Setting the Stage

A sliver of morning light appeared above the roof of the house across the street. I leaned forward in my chair, separated the filmy white curtains and squinting against the brilliance, watched the sun come up. I finished the last of my coffee, closed the books in my lap, stood up and stretched.

High above in the heavens, I wondered if the sun, in all its glory, is but a speck of glitter to God.

Absorbed in my thoughts, I had to dress quickly for work. Fortunately, jeans are fine for my job. I grabbed a black jacket, pulled on some boots, then adjusted the shoulder strap of my briefcase and hopped on my bike.

But as I passed the bluff overlooking the lake, I had to stop. I laid my bike on the curb and walked over to look more closely. Something was missing. A hazy white sheet, cascading like a curtain, appeared to have been thrown down from above, concealing the horizon. There was no visible division between water and sky.

What divides us from heaven, I wondered. What if it’s right here, separated only by a veil we can’t see beyond with our human eyes?

Just then, a string of shimmering light appeared on the water. Like glitter. I stood still, thinking of the words from my devotion that morning …. I am with you, I am with you, I am always with you…..
October 30, 2013

I came across this journal entry as I was preparing to write my next story, The Seven Days of Heaven. The day, October 30, was the day proceeding those seven days in Mom’s life in 2011.

Mom and I, as well as all the women in our family, had been reading the same devotion that year—Jesus Calling. It was a gift given to Mom by my sister-in-law, Georgine, after my brother Ed died. Reading it together, connected our hearts.

I didn’t realize at the time, that the book’s entry for October 30 referenced the first scripture Mom had ever memorized. I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me. (John 10:14). It was the scripture her pastor, Reverend Bernwirth, had read to her on the Sunday she had been baptized.

As a brave ten-year-old, when the pastor had asked the congregation if there was anyone who wanted to come forward to be baptized that Sunday, without any cajoling from her Uncle Willard who she sat beside, she rose, and walked down to the water. She would step into it—wearing her best dress—and in front of all those present, surrender her heart to Jesus.

A lot happened on that Sunday before the seven days. I’ve already written about some of it in my post entitled Morning Buns. If you haven’t read it, you might want to as background for my post on Sunday, April 20, The Seven Days of Heaven.

Oh….and just one last thing for today, I can’t help but share what I read from that same little book this morning afterI finished writing……

If I pulled back the curtain to allow you to view heavenly realms, you would understand much more. However, I have designed you to live by faith, not by sight. I lovingly shield you from knowing the future or seeing into the spirit world. Acknowledge My sovereignty by giving thanks in all circumstances. April 16 entry from Jesus Calling by Sarah Young

Dolores Rahn in her Sunday best

Dolores Rahn circa 1940

Disruption to Joy

Students set the gym mats on fire in the school basement and tables and chairs were flung through the windows of the third floor cafeteria. There was obvious tension created by bringing kids of different backgrounds together and it blew up not long after we arrived at Riverside in 1970. I remember the day teachers had to lock the classroom doors from the rowdiness filling the halls.

I sat at my desk and watched the anger on the faces of the mob of kids passing by and looking in the glass window of the door. Our teacher kept teaching. Todd was in French class and some kids smashed his classroom door window and came in. One of the kids danced with Mrs. Lynch, the French teacher. “They ballroom danced,” Todd said as we remembered the day together. “She was really cool about it. They just danced and the kids left.”

I thought to myself, once again, if there was more dancing there would be less fighting.

Dad had heard about the school disruption that day and was coming up the front school steps when he ran into Mr. Kennedy, one of the four assistant principals. The kids causing the disruption were all in the auditorium by this time with a local radio announcer who had shown up because he heard about the school ‘riot’. Dad started to go into the auditorium.

“Don’t go in there, Bill.” Mr. Kennedy said. “You’ll only make it worse. They’re meeting together. Let the kids talk it out.”

“I’m going in Joe. They can’t just take over the school like this.”

“Let it be. You won’t help.”

I’m going in.”

“Bill. I’m asking you. Let them be.”

Dad gave in, “Alright, I won’t go into the auditorium today. But I will never come back to this school and be told where I can and can’t go.”

