The Hand That Feeds Us – By Ute Carson
It is the week before Christmas. I sit cross-legged on the floor, stuffing fiber-fill into the pelt of the hobbyhorse I am making for my littlest grandson, Alexander. I have made equine play companions for all the grandkids, brown, gray and dappled ones. This horsy is velveteen black, sleek with startled, heart-shaped eyes. The flowing mane, made to look like a mighty wind, is of wooly white yarn and the bridle and reigns are braided, clay-beige ribbons. I still have to stitch the nostrils, pretending that this little animal can neigh. Then I am ready to wrap my surprise in glittering green paper.
As I work, memories become vivid of our last Christmas on Silesian soil where I had spent my first five idyllic childhood years before World War II forced us to flee from the advancing Russian troops. In our castle overlooking a snaking, wildly roaming river, it was a child’s fairytale Christmas. I knew nothing of the approaching troubles. The cannon fire rumbled far off like familiar rolling thunder. The huge fir tree bathed in candlelight stood in the wide-open living room and, though most household help had already escaped over the snowy mountains into Czechoslovakia, a loyal family servant managed to cut and bring in this majestic tree from our forest. My mother and grandmother decorated it with delicate glass ornaments that would soon be buried under the rubble of war along with the Persian rugs and the breakfront filled with fine china. Food supplies were already scarce but for a child a polished red apple and cookies made with molasses and spiced with ginger were feast enough.
I had a single ardent wish that Christmas for a lamb like the one I had seen born in our blooming meadow last spring. My mother was a magician when it came to surprises. As I knelt in my light-blue chiffon dress, hair done up in a golden bow, under the canopy of branches, unaware of the wax dripping from the flickering candles and the many brightly wrapped presents strewn about, I saw only one thing: a toy lamb. I swooped up the soft bundle and with overwhelming joy cradled it in my plump little arms. My mother had made the lamb from fluffy terrycloth. It had soft pink ears and a moveable tail, with an invisible wire inside. When I was put to bed that evening, I clutched my cuddly new friend tightly to my chest. From then on I never let go of that precious gift, not even during the sudden exodus that followed just a few days after we had extinguished the lights on everything familiar and evergreen.
We relocated to western Germany. There were hungry winters after the war but happy laughter resounded when my mother, sister, brother, grandparents, an aunt and an occasional neighbor or friend gathered in the darkening hours of the late afternoons of each Advent season. Although most nights were sharp with cold and the days clear and still, the atmosphere indoors was welcoming and warm thanks to the big tiled corner stove and the deep red flame of four Advent candles which decorated a wreath. The sweet pungent fragrance of fir sap emanated from its branches. In that cozy room we began to make presents, an activity which became a lesson in disguise, a lesson I was to understand only much later in life.
My siblings and I had small wooden chests which like secret caves held our treasures and kept our gifts out of sight. Depending on our age, we decorated the chests with stickers, painted or colored the sides and top boards. We lined the insides with fabric. When I was in my early teens, I adorned my chest one last time with colorful squares, rectangles and circles Mondrian-style. My brother, who was less ambitious in his desire to decorate, was content with the plain pine wood of his treasure chest. Inside the lids of the chests we pasted pictures of our family, friends and favorite animals. My sister Lisa glued a photo of Clark Gable onto the lining of hers and I pinned a picture of my first boyfriend close to my chest’s outer rim so it wouldn’t be seen at first glance.
As the snow descended, piling up in thick, milky-white layers on the window sills, we made our presents. There were pot holders in multiple colors and long scarves winding around necks like snake tails. We made picture calendars using pressed flowers and leaves. We glued tiny stones, polished with spit and feathers onto small wooden boxes designed for jewelry, and strung necklaces of beads and painted noodles. My mother had sliced, then ironed, shafts of straw into long flat pieces. We cut them to different lengths and bound them together with golden yarn into straw stars. My brother, who liked to whittle, once even carved a figure out of a bone. Lisa had a child’s loom and wove beautiful miniature wall-hangings. I loved making coat hanger covers. All coat hangers at that time were wood with removable wire hooks. We crocheted long, narrow sleeves which we slipped over the wooden hangers, then screwed the hooks back in–the forerunners of today’s padded hangers. As we grew older we knitted sweaters of every size, shape and color. My boyfriend was the first recipient of a sky-blue pullover which he proudly wore on ski outings.
We labeled our presents with a name tag as soon as one was finished. “For my dear Mama, the best in the world,” “Brother, I adore you,” “Grandma Maria, I couldn’t do without you,” and “I love you!” written last minute on a folded piece of notebook paper to my boyfriend Wolfgang. I sealed it with a lipstick kiss.
During the activities our voices hummed like whizzing fans. We nibbled on homemade cookies of such delicious flavors no childhood palate could ever forget. The adults drank hot, spiced wine. We were allowed sips of a very watered-down version but mostly contented ourselves with cider. Our grandfathers reclined on the sofa and easy chairs and smoked pipes whose odor mingled with the rest of all the good scents. Once in a while grandmother started a Christmas carol and we all joined in. We sang the traditional songs over and over again, and even though some hymns had four or five verses I still today remember every one of them by heart. During the singing our minds wandered, letting our fantasy roam. We daydreamed about our friends and the upcoming outings to the snowy mountains for sledding and skiing. But I am sure that the older generation flew on wings of nostalgia back to better times in their beloved faraway homeland, now no longer in German hands.
