Monday, December 28, 2015

'TIS THE SEASON: A Good Time to Remember

In a time of year filled with gift-giving, we often get caught up in the quantifying of values rather than remembering the power found in genuine gestures.  As we move towards a new year, and now that some of the holiday hoopla is past, here is a brand new original tale that is not about Christmas presents at all.  It is about the power of simple acts, generous giving, and heartfelt thanks that endures. 

Thank you for a wonderful year of new adventures in self-publishing. Part One today, and the conclusion on December 31st, the last day of 2015

All Good Gifts                                                                                                                     
by Judith Cullen
© 2015

Found on
The hands that held the small frame gently were beginning to twist with age. 

"It is one of my most treasured possessions," she said softly.

"I don't remember ever having seen it before, Mom. How long have you had this?" her daughter inquired, noticing the clear affection with which the elder woman was regarding the picture she cradled.

"Oh!  Years and years."

She ran her wrinkled thumb along the dull, gold-painted frame, feeling the texture of it, her eyes never leaving the small oil painting as she spoke.

"Over sixty some years ago, now. Sometimes I wonder ..." 

Her mind wandered away to that realm of familiar yesterdays, where minds are young and full of endless tomorrows, and bodies are still straight and free from restriction or pain.


Ann felt a sense of pride when her English teacher asked her to stay after class.  There was never any fear when a teacher asked to speak to the sixteen year old Ann. She was an excellent student and a good writer.  Her last story about a city doctor sent to nurse an ailing keeper in a Scottish Lighthouse was one she was especially proud of.  She expected the teacher wanted to praise her, or impart some valuable insight that would make Ann's story even better.

She waited patiently as the rest of the students filed out before picking up her books, walking to the front of the room, and standing respectfully at the corner of the big desk.  The teacher rose and pulled the door shut, returned to her chair and shuffled some papers, before consulting a list and then, removing her glasses, looked up at Ann.

"I have something that might interest you. It is strictly voluntary, not a requirement and certainly not tied to your grade in anyway."

Ann nodded her head to show that she understood, listening attentively.

"I am not making this available to everyone, Ann.  There are only a few students that I believe are mature enough, and who would benefit from this.  You are one of them.  Have you ever had a pen pal ?"

"I know what they are," Ann replied, "and I once corresponded for several years with a girl I met at camp.  I write letters to my cousins in the Midwest. Some of them I have never even met in person."

"This is much like that, and yet it is also different as it involves writing to someone in another country.  I would be giving your name to a young woman about your age in Germany, and you would exchange letters with her."

Ann drew in a breath of surprise.  It was 1947: World War II and the things that had happened all over Europe were still very much on people's minds.  It seemed that every few months some new story still surfaced of privation or atrocity.  Living near the West coast of the United States and having worked as a volunteer plane spotter during the war, Ann's wartime thoughts had mostly been focused on Japan.  To correspond with someone from Germany?  To actually get to know someone who had lived through all those awful times?  That was something that took Ann completely by surprise. She was not sure how she felt about it.

"Oh, but I don't speak German at all ma'am."

"No need to Ann. The participating students in Germany all have good English skills and wish to better them by exchanging letters with an American student."

The teacher paused, giving Ann a moment to absorb this before she continued in hushed tones, "Now, I understand that some people harbor ill feelings from the war.  If you feel you need to discuss this with your parents first, I completely understand.  I would like for you to be a part of this exchange, but we do need your parents permission first."
"No need," Ann said without hesitation, "My parents won't object." Both her parents had family ties to Germany, and she knew they'd be pleased for her to write to someone there.

"Good.  I am glad to hear that," the teacher shuffled through a few more papers, chose several, drew out an envelope and wrote Ann's name on it.  Organizing the papers in an order that suited her, she folded the three sheets and slid them in.  She had a whimsical smile on her face, as if something about her choice pleased her very much."

"Here is the information on the student you are to correspond with.  She lives just outside of Augsburg in Bavaria.  I've included a letter for your parents which they need to sign.  There are also instructions on how to mail letters overseas, if you have never done that before. The first exchanges of letters will be collected and mailed through myself and my colleague in Germany.  After that, you will be free to mail them on your own. Do you have any questions?" 

"No ma'am." Ann took the envelope when it was handed to her and tucked it in her chemistry book.

