. I wouldn't swear to anything."
The two turned slowly through the pages for the next few minutes until the silence of the room was broken by the old woman whispering, "My God." Though I had detected no sense of an accent from her before, the second word clearly came out "Gott."
"Is that it?"
"Yes, of course. This is it." I could tell that the older woman was beginning to tear up. I gave them a few moments before I walked over.
"I'm so sorry, I couldn't help but hear. May I ask; what have you found?"
The older woman pointed to one of the illustrations in the book. It was of three goldfish swimming in invisible waters. "My mother painted this."
I told her it was very beautiful, but I could tell that the daughter realized I was misunderstanding what was being communicated. "No, here. Look closely. This fish here isn't part of the book, it's been hand painted later."
Sure enough, one of the three fish was in a slightly different style. It was less practiced and skilled than the other two, but still deeply evocative.
"My mother drew that in the book when I was a little girl." The older woman smiled inwardly. "I was upset because I loved the illustrations in this book so much that I was scared that my mother's paintings would think I didn't love them enough anymore. Mother painted this fish so I could love them both and no one would be left out."
She closed her eyes slowly before continuing. "I didn't get to keep any of the things from my childhood, and I didn't get to grow up knowing my mother for very long, so I always hoped I could see this book again. It's one of my favorite childhood memories."
The older woman was starting to tear up again, and the younger took over. "Nana spent some time tracing what happened to the book after the war, and she was pretty sure it ended up donated to a university library. When she retired, she would take trips, when she could, to go visit copies of the book and see if she could find the goldfish."
Nana, recomposed, picked up the story again. "For the last several years I haven't been in a situation to travel on my own." She rubbed the armrest of her wheelchair not unlovingly. "Naomi offered to take me on a trip to visit some of the libraries I hadn't been able to reach," here she looked at her granddaughter "and now this is our final stop."
The last words hung in the air. I knew there was more tied up in this than I was privileged to. I began to walk away, to give the two space, but then I turned back to them a bit hesitantly.
"You know, I can give you someone to contact here at the library if this was stolen by...um...during..."
"No, no." Nana interrupted. "My father sold this book as part of a library for a fair price to a family friend. I'm just pleased to know that the book is being taken care of."
This should have been a relief, but it still made me feel melancholy. The older woman closed the book and patted her granddaughter's hand.
"Do you want to spend some more time with it?" Naomi asked, a little surprised.
"No. I've found everything I came for. I just wanted to see it one more time." She seemed to drift a little into her memories. "I just wanted a reminder that it was all real."
I wasn't sure what to say, and so said nothing. After just a moment, Naomi offered, "I'm so glad we found this, Nana. And I'm so sorry for what you went through after."
The old woman smiled and nodded graciously, but with the air of a woman who had heard this regret for seventy-five years.
Naomi stood and unlocked the wheels of Nana's chair. "Never again." Naomi said almost to herself, as she wheeled Nana to the door.
For the first time since they arrived, I saw the older woman look confused for a moment. She composed herself and craned around uncomfortably so that she could look up to Naomi's face.
"No, not that. It's too late for never again." Nana looked sad, but with a flint in her eye. "But different this time."