Thursday, December 31, 2015


All Good Gifts ~ Conclusion                                                                                            by Judith Cullen
© 2015

Image: Public Domain
Some students only wrote to their pen pals for the rest of the school year, letting the delights and America and Anna in Germany, continued to write for the next several years.  They shared stories of their studies, their families.  Anna had just her mother, having lost her father and a brother in the war.  They talked about the news of the day and what was popular.
attractions of the summer months cushion their enthusiasm for overseas correspondence. The two girls, Ann in

Ann began to understand what the teacher had meant by learning about other cultures and different ways.  Most of the time the two girls shared their thoughts easily.  But sometimes her friend would share thoughts or opinions that she didn't agree with.  One time Anna had written about a well known American actress who had done a film in Europe with a famous European Director, and was now carrying his child out of wedlock.  She thought it was fantastic that they had gotten together.  Born in the much less cosmopolitan Midwest, Ann did not share this enthusiasm.  At first it bothered her that her friend did not see this situation as she herself saw it.  In the end she decided to let it go, and did not comment on it in her reply.  In short order their correspondence moved on to other stories and other details and the point of disagreement faded.  It was her first lesson in accepting other people for who they were, and not who she would have them be.

Slowly creeping into their correspondence were details of living in post-war Germany, and the struggles many experienced in rebuilding their lives and their sense of themselves as a nation.  The few international relief agencies that were allowed into Germany after the war were held to strict controls on what supplies they could provide, where they could travel, and how frequently.

American and British soldiers in occupied Germany were strictly forbidden to share what provisions they had with German civilians for fear of the Nazi's rising again from the very ashes of their defeat.  The order applied to all Allied personnel in Germany as well as soldiers: any excess food "was to be destroyed or made inedible."

Other European nations who traditionally traded food for German coal and machinery were barred from doing so.  With all of Europe recovering from the ravages of a brutal world war, the prohibition on trade with Germany hurt everyone.  The Italians and the Dutch were not allowed to trade vegetables for German industrial goods as they always had. As a result, the Dutch were forced to destroy large amounts of useable crops at a time when people were going hungry. Denmark offered 150 tons of lard a month; Turkey offered hazelnuts; Norway offered fish and fish oil; Sweden offered considerable amounts of fats. The Allies were not willing to let the Germans trade, and these offers were all rejected.

The Allied policy of "Industrial Disarmament" not only impacted coal, fuel, and machines, but the production of fertilizer as well.  In consequence, food production took a drastic drop.  In 1948 the infant mortality rate was twice that of any other nation in western Europe, and it took several years before the 40 percent increase in mortality in civilians over the age of 70 - driven primarily by starvation - decreased.

The Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948 did not help the situation for a nation already struggling to stumble to its feet again under a watchful occupation.  Over 8000 tons of food and fuel were airlifted into besieged West Berlin daily, at a time when such things were scarce everywhere.  By 1949 and the end of the Blockade restrictions were being lifted, but there was a long road still ahead to reconstructing Germany.  It would take every effort of the next forty years before Germany would be anything resembling whole again.


These facts startled Ann, who was still young enough to believe that wars were like electric switches: once you turn them off, everything goes back to normal. It was like a movie after "The End" illuminates the screen - the lights come up and everybody goes about their business. In Ann's stateside life, so many thousands of miles away from either of the theaters of military engagement, by 1949 life had pretty much returned to normal.

One day, she was reading one of Anna's letter to her Mom as she sat at the kitchen table, her mother busy making soup at the stove.

"My Mutter so loves her coffee, and we can get none of it.  We tried burnt bread crumbs and other substitutes that other people seem to be using.  But it tastes awful, like drinking ashes.  We have enough ashes in our everyday living here, and Mutter says that having to drink them is simply more than she can endure.  All we get is poor quality, weak tea that tastes like boiled hay. Our little garden struggles to provide us with what it can."

Ann's Mother looked thoughtfully at the pot of coffee she had percolating on the stove.

"Ann, is that empty box still on the back porch, the one your Dad emptied out last week?"

"I think so, Mom."

"Go and ask him if he has a plan for it. If he doesn't, you bring it here to me."

That was how the box began.

They started collecting things: food, clothing.  Ann's Mom carefully considered what would pack the best, how to pack it, and what would be of the greatest use to the German family.  The box was 24" square, and every inch of its interior would be put to optimal use. There was sugar and flour tied tightly in an extra layer of brown paper, baking chocolate and shortening thoroughly enclosed in waxed paper and sleeved into small boxes that were also protectively wrapped. There were nylons, and other items of clothing.  A cardigan sweater that Ann had been given the year before by a distant relative, a shade of green she wrinkled her nose at, soon joined the stack to go into the box.

"Mom, don't send them that sweater.  It's ugly!"

"Now hush.  We know you and Anna are similar sizes but we don't know what colors she likes.  And even if they don't want to wear it, maybe they can trade it for something they need.  It's a very nice sweater even if you don't like the color.  It should go to someone who needs it and can use it.  How it gets to them is not important."

The final addition to the contents, as Ann's Mom began to pack the box, were four cans of coffee: one packed into each corner of the bottom of the box.  By the time they were ready to seal the box up, there wasn't enough room for thought inside it.  Ann was excited to get the box on its way, imagining the reaction when it reached its destination as Anna and her family opened it, discovering each item that they had so painstakingly enclosed.