"I hope this is a satisfying opportunity for you.  Exchanging letters and becoming friends with someone in a foreign land is the next best thing you can do to traveling there.  You learn about other nations as people, not just as news items.  You also learn about cultures and customs that may not be the same as your own.  I think that you will find it very enlightening and enjoyable."

"I am sure I will.  Thank you. Is that all, ma'am?"

"Yes Ann.  Off to your next class with you, and you can leave the door open when you go."

Ann nodded again and hurried out the door.

The teacher watched her go wondering, as she always did, what might come from two young people on opposite side of the world reaching out to one another openly offering friendship. 


Ann completely forgot the envelope until much later, when she was on the bus going home from school.  She pulled it out of her book and opened it, eagerly scanning the sheets of paper: mailing instructions, parent letter, here is was! She laughed to herself, understanding now why the teacher had seemed so pleased with herself.  The girl whose name she had been given to write to was a couple of years older than she was.  She lived in a place called "Gessertshausen" and Ann studied the place name carefully to make certain she memorized the spelling with all its sundry e's and s's.  The detail that had so amused the teacher was clearly that the name of the German student she had chosen for her was "Anna."


Weeks passed before the first round of letters arrived.  Ann received it from the teacher with an concealed awe. It was a little thrilling, the sealed envelope with its very neat handwriting that spelled out her own name.  It was the same sensation as holding a wrapped gift, like a birthday present, attractively decorated with paper and ribbon.  She hated to open it and spoil the perfection of the mystery, yet she was excited to discover what who it was waiting to meet her within.

She studied it as she walked down the hallway to a window bay where she could sit and open it in relative privacy. The treasure was unlocked with a single slice of her hand under the envelope flap, and the stationary made a satisfying swish as she pulled out the letter.  Ann read the letter once, twice, and then a third time.  She savored the tingling sensation of reading the words of greeting and tentatively phrased "getting-to-know you"s.  There was something wonderful about knowing that these words were written just for her eyes by someone she had never met before.  She longed to seize paper and pen right there and begin to compose the words that would carry them beyond the cautious opening sallies into really getting acquainted.  Ann smoothed the letter as she pressed it into her math text.  She was conscious of it all through the rest of the day, though she left it tucked safely inside the book.  It was like carrying a hidden jewel, something of great worth that no one else knew about.

That night she read the letter through again and showed it to her Mom.

"She's got a fine hand," Mom observed, " and a nice, polite way about her."

Ann had noticed that the Anna's English was very formal, and her Mom said that was often the way of people who learn another language besides the one that they speak every day. 

"What shall I write in reply?" Ann asked.  "There are so many things I could say. I am almost not sure where best to begin."

"I would say, start by responding in-kind.  She has told you about her family and school.  Begin with telling her about yours.  Perhaps add a few things beyond that so as to invite her to tell you more about herself."

Her dad, who had been listening in the next room loped in and folded his rangy form into a chair beside his daughter. "It's like building a house of stone or brick, Ann.  You do it one course and at time, one layer built upon the next.  You don't rush in or get sloppy with the mortar, you just keep building step by step at a time. Making a new acquaintance is really no different than building."

Ann nodded and read the letter all the way through one more time.  She had almost committed to memory by now.


The next day was Saturday, and after her morning chores were completed she sat at the kitchen table in the sunshine and begin to write her reply.  Half way down the first page, she stopped and crumpled it up, tossing it in a nearby wastepaper basket.  Her second attempt only made it through the opening paragraph before it too went sailing.  She looked at the paper for a long time before lowering her pen to begin a third time.  She wanted her reply to be perfect. 

Slowly, deliberately she wrote the letter; not allowing herself to rush ahead or letting her mind go faster than her pen could scratch.  She decided on each word, composed each sentence carefully before she committed it to the page.  When she was through, she read it to herself in a low voice, then read it again silently before folding it and sliding it into the envelope she had prepared.  It was done.  How long would it be before she heard back from Germany?

It was several weeks before the postman delivered Anna's response.  The envelope had the exotic look of foreign lands and thousands of miles of travel about it.  Ann took it to her room and opened it to read, where she was met with a burst of enthusiastic words from Anna, which seemed to explode from the page all around her and fill the air in the bedroom with the joy of discovery and a new found friend. 

That was how the friendship began.


Check back Thursday, December 31st as we close out 2015 with the conclusion of All Good Gifts

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