Spring is coming. Let’s not give up on hospitality yet.

Forest road in spring green with a blue sky above. Kottenforst, Germany.
Forest road in spring green with a blue sky above. Kottenforst, Germany. © Laurel Decher, 2016.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if migration is our natural lot and living peacefully in one place all our lives a rarity. Cranes are migrating and their calls remind me of spring.

The current news shows destroyed cities in Syria, failed cease-fire talks, and a refugee bus being shouted down by people in the former Democratic Republic of Germany.

At my mother-in-law’s birthday party, some friends told how their families fled from the invading Russians, near the end of World War II. One family fled as late as 1945. Here’s my rough translation into English:

A knock came at three o’clock in the morning: we had to get out. We fled in a matter of two hours, with only the clothes we had on. The snow was up to the horses’ bellies and my mother packed us into the hay wagon with bedding, so we wouldn’t freeze.

Our father was one of three men assigned to the farm, to keep producing food. Unarmed, they were supposed to stay at the farm to defend the front against the Russians.

The countess, our angel, helped us to get out. She didn’t take any extra luggage for herself and invited three new mothers with their infants into her carriage, so they would survive the trip.

She bought a big sack of bread whenever we came to a big bakery and hung the sack from the side of the carriage. We had a camp kitchen, a “Gulaschkanone,” to cook huge quantities of soup. We had plenty to eat then.

Once we came to an abandoned town with a castle and people had fled, leaving everything behind. We slept anywhere we wanted, even in the castle. The houses were full of food, because these people had also fled. But after three weeks, we heard the Russian guns.

Eventually, we arrived in Schleswig-Holstein.  The countess’ brother had made arrangements for us, but the Nazi’s were still in charge, so they assigned people to various houses in the village as they saw fit. It was awkward and unpleasant.

We lived over a bakery in a tiny room with five other people. Baked goods were rationed, so we smelled a lot more bread than we ate.

People looked at us funny because we weren’t from there. My mother and sister argued about words for years, because my mother didn’t want us to blend in. She thought we were still going “home” one day. She wanted us to fit in there.

Epidemiologists like to study the “immigration effect.” That’s the idea that people who stay home are systematically different from the people who don’t.

For example, people who eat lots of fruits and vegetables, little meat, and little refined sugar in their home country may have a low risk of colon cancer. If some migrate to a country with the opposite pattern, they will probably increase their risk of colon cancer compared to those who stayed at home. But because they keep some of their home country traditions, they will probably have a lower risk of colon cancer than the natives of their adopted country.

For epidemiologists, a pattern like this means the risky behavior is “modifiable,” not genetic. If you can get people to eat more fruits and vegetables, little meat, and little refined sugar, then you will probably see less colon cancer. It’s hard to change behavior, but it’s possible. It means hope.

After World War II, many, many people fled from the Eastern block into West Germany. They know what it means to be forced to rely on strangers. They know first-hand that the scarcity mentality isn’t true. Hardship can teach us generosity, if we let it.

We all wish for peace, but in the mean time, people all around me are eager to help the new arrivals feel at home. When peace comes, I think our hospitality will be gladly returned.

Spring is coming. Let’s not give up hope.

 


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Skin-colored