The days passed and things calmed down. Mom and Dad were at the school a lot, walking the halls. They got to know the administration, teachers and eventually some of the student leaders like Rodney Drew. They went to the SPTA meetings and tried to help the school raise money.

20140301_192200_resizedBrookfield fundraisers had been ice cream socials where everybody baked things and brought them to sell. When Dad suggested something like it, the kids laughed—‘Ice cream? Why not sell barbecue?!’ And so Riverside had its first barbecue fundraiser.

“Usinger’s was a client at the time,” Dad said. “I talked to them about getting a good price on spare ribs. We had no idea how many people would turn up so Usinger’s agreed to stock Sentry on Oakland Avenue which was a couple blocks from Riverside. We would be able to easily pick up more meat if we needed it and avoid having a bunch of ribs leftover.

We needed a big grill and I remembered a client who had had a barbecue grill made out of a horse water trough. So I found one of those and took it to Riverside Park on the top of our Ford station wagon. The idea of having the barbecue was a risk because there was such tension at the time between the white and African American students. But everybody agreed to try it as a way to bring the Riverside kids together and hopefully raise some money.

We lost $275.00—I should have known you can’t make money on meat—but it went well. A newspaper reporter from the Journal came and wrote a story on it. I could not believe his headline:

Races Stay Separate at Barbecue

I just couldn’t believe that. It was such a great opportunity to make a positive story—from disruption at school to a barbecue picnic…..from disturbance to joy. Of all the things he could have said, that’s what he chose. I did call him but it was such a missed opportunity.”

I reflected on what Dad said about the reporter. I’m sure he just wrote about what he saw that day. He was probably right—friends hung out with friends. The point though, was that we were all there together. Compared to what we had all just been through, it was a hopeful step in the right direction.

I was sitting at my desk this past week scheduling my visits to our Ballroom and Tap classrooms throughout Milwaukee. This is no small task—there are eighty-seven of them in fifty schools this year. Each school, like each student, has a personality and history all its own and deserves special attention. I like to ride my bike to the schools, though many are now out of riding distance. Last year, I got lost around Hadley and 1st Street on one of my trips and asked a lady on the street for directions. She said, “Honey, you have to ride your little fanny right back up that hill you just came down, take a right at the top then go about six blocks.”

One of the public schools in our program is Lloyd Barbee Montessori. Lloyd Barbee was one of the most important figures in the Milwaukee Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s. He started his own law firm in 1962 and headed up a number of civil rights organizations including the Madison NAACP. He was a longtime advocate of total school integration and led the struggle to desegregate Milwaukee Public Schools. His daughter Daphne Barbee was in our class at Riverside—she was a cheerleader and in Todd’s AP (Advanced Placement) English class.

In the 1970s, Riverside High School was one of the first MPS schools to bring kids from different neighborhoods together and try to make it work. For the most part, it did, though some may feel differently. Today, Milwaukee teachers and administrators are working hard under difficult circumstances. When I think of Danceworks faculty traveling throughout the city to bring ballroom and tap into the classrooms, I think of Lloyd Barbee’s work in the 60s to bring students together. I wonder what he’d have to say about seeing our students working together today and our schools coming together through a dance program. I think of the Riverside Barbecue.

Maybe it took a little longer than you would have thought Dad, but maybe, just maybe we are moving in the direction from disruption to joy. It takes time to get to know and understand and love and trust each other. You have to give it time.

“Human progress never rolls on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.” Martin Luther King Jr.

20140301_191953_resized

Why Move?

Our stories have aligned—my parents’ and mine. I look at my work today and can see how the connecting line is drawn back to our Church on Fourth and Meineke.

4th Street

4th Street

Walk with me up the steps of the red parish house next door. Come in and meet Dad’s Senior High class—the Glisper sisters, the Ingram brothers, James Allen and his brother Gregory, the trouble maker. Smell the donuts Mom and Dad would pick up at the bakery down the street. See the big metal coffee pot to heat up water for Swiss Miss Cacao mix. Hear the voices and the laughter. The students in Dad’s class didn’t always show up though…they almost stopped coming at one point. Then Mom and Dad came up with a new approach to teaching Sunday school.

Ask Dad about our move back to Milwaukee and you’ll get a chronology of his church experiences. I kept trying to get him to talk about how he wanted to see Milwaukee schools integrated and stabilized but he kept talking about the churches we attended.  Then I realized the stories were one and the same.

It begins at Grace Reformed Church on Ninth and Chambers then continues to Faith United Church of Christ. Faith Church was one church at two different locations—Seventy-Eighth Street, in a white neighborhood and Fourth Street, in the inner city. We started at one and ended up at the other.

Dad will tell you he could write a book on his church experiences alone. That might upset some—he was always taking on the rabble-rousers. Everybody has their own version of the stories and we all usually think we were in the right which doesn’t create the harmony a church is called to. Nevertheless, if there was a constant throughout our family history, it was the church.

“After graduating from the University of Illinois and moving to Milwaukee, Dolores and I attended Grace Reformed Church on Ninth Street. We were very involved—I was superintendent of the Sunday school, President of the Council and Dolores was in the Music Ministry and played the piano. After we returned from Europe we found out that the council had reached a conclusion it was God’s will that they sell the Ninth Street church to an African American congregation and build on a new piece of ground on Seventy-Eighth and Hope, just north of Capital.

Grace Reformed was the first German reformed church in the city of Milwaukee. The first German evangelical church was located on Fourth and Meineke. After much debate, the two congregations agreed to merge into one and sell the Ninth street location to an African American Methodist church. So the process moved forward— selling the Ninth Street church, constructing a new church on Seventy-Eighth Street, and continuing ministry at the church located on Fourth and Meineke. This is how it happened that there became one congregation with two locations. Personally, Dolores and I did not feel that it was right to leave Ninth Street and spoke out to that affect. We didn’t get any support. We never fully agreed with or understood the decision that was made.

We became very active at Seventy-Eighth Street, singing in the choir and teaching Sunday school but we also felt drawn to the Fourth Street location. This was more than just a passing feeling and we soon became aware of the fact that God was calling us to minister at Fourth Street so we started to get involved there. Before long, we made the change and settled in. Dolores picked up the musical responsibilities—playing piano and the beautiful pipe organ and I taught the Senior High Sunday School class.

It’s strange when I reflect on it, how great everything worked out, originally moving from the city into the edge of the suburbs, having the barn and eventually a bunch of animals. The truth is, I genuinely loved the farm as all the family did. But we spent a lot of time going back and forth from Brookfield to Milwaukee.

On a Sunday in January 1965, I found myself with no Sunday school students showing up for my class. “What have I done wrong?’ I asked the pastor Reverend Gordon Sperry.

“Probably nothing,” he told me. “Maybe the youngsters have some ideas.”

So I called some of the kids together on a weekday and learned they had no objection to me or my teaching. But they needed more activity. I asked them where their hangout was and they said, “What hangout?”

I knew they were telling the truth—they didn’t have one. Some of the kids came from homes with no fathers and had many problems in their lives. They needed a place to talk with people who cared and I knew they had little use for the traditional church activity.

Dolores had been to a coffee shop on Prospect Avenue on Milwaukee’s east side and thought the kids might enjoy something like that. So we took a group of my senior high students to it and they did seem to genuinely enjoy it. We thought the idea of a church coffee house might be the way to go. The basement church school room seemed like an ideal space for us. So my students helped us get it all cleaned up. We painted the walls white and threw out a lot of junk. It got the name the Ash Can because the kids filled eleven ash cans with trash. They also fished out much of the furnishings for it from other ash cans…there’s something about using material thought to be useless. Anyway, we thought it was a good name.

Mike Johnson from my office designed round tables for us. Mark Frank, who did carpentry work for me, built them and Dolores made burlap tablecloths for each table. We used candles and she ended up having to work like crazy to get that wax out of those tablecloths every week.

We got a record player and I bought a bunch of 45s. We thought it would be a nice place for the kids to have conversation. The first Saturday night the kids flocked in. They ignored the records we had and brought their own music. The kids didn’t want to talk, they wanted to dance!  Soda pop replaced coffee and tea on the menu. You found little theological discussion but lots of dancing from a record player that seemed to be bursting its lungs. So after that first session, our plans changed.

