The Useless Gift

Second story in our I-Alice’s YesterYears series.

A neat, handwritten letter from Papa’s oldest living brother, Fred, had arrived in our mailbox in Schuler, all the way from Waterloo, Iowa. It made my heart flutter for I knew that any news from our uncle would bring untold happiness to our Papa. His eyes glistened with tears as I reread the letter written in English (German was his language). There! He had that faraway look again.

“They’re coming! They’re coming to visit!” I shrieked, hoping it would help Papa and Mama comprehend what I had been reading.

A beautiful smile radiated from Papa’s worn and tired face, but when I looked at Mama, I could see that this big event did not appeal to her. Mama had enough work keeping all ten of us fed around the long kitchen table. Now she was to take on the extra burden of catering to visitors from the United States, people she had never met.

Fifteen years had passed since Papa had seen his brother; their only contact was a few letters. Since they had come to America from Grossliebenthal, Russia, intense sadness had enveloped Uncle Fred when his young wife passed away, leaving him a widower with two small sons and no family nearby to be of comfort to him.

In today’s letter he had enclosed a studio portrait of himself and his new bride of a few months. On the picture the young woman looked stunning. Her hair was perfectly waved. On her round face she wore black-rimmed glasses and her left shoulder was graced with a beautiful orchid corsage.

Their approximate arrival date was marked with a large X on our wall calendar, which was the only picture we had on our orange-painted kitchen walls. Finally the day of their arrival came. I hid behind the lace curtains and peeped out to catch a glimpse of them. I stood in awe of the people I had only seen on paper.

Dressed in splendor, Uncle Fred and his wife stepped gracefully from a shiny new car. This total stranger looked so much like our Papa, who rushed forward and fell into the open arms of his younger brother. As the two men embraced, they could not suppress loud sobs. Our hearts wrenched at the pain they had suffered over the years.

So much had happened since they were a family of eighteen children in Grossliebenthal. Now only seven family members were left (their father had passed on since the last letter was written to Uncle Fred). This was also the first time Papa could express his sympathy to his brother because of the loss of his first wife.

Without a formal introduction, Papa grabbed the English-speaking lady and gave her a hearty hug. He was unable to express his feelings in English, but it was the warmth of his greeting that put the stranger at ease.

Aunt Edith seemed somewhat confused and alarmed to see so many of us kids coming out from the small farm house to greet her. She repeated each name in hopes of remembering them.

I loved Uncle Fred from the moment we met because he immediately tousled my thick red hair and said how much he liked my freckles. “You’re the prettiest girl next to your Aunt Edith”. Having said this, he put his arm around her small waist and right there before us gave her a loving hug.

After the greetings had been completed Aunt Edith trounced back over the hard-trodden soil to the car in her fancy black patent high-heeled shoes and removed a neatly gift-wrapped parcel. Lovingly and with an expression of great pride, she gently laid the gift into Mama’s tired arms.

From inside the colorful paper, Mama lifted a round rose-colored crepe paper cushion, the centre of which was highlighted by a variegated crepe paper flower, blending the colors. Was it ever beautiful! I thought the gift was as dainty as the giver.

Mama looked bewildered. Her first thought must have been whatever would she do with such an elaborate gift. We had no couch or extra bed to display it on in our humble home. Papa sized up the awkwardness and saved the now almost strained situation by suggesting that the pillow would make a beautiful decoration on the wall of our sitting room. Those walls were also bare.

“Yes, oh yes,” said our Mama trying equally as hard as Papa not to show her disappointment. “Hang it up right away. Hang it up so the children can’t pick at it.”

For many years the cushion decorated our living room, collecting dust and cobwebs where it rested against the wallpaper that bordered the ceiling. The useless gift, as our Mama called it, often reminded me of our visitors.

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