It was my mother who was the puppeteer behind all of this craftsmanship and the protector of the Christmas spirit. She was a beautiful magician who had kept her elegant youthful leanness. I even see her now flitting from person to person, her firm small hands busy at catching a loose stitch here, a missed loop there, her lips wet from threading yet another needle. She also smoothed many a wrinkled brow, foremost for us children who used our handiwork to play out our sibling rivalries, “How come your star is much prettier than mine?” “I wanted that purple yarn. Give it to me!!!” But she also calmed the elders who easily felt neglected, a glass not filled, a favorite cookie snatched just when Grandpa Rolf was reaching for it. She always intervened when my Aunt Paula had started to recite a poem and we kept whispering, whispering.
Besides my mother’s industriousness and warmth certain character traits of the rest of us came to light as well. My sister’s perfectionism which lead her to unravel wall-hangings she didn’t like, my brother’s fine workman’s skill but lack of artistic sensibility, my aunt’s procrastination and her dejection over never finishing a project, and my reluctance to part with gifts that I found especially pleasing. I also recall the gentle suggestions of both grandmothers when we were at an impasse in our creative endeavors, “Have you ever thought of…?” My grandmothers were totally different in appearance and personality but on this they spoke in unison. And then there were the grandfathers who participated by their presence alone and their continuous huffing and harrumphing.
My mother was also the reader. When she finally sat down and let her hands rest, she picked up our favorite book, The Travels of Nils Holgerson, by Swedish author Selma Lagerlöff. Darkness pressed against the windows and falling snowflakes as white and soft as the belly of my toy lamb blinked off and on like lightning bugs, illuminating the moonless night. That’s when we flew away with Nils. Securely positioned on the broad, cushioned wings of his snow goose, we traversed dense clouds, glided by blazing sunsets, over snowfields and above houses the size of tinker toys, swept through lush green valleys and soared high above fog-veiled mountain tops. We were timeless. Leaving our familiar places, we rose into the air and, resisting the pull of gravity, we floated freely, borne up by the buoyant power of the imagination.
With Nils we wondered about the sleeping people below and, during the day, watched them at work in their fields, factories, kitchens and schools. We saw children on the playground kicking a ball or tipping on a teeter-totter. We spied into peoples’ rooms, felt bad about their meager meals, or giggled when a fat man belched and heard lovers quarrel and then reconcile. We became treasure hunters with gold diggers in California. We urged on galloping Indian ponies across the prairies of Wyoming, and gasped when fishermen killed a baby seal on the shores of Finland. From our lofty wing-thrones we appeared as princes and princesses at fancy balls, and we cried with the orphans and beggars in the slums of London whose plight saddened us so much that for once we wished to leave our safe flying carpet and descend to comfort them. But as my mother turned yet another page we remained persistent onlookers. And since there were no boundaries, we spun our minds around myriads of unknown lives. We continued to observe unflinchingly what flashed before our eyes on the fleeting land far below. And thus in the end, we made a home in our imagination for the accumulated impressions and gathered them into ourselves.
During my shared journey with little Nils, the seeds for my poems and stories were sown. On one of the Advent nights, snug in bed, I reached for my flashlight under the pillow and started my very own notebook of stories and poems. What I write today is the harvest.
And then finally it was the morning of Christmas Eve. One last time we trailed our fingers over each present before covering it with star-spangled paper. Our cheeks glowed from the efforts and our palms lines glistened with sweat as we feverishly finished the last wrappings and boxing up of presents for this day’s deliveries. And then, bundled up in warm coats, woolen caps and mittens, we became caroling elves walking from house to house, ringing doorbells. As soon as we heard footsteps approaching, we ran. Sometimes we bumped into a couple of eloping friends who were also on secret missions. We pretended not to notice.
Hours later, back home with cold, red noses and stiff fingers, we ate more cookies and pressed our hands against the tiles of the warm stove until the blood flowed freely again through all our limbs. Then we waited with bated breath to see what we might receive in return, especially as surprises from friends. My excitement rivaled the happiness over my toy lamb when one Christmas my boyfriend left a collection of Rilke poems on my doorstep. Christmas Eve is the evening on which German households exchange gifts among themselves under candlelit Christmas trees. We all knew that by nightfall church services and private celebrations would begin and no more gifts would be delivered.
We retreated only partially from the outside world when we were busy with our secret activities. Then we always reentered the wider community with our gifts, a movement reminiscent of the rhythm of butterflies opening and shutting their wings. There was never a sense of quid pro quo in our gift-giving, only the silent hope that others would feel like we did, finding joy in giving and receiving.
The making and giving of presents created a magical sensation for me during my childhood and youth that kept its hold over me during my adult years. My mother taught me that what feeds us needs also to be fed by us.