Journal Sentinel 1965

The Ash Can with Dad and kids from his class. Journal article ’65

There were a lot of kids showing up and we started to have discipline problems. We got friends and peers to help out as chaperones. I discovered quickly that the only way I could communicate with the kids was to know their families. I had everyone sign up, so I could get their addresses then I went around to all the homes and visited with the families. The trouble makers changed their attitudes once I knew their families. Lester Ingram, one of my senior highs, was a great help—he was a natural leader and had a big influence on the kids who came. We had seven hundred names on our sign-up sheet.

All we were interested in was applying the Christian Gospel as we understood it.

The city was getting rough with rioting at the time and before long the church council voted to close Fourth Street—they wanted to tear down the building. I met with them and told them they couldn’t do that. I asked what the expense was to keep it open and they told me $1000 a year. I found $1000 and got them to keep it open for a year.  I took Ed, Deb, John, Joan and their friends down to clean the building on Saturdays and get it fixed up.

Around this time, our family was returning from a summer camping trip and when we got to the city line, the National Guard wouldn’t let us go in. Our country was in a racial uproar. This was the point we felt it was time we move back. We believed we had a very clear calling from the Lord to put our kids in public schools and we responded.

Faith Church did close down the Fourth Street location and sold it. When we finally moved into our house on Shepard Avenue, we began attending Plymouth United Church of Christ several blocks from our house.”

As I finish typing this story, I am quieted by my unexpected tears. So many memories…I can see Mom and Dad’s faces, hear their voices, remember the burlap and 45s. I think of visiting some of the families with Dad. I remember joining in to play double Dutch jump rope with the girls in front of the houses. I remember the smell of the church, the winding basement hallways, the big kitchen in the fellowship hall where we’d eat plates of scrambled eggs after the Easter Sunrise service. I remember Dad putting a raw colored egg in with the hard boiled ones and pulling a prank on someone. I remember vacuuming the stairs that led up to the balcony and sneaking up into the bell tower to ring the church bell.

I think of that enormous bell now and realize that was exactly what the city needed—the joyous sound of the bell ringing. Ringing so loudly that it quieted the sounds of fighting and gun shots. ‘Let the children dance,’ Mom and Dad said.

Yes, let the children dance.

Wonder

I could see Holy Hill, the highest point in our part of the state, from my bedroom window at the farm. It was like a beacon when surrounded by the setting sun. At Christmas time, I would lie in bed and look out at it, searching for Santa’s sleigh—my eyes devouring the black curtain of a sky filled with glittering stars. One time, I convinced myself that a string of light was actually him on his sleigh and on his way.

On Christmas Eve, my family would exchange the gifts my brothers, sister and I got for each other and our parents. We had a $5.00 limit. We’d shop at Grants at Ruby Isle, a strip mall that went up a couple miles from our house. Then we would have dinner before the Candlelight service at church and afterwards, set out cookies for Santa and sent to bed. But we wouldn’t sleep.

I can still remember those feelings of anticipation and excitement. I think now about all the traditions surrounding Christmas and long to keep them alive. Though traditions remain, feelings change.

The brilliance of the lights, the sparkle of the ornaments, the angelic sounds of the music all pay homage to the Holy One. It’s so easy to lose sight of that in the midst of things and though the decorations are merry and bright, our hearts may not be.

This past week, I woke up in the night wanting to recapture the way I felt about Christmas as a child and was unable to fall back to sleep. I was hungry for the spirit of Christmas that would run deep into my own spirit. I Googled the Real Meaning of Christmas to see what the Internet was saying about it and found what I was looking for—that Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus. To celebrate Him is to celebrate Life, Love and Forgiveness which leads to Joy and Peace in our hearts regardless of what’s going on around us. When we say Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays—which is pointing to the Holy day of Christ’s birth—that’s what we’re celebrating.

I want to make the cookies my mom made because the tastes remind me of my childhood and that time of great anticipation. I have saved some of the shiny but discolored glass ornament balls from the farm and still hang them because I remember my excitement when they came out of the attic. I will place one of my mom’s taped together Christmas Carol books on the piano because I want my heart to rejoice at the memory of the sound of her music and our voices singing as she played from it. But it’s so easy to focus on traditions and memories, get sentimental and then miss the real thing.

