The day that Friedrich Bhaer had been dreading since he became the guardian of his nephews had come. Both boys had come down with an illness that left them sick to their stomachs, feverish and thoroughly miserable.
Initially it was only Emil who was ill so they had kept the boys in their separate bedrooms in the hopes that Franz would not also fall ill. It had been a foolish hope however and now Jo and Friedrich rushed from room-to-room changing sheets and nightgowns, removing soiled basins and trying to soothe the discontented little fellows until they were both as exhausted as the boys.
Friedrich was just changing Emil into yet another clean nightshirt after he was ill again when the little boy began to cry, “Mama, ich will Mama!” (‘Mama, I want mama’)
The cry was so heartfelt and sorrowful that Friedrich gave up on the nightshirt and instead wrapped Emil in the sheet and drew him onto his lap. “Oh bubchen, ich weiß aber ich bin hier, Onkel Fritz kümmern Sie.” (‘Oh little one I know but I am here, Uncle Fritz will take care of you.’)
But the little boy would not be comforted and turning his feverish brow into his uncle’s shoulder continued to weep and call for his mama until he finally fell into an exhausted slumber.
No sooner had Friedrich gotten Emil into his nightshirt and back into bed than he heard Jo call, “Fritz!” Dropping a kiss on his nephew’s brow Friedrich pulled the sheet up and then went to see what his wife needed.
He found her in Franz’s room sitting on the edge of his bed, her hands on his shoulders as the lad muttered brokenly in German and continuously tried to get out of bed. She looked up as he came in he saw the relief in her tired eyes, “Oh Fritz I’m sorry but I can’t make out what he’s saying and he won’t settle.”
Friedrich shook his head at her apology as he crossed to the bed, “Tis not for thou to apologize liebchen. Emil is sleeping now and I shall sit with Franz and thou shall have a rest. I insist upon this.” He added when Jo opened her mouth to protest, “Thou art exhausted Jo.”
Jo’s rebuttal was forestalled by Franz who again attempted to sit up crying; “Keine Mutter nicht genhen, lass mich nicht! Bitte kommt wieder Mama!” (‘No mama don’t go, don’t leave me! Please come back Mama!’)
“Ah bubchen” Fritz murmured sadly as he sat on the edge of the bed and gently brushed the sweaty hair back from Franz’s forehead, “Ihre Mutter ist immer bei dir bubchen für sie in deinem Herzen ist. Ich weiß, Sie vermissen sie aber Tante Jo und Onkel Fritz sind hier und wir weden Sie wieder gesund zu helfen.” (‘Your mother is always with you bubchen for she is in your heart. I know you miss her but Aunt Jo and Uncle Fritz are here and we shall help you get well again.’)
Franz had stilled while his uncle spoke but soon began to call again for his mother, pleading for her to come back until the exhausted professor could no longer stand it. He drew the boy into his lap and began to rock him gently, brokenly humming the words of an old German lullaby his mother used to sing when he was a boy.
He did not know that Minna had sung this same lullaby to her boys until Franz settled in his arms with a contented little sigh of “mein Lied Mama, mein Lied sigen wieder.” (‘My song Mama, sing my song again’)
With a lump in his throat Friedrich obeyed, singing softly until (just as his brother had) Franz drifted off to sleep in his uncle’s strong arms. He waited until he was sure Franz would not wake and then settled him carefully in bed, pressing a kiss to his warm forehead as he rose, “Schlaf und erhalten sie gut meine kleine Franz” (‘Sleep and get well my little Franz’).
He turned from the bed, shoulders slumping with exhaustion to find his wife standing before him. He blinked, wondering if she had been there all along but before he could dig around in his brain for the correct words in English she had taken his hand and led him from the room, careful to leave the door ajar, before leading him into their own room.
There was a tray sitting on the bedside table with a teapot, two cups and several pieces of toast and cheese. He allowed Jo to guide him down onto the bed and accepted the cup of tea she handed him with a gentle smile and a murmured thank you before taking her hand and pulling her down to sit beside him.
She resisted only long enough to collect her own tea and a plate of toast and cheese and then rested her head against his shoulder. They ate and drank in silence until Friedrich kissed her head gently, “Thank you liebchen. Thou must rest now, I shall come soon.”
Jo nodded but caught his hand as he rose, “Once they are well again we must return to my German lessons.”
Friedrich blinked surprised by the sudden request, “Of course, if thou wishes liebchen.”
“I want to be able to comfort them as you do Fritz. I am not their mother but maybe if I can speak their mother tongue I will be better able to give them what they need.”
Jo spoke so earnestly that it brought tears to her husband’s eyes and he drew her into his arms and held her tightly, blotting his tears on her dark hair. “Thou already gives them what they need most my liebchen, thou loves them as a mother would. I could not bear this without thee my Jo.”
Jo heard the fear and exhaustion in his voice and rubbed his back soothingly, “They will be alright Fritz, they weren’t sick half as many times today and I suspect their fevers shall break by tomorrow and then we will have our hands full trying to keep them abed.”
Friedrich nodded, “Ja, thou art right I am sure, now I shall go and sit with them and thou must rest. Promise me thou shall rest Jo, thou must not become ill as well.”
“I promise Fritz but once I’ve had a rest you must take one as well.” He nodded and they sealed the promise with a tender kiss.
As Jo had predicted Franz and Emil were noticeably better by morning and their fevers broke by suppertime to Friedrich’s great relief. They slept soundly that night and were trying to wheedle their way out of bed as soon as breakfast was done causing Fritz to laugh as he had not laughed in days with their imaginative excuses.
Once the boys were fully recovered Friedrich and Jo began to devote an hour a day to her German lessons. She made such steady progress that the next time Emil was ill she understood most of his feverish ramblings and was able to join her husband in singing the beloved lullaby.
Josephine Bhaer never met Minna Hoffmann but she often thought of her when tending to Franz and Emil, trying to care for her boys as she would have.
So it was the Franz and Emil Hoffmann Bhaer grew up loving two mothers, their Mama and their Aunt Jo. Friedrich and Jo always encouraged them to speak of their Mama, to take comfort in her memory and keep it alive in their hearts. While Aunt Jo or Mother Bhaer as they sometimes called her was the motherly presence they needed in their daily lives, always ready to listen and comfort, laugh and scold as required.
In Uncle Fritz they found the father they had never truly had. Franz had a few faint memories of a man with a loud laugh and a mustache but he had left before Mama died and their uncle never spoke of him.
The decision to take their uncle’s surname was an easy one and touched their uncle deeply. “You have always said we are your boys Uncle Fritz and you’ve been our father far more than he ever was. I’d rather be Franz Hoffmann Bhaer than Franz Hoffmann if I may.” Franz explained softly while Emil nodded emphatically and said in his simple direct way, “I can’t think of a name I’d be prouder to go by than Midshipman Bhaer.”
Friedrich Bhaer wiped his eyes with a handkerchief as he studied the young men he had worked so hard to raise, always fearing that he would not be what they deserved, and nodded. “I should be honored my sons. It is not needed, thee have been my sons for years, but if it is truly what thee wish it shall make me very happy.”
They nodded and then went willingly into their uncle’s embrace when he opened his arms to them. There were a few tears and then Father Bhaer ruffled their hair as if they were young boys again and said, “Come my young Bhaers, let us tell your Aunt Jo and see if thee wee brother is awake to join us in the celebration.”