Helga Gruendler-Schierloh

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Recycling Good Will

“For just 15 dollars a month you can change the life of a needy youngster,” came a pleading voice from the TV screen. “Won’t you open your heart to the need of a youngster in poverty?”

My children looked at me. “Can we, Mom?” — “Oh please, please, can we send some money to a poor little kid?”

I smiled. “I’ve already called the 800 number for details. Would you two be willing to pitch in?”

After nodding enthusiastically, my daughter opted for a girl, while my son had no such preference.

“Fine, we’ll ask for a girl.” I put down my coffee mug. “And now I am going to tell you a story.”

The kids’ faces lit up. They liked my homespun tales, and by being able to weave in a moral here and there, I used those stories as a convenient teaching tool.

Only this time, instead of concocting a tale, I dug up one of my childhood memories:

When I was about five years of age, I was living in a small village in Germany, and my wardrobe consisted of a simple frock for everyday activities, as well as a Dirndl-style dress with a lace-trimmed white apron for church attendance and for special events that were so rare as to be basically non-existent.

Shoes were also a luxury to be kept aside for the cold days of the year. In the summer, my playmates and I ran around on bare feet. This not only reduced the wear and tear of our limited footwear; on rainy days, it also allowed us the cheap pleasure of stomping around on the unpaved village street and letting the gooey mud ooze through the cracks between our toes.

Those were the late 1940’s – when the nightmare of World War II still lingered painfully in everyone’s heart and mind — and people didn’t complain much about mere inconveniences. Just being alive was a privilege. However, the severe shortage of food posed a real challenge – and the search for something to pacify our growling stomachs dominated our existence.

At least we were lucky enough to live in the countryside, where we received occasional handouts from the local farmers, and few people would send a child away empty-handed. So, whenever I went to bed with a full belly, I considered it a good day.

One afternoon, while lingering near the small baroque church at the end of our hillside town, I spotted a jeep coming up the incline. I glanced curiously at the two uniformed man inside, and then grew afraid when they pulled up right next to me and I didn’t understand a word they were saying. In those days, the idea of aliens had not yet taken hold, but as far as I was concerned, those two strangers may just as well have come from another planet.

“Americans,” one of them said, first pointing at himself and then at his buddy.

Realizing that he frightened me, he reached into the jeep and pulled up a large, elongated hemp sack. It looked like something to be used for storing farm produce, such as grain.

The soldier pointed at it. “Food.”

When I just kept staring at him, his friend yelled, “Essen.”

Essen?” I asked, my heart beating faster – but no longer due to any fright or flight mode.

Both nodded and dropped their bulky present on the ground. When they gestured for me to take it, I threw myself on top of it and let out a joyful cry.

The sack was big and heavy, and I was a mere wisp of a youngster. Nevertheless, the thrilling thought of edible items at my fingertips must have empowered me with something akin to child-hero-super-strength. Half pushing, half pulling, I hauled my loot back to the room I occupied with my mother in a nearby farmhouse. By courtesy of the government, the locals had to make space available for us refugees and, needless to say, this intrusion of folk’s privacy was not always welcomed.

Our tiny assigned living area held only the basics. But at least we had a bed to sleep in as well as a stove for cooking and keeping warm.

When my mother saw what I was battling, her eyes grew big.

“Child, what in the world…?” Reaching down to give me a hand, she saw the label attached to the hemp.

“It’s in English,” she muttered, before shouting, “Little one, I think we just hit the jackpot. This seems to be an American care package.”

She pried open the metal clamp holding the top together. Then she shook the contents onto the floor – and suddenly it was Christmas for us.

Too much time has gone by for me to remember everything we received that day, but there were most likely jars filled with jams, jellies, canned meat, and packages of other durable food items.

Picking up a round metal container, my mother gasped. “Oh goodness, I can’t believe it. This is real coffee. I will enjoy every drop of it – after so many months of pouring hot water on stove-roasted grains, pretending it to be a tasty brew. So, let’s reserve it for a special occasion.”

Then she swung me around. “Oh, what the heck – let’s celebrate right now. Getting this surprise gift is about as special as it gets. I shall have a cup of coffee — and…”

She reached down, picked up a rectangular tablet and tore the paper open.

“…you shall have a treat as well.”

Breaking off a large wedge of something flat and brown, she told me to open my mouth. Then she reverently placed the mystery food on my tongue. “Now, eat it!”

I bit down, chewed, then grimaced and spit out a glistening sticky brown glob. “Yeck, I don’t like soap, Mom.”

It took a few more tries before I learned to appreciate this strange stuff called ‘chocolate.’ Never having tasted it before, I had reacted strictly to how it felt inside my mouth, and I had not found that lumpy sensation to be very enjoyable.

The arrival of that care package shone a beaming light into the dreariness of my mother’s existence at that time. As a child, I didn’t experience those days as particularly gloomy. In fact, I still think often fondly of my wonderfully carefree childhood in the country, since my “Mutti” always made sure that I had what I needed, even if she had to go without.

However, the warm and giving spirit inherent in that care package will forever remind me of the kindness of the American people who are now so very much a part of my world.

I also like to believe that the instant happiness shared so long ago by two soldiers and a five-year-old girl was destined to remain a highlight in our respective memories.

Determined to keep this caring spirit alive, I considered it wise to start right at home – with implanting a dose of empathy and goodwill into my own offspring.

Helga Gruendler-Schierloh is a bilingual Michigan writer with a degree in journalism. Her articles, short stories, and poetry have appeared in the USA, the UK, and Canada. Her debut novel, “Burying Leo,” released in 2017, won second place in women’s fiction during Pen Craft Awards’ 2018 writing contest.

Photo credit: “Barefoot days and sundown songs (1922);” Internet Archive Book Images, via Wikimedia Commons

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