The baby lay in a manger—there were no quilts or a bed, there were no cookies. The cattle were lowing—there was no piano music. There was hay and the smell of animals, no ornaments or scent of pine. He came as Hope for a wounded world and this is how he entered into it. He is the Hope for wounded hearts if we let him in. We don’t need all the rest.

Mr. Kiekhever, who owned the farm we grew up on, hoped to one day build a house on the 10 acres where our farm house sat because you could see Holy Hill from it. He passed away before that happened and Mrs. Kiekhever never went ahead with the plan. Mom and Dad eventually bought the property and the farm house still sits there. I can’t help but wonder if Mr. Kiekhever saw Holy Hill as a reminder of Holiness, as a symbol of Hope and that’s why he wanted the view. We need reminders.

I’m not sure I’ll have time to make the cookies I really wanted to make this year in memory of Mom. I don’t know if I’ll get around to writing cards to those I love.Though our tree is up that may be the extent of my decorating. But I will take time to let Jesus fill my heart with his Love and Light—flowing in to be poured out for others. And once again, I will remember the true meaning of Christmas.

20131218_191656_resizedO Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy Perfect Light.

Revered John Henry Hopkins

Oh no, it’s a Lump

Many of us have been touched by cancer. Each of our stories is unique. My mom was a beautiful woman. A good woman with strong faith. She lived a healthy life but for some reason she got cancer. Not once but three times.The first two times, we all believed in our hearts it would be cured. I can’t speak for others but I never stopped believing she would overcome it and Dad never stopped praying, “Lord if it be your will, please heal Dolores.”

I remember the first time. It was October, 1996. I was in Chapel Hill, NC—a single Mom, living in a little house on Glendale Drive with Charlie….

Mom discovered the breast lump on a Saturday evening after spending the evening with Dad, getting the sailboat tucked away for the winter. A day later, she called her doctor and went in for an appointment the next morning. The doctor tried three times to aspirate the tumor then sent her to a surgeon who said he wanted to do a biopsy at the end of the week. He did a needle biopsy on the 3.5 cm tumor and she and Dad went to get the lab results together several days later. It was cancer. After listening to the advise of mastectomy vs. lumpectomy and hearing that the latter was done the majority of the time with the same results as mastectomy, they decided to go with a lumpectomy. Her surgery was two days after that on October 25, at Columbia Hospital. Her oncologist visited her beforehand and recommended chemo and radiation. That was new information because her doctor had said only radiation. There were a few tears but she trusted the oncologist’s decision.

She and Dad had a beautiful time together before surgery. She told him in case she was full of cancer, she wanted him to get on with a joyful life. She told him how deeply she loved him–also their children and grandchildren. Thankfully, the surgery went well and she was sent home.

Joanie and I both arrived and stayed for the week, cooking, going to doctor’s appointments and doing what we could to help. She got a good report–the tissue around the tumor was clear as were 17 lymph nodes. “Hallelujah! The answer to the prayers of many,” was Mom’s response. Not long after, she noticed redness and heat in her left breast. They put her on Augmentin and started her on arm exercises. Her good neighbor and dear friend Joyce Gudeman, who had a daughter dealing with breast cancer as well, took her to her chemo sessions. On November 21, her white count was going down but she was told it was okay.

Then the day before Thanksgiving I got an unexpected call. Dad told me they had given her an overdose and she was back at Columbia Hospital. I listened to the update then asked if he could put Mom on the phone. “Oh Debs.” her voice was weak. “John brought me some peanut M & Ms. I thought I ate too many because I got terrible pains in my stomach. But I found out the pains were because they had given me too much chemo.They killed too many of my white blood cells…..and my hair is falling out, Debbie.”

“Mom, I’ll catch a flight out as soon as I can. We’ll get you a sassy short haircut. I’m on my way, Mom.” I’ll never find a plane on Thanksgiving weekend, I thought.

But I did, and Mom was back in surgery when I arrived late afternoon the next day. The sun was going down when Dad and I went to the cafeteria to eat Thanksgiving dinner together.They brought Mom back to her room that evening. She looked fragile and pale. When I was a little girl, I used to worry someone would come and take her away. I would make myself cry thinking about it. Now I was faced with the reality of losing my Mom.

As I walked home to Shepard Avenue late that night, it started to snow. I decided to stop at a little café on Downer called Don Quixote. There was a long counter against a floor-length, wall-sized window with candles set across it–flickering light like fireflies against the glass. I sat down in the corner, ordered a glass of red wine and opened my book as the snow swirled around the street lamps outside. It wasn’t long before a group of jolly people entered through the door, ringing the hanging bells and filling up the seats at the counter to my right. They ordered a round of some sort of festive looking drink that was filled with lots of crushed lemons and spritzer. I asked what it was they were drinking and they ordered me one. I don’t have any recollection as to what the interesting concoction actually was but I told them about Mom and before long we were all telling stories and laughing together as the snow grew heavy outside. They warmed my heart and when I fell into bed that night, I slept soundly and peacefully.

The next day, Mom was showing improvement and we were hopeful all would be well once again.

At times of crisis in our family, we have a way of pulling together to make it a special time. We love being together and it seems sometimes that it takes a crisis to make that happen. Mom, Dad and I had a lively conversation in her hospital room the next morning because we were all so relieved she had pulled through the overdose. Then an idea came to me–knowing that Mom had always wanted Dad to design her a cabin on Washington Island, I thought it was the opportune time to ask if he would do it. I remember saying, “If you don’t think you can afford it, we can charge it to your credit card.”

And the plans for the Washington Island cabin were shortly underway.

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Island loveliness–Mom liked this flower which grew and grew. Daniel would always mow around it. I think it was Sam who eventually knocked it down.

Guilty

Guilty

It seemed fitting that my devotion referenced Psalm 139 this morning. It was a special scripture to Mom. She memorized the entire Psalm years ago, along with many other scriptures and could call upon them for comfort and guidance at a moment’s notice in sickness or health, in stress or at peace.

Psalm 139: 7-12

Psalm 139: 7-12

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me, even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.” Psalm 139: 7-12

Oh, do find the time to read the entire Psalm. It’s beautiful. I promised myself I would memorize it and I can still hear my mom’s voice reciting the words…

A China Cup of Love

We never know what a new day will bring—each and every one a gift in and of itself. On one day, my brothers and I were trudging up and down the narrow steps of our upper duplex in snow boots. On the next, running in our Sunday shoes up and down the wide open stairway of a big ship on the ocean. That is, until a crewman in an austere looking uniform, sternly told us to stop. We did. I thought he was the captain of the ship.

We arrived in Germany in 1958. Dad would spend the next six months studying European Architecturefollowing the itinerary he had submitted to the University of Illinois.

With Dad's relatives

Dad, Ed, John, me, Mom in front
Dad’s relatives in back

After Dad shared the experience of meeting our German relatives in Spaichingen with me, I had to set my notes aside for a while. My thoughts were mixed as I listened—I felt disturbed, disillusioned, and then saddened hearing about them in post-World War II. The realities and atrocities of the war, so removed from me personally, were suddenly connected to me by lineage. Being mostly German and hearing that members of my family lived in Nazi, Germany made me ashamed. It’s one of those things I had separated myself from–by an ocean and by decades–never asked about. I didn’t want to know how the battle to survive became a morsel of life—similar to animals in the wild surrounded by horror, but these were human beings. What values does one abandon in order to protect those one loves? When does a heart become hardened—numbed in order to remain beating? –Debbie

My Grandfather had come from Germany to America when he was 16 years old, which was around the time of the Civil War. My family members had been sending care packages to our relatives in Germany after the war when things were very difficult.

As Dolores and I discussed our trip, we thought one possibility would be to go to Spaichingen, in Southern Germany, where some of my relatives lived. We thought perhaps Dolores could stay there with the kids while I’d make excursions out to cover my scholarship requirements. I contacted some relatives, two sisters, who we had been sending our packages to. They lived in Balgheim, just outside of Spaichingen, and I asked them to suggest a hotel we might stay at. They gave me the name, Hotel Osswald–Alte Post. I wrote to the hotel and made our arrangements.

Our hotel in Spaiichingen

Our hotel in Spaiichingen, 1958

We arranged to take the M.S. Berlin which would land in Bremerhaven and then take a train down through Germany to Spaichingen. I gave the hotel our arrival date so they’d know when to expect us. On the way across the ocean, there were quite a few German women who had married American servicemen and were returning to visit their homeland. They said to me, “You mean you’re the first one to return from your Grandfather?”