It was an exciting day when they finally took the box to the big main post office downtown, and Ann put the box on the counter when it was their turn.  The uniformed man behind the counter looked at the mailing information and inspected the parcel. 

"Any perishable items?" he asked with the detached tone of a man that asks exactly the same question automatically, repeatedly, each and every day.

Ann tensed and she must have made a noise because her Mother discretely grabbed her arm and squeezed it hard.

"No, not today, thank you." Ann's Mother smiled at the man as if he had conferred a great kindness in asking.  Soon the final rubber stamp was officiously clacked onto the box label, postage was paid, and Ann and her Mother were on their way.

"But Mom!" Ann whispered as they exited the Post Office, "everything is perishable, and some of those things ..."

"Don't fuss, Ann!" her Mother cut in, then lowering her voice, "there's not a thing in that box that won't last six months or more the way I packed it.  So, unless the box ends up in the middle of the Sahara by some tragic and unlikely error, everything will be just fine when it arrives in Gessertshausen. 

Ann was not so sure.  In the weeks that passed her mind explored everything possible that could go wrong in the box's travels.  What if it got sent to the wrong place, expanding on her Mom's example?  What if someone stopped it to inspect it and diverted it?  What if the box broke open and all the carefully packed food and clothing spilled out? 

It was over a month that passed, and the box with its precious contents bound for Gessertshausen was never far from Ann's thoughts.  Her Mom had long since forbade the subject of the box in conversation.

"It will get there when it gets there, and not a moment before.  So be patient and don't fuss."

At last the postman's daily delivery included an overseas letter with their address written in a familiar hand.  Ann's mom made her wait until her dad got home and they could all three read the letter together.  Ann's excitement at opening the letter to read it was only surpassed by the exuberance that exploded from Anna's every sentence. She said that she feared there were not enough words to express fully what the things in the box meant to her family. 

"You sent us nylons!  I don't believe that you sent us nylons!  And the sweater, it fit's perfectly and is just the shade that I like."

Mom nodded when Ann looked up, a knowing sparkle in her eye.

"The chocolate - it has been a long time since we had chocolate to bake with.  You have no idea how much we needed this.  It get's so tiring to continually go without even the smallest things day after day, month after month. The yarn you sent is just in time for us to make new winter things."  And finally, "the coffee has made Mutter so happy.  We have not had coffee in so long that we can't even remember how long it has been.  We just are so grateful for your kindness.  Ich danke dir sehr!  Thank you so much!"

Ann glowed with pleasure.  It felt so good to have done something that in some ways was a small gesture, but which meant so much to someone.

"We are lucky," Ann's Mom said, placing and affectionate hand on her daughter's shoulder, "we had to ration because of the war, but we never went without.  In some ways, I think the rationing was good for us - healthier for us.  It is too easy to get lazy and careless about what you eat and how you take care of what you have when food is plentiful and clothing easy to come by."

"It's a fine thing you've done," Dad said as he held his wife close and smiled down at his only daughter.
Image: courtesy of the Author

It was another two months before a parcel arrived from Germany, addressed to Ann's family from the address in Gessertshausen, Bavaria, Germany.  It was no larger than a book, and very light.  Mom handed the small box to Ann, "I think that you should open this."

Ann carefully sliced open the box, slid out a bundle of brown paper wrapped around - what?  She peeled the layers back to reveal a small oil painting in a textured gold frame.  I measured six inches high by seven inches wide, and depicted a summer alpine scene: stately pines, rolling meadow, blue and purple mountain peaks stacked up like incoming waves in the distance, candy floss white clouds puffing across a piercing blue sky.  A fence-bounded road led from the foreground up to a Bavarian style country house, with a little wooden out-building nearby and smoke curling from the chimney.  The colors were vibrant, and the brush strokes so tiny that it looked like they had been painted with one single strand.  In the corner, in the minutest printing the artist had signed it "Engelmann."

A little note was tucked into the corner of the frame, written in the now familiar hand was simply "Danke schönn."


"It would have been easy, over the years," the old woman explained slowly, "so very easy to have become cynical about this.  It's not an expensive painting, and I am sure that these days things like this are knocked-off for tourists by the dozens every day."

Her daughter took the painting gently and studied it, the age of the paint showing against the once snowy clouds, the golden sheen of the frame long-dulled. She reverently handed the treasure back to her Mother.

"We don't really know what was happening with Anna and her family over there."  A look of regret washed briefly across her face, "I lost touch with her sometime in the next few years.  I went to college and then I married your father ..." Her voice drifted off as if she were going to fade back into her memories again.  But not his time.  She suddenly straightened up resolutely and spoke out in a clearly, "I do often wonder what happened to Anna.  What kind of a life did she have?  Did she become a teacher, like she wanted to?  Did she marry, have children?  Did she come to this country maybe?" 

A pause. 

"Was she happy?"

There was a long, considered silence at the kitchen table, as the daughter watched the Mother sort through her various thoughts of over 60 years.

"It doesn't matter I suppose.  This little painting makes me happy.  We gave because we could, and it brought us joy to help someone who needed it." She smiled, "I didn't appreciate until years and years later how wonderful a good cup of coffee could make you feel.  No wonder they were so grateful."

She once more let the her fingers wander over the frame, caressing it.

"It's such a simple gift, yet it represents so much.  Perhaps that is the very best kind of gift."

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1 comment:

  1. I read this over a cuppa this morning. Not only did my coffee taste better with tears, but I am more grateful today for the life I'm blessed to live. Danke schönn. <3