“Yes.” I replied.

“Why, you’ll have a royal reception with a band to greet you!”

We landed and took the train to Spaichingen. I will never forget our reception. We got off the train and there was a wagon pulled by two horses with its driver. No band.  No crowd of people. We loaded the suitcases on the wagon which the driver took to our hotel and we followed along behind on foot.  At that time, Ed had just turned 4, Debbie was 2 ½, and John 1 ½ years old.

We got to the hotel and met Frau Klein, the owner and manager. She took us up to the third floor, otherwise known as the garret. We were there a very short time when we heard a knock on our door.  I opened it and there was a messenger who handed me a letter. It had been written by the two sisters to whom we had been sending the care packages. The letter had been translated into English by someone and it said,

“We are very grateful for the help you were to us after the war.  We never told you about the other relatives in town because we didn’t want to be a burden. We would appreciate it if you would not mention anything about the care packages you sent.”

The next day there was another knock on the door and we were asked to come down to the dining room.  We all went down together and there was a roomful of people—none of whom spoke English—and we knew very little German. The group, however, had an interpreter available for us. Their first question was, “Why didn’t you help us after the war?”

My mind immediately flashed to the letter “We would appreciate it if you do not mention anything about the care packages.”

“We didn’t know about you,” I said.

There was a lot of talk in German right then. It was very clear they didn’t believe us. After much discussion on their part, they went on with their second question. “Why didn’t America join Germany against Russia?”

“Because there were things going on in Germany that we could not accept.”

Further talk in German, then another question, “What things?”

“Well, the killing of six million Jews in concentration camps.”

Further talk in German. They said they didn’t know about concentration camps.

I didn’t want to get into a big discussion on their concentration camps so we didn’t discuss it further.

About this time, they got out a little book, handed it to me, pointed to a place in the book and said, “Großvater.” (Grandfather)

I looked over the book, trying to understand it, and finally had to ask what it was.

There was further discussion in German. Then the interpreter told us that everybody had to have the record of their ancestors for five generations in order to show that there were no Jews in the family. Small talk followed but that was the essence of our meeting.

We went back up to our garret and after I closed the door, Dolores said, “You’re not leaving me here with your relatives. Wherever you go, we’re going with you!”

Mom, Dad, Ed, John and I did end up visiting the two sisters who kept the care packages for themselves at their home in Balgheim. The first floor was a barn-like space for the animals. Their living quarters was above the barn and was kept warm by the heat the animals created. There were a lot of wool sweaters around. The smell from beneath, permeated the air above, soaking into their clothes, handmade bedding and braided rugs but the heat rose and kept them warm. The sisters served Mom a cup of tea in a china cup. Mom complimented them on its beauty.

John locking at the sister's livestock

John on the first floor of the sisters’ home.

I wonder what shame, guilt, or both they must have felt when they were faced with our arrival and showed up at our hotel that day along with their other relatives. What did they feel when their eyes darted between us and those from Schpaichingen who had called us down from the garret to confront my parents on their lack of care?  What the sisters didn’t know at the time was that Dad’s parents and brother were sending care packages to the others. None of them knew who was getting what. The support that could have brought them more closely together, further divided them.

How often do we excuse ourselves from the simple act of caring for others because we can justify to ourselves that we somehow deserve it, or that we have a unique situation with a special privilege? And how often do we end up with less because we were trying to get more? I certainly can’t judge my relatives for the things I know I am guilty of myself in a different context.

When we were preparing to leave Spaichingen, a small box arrived at the Alte Post for our family. It was the tea cup along with a matching saucer and plate. The most beautiful possessions the sisters owned.

I never knew about the cup but it sits on a shelf in Mom’s china cabinet. When Dad told me that part of the story, emotion washed over his face, slightly changing its color. “It was all they had,” he said–his eyes intensity piercing through my own.

Dad and I sat together quietly for a while. I had said harsh words about our relatives. I wanted to take the words back, but I couldn’t.

I wished I would have remembered that it’s simply not my place to judge someone else. Hopefully, next time I will. In the end, the best we can do for our own hearts and for others, is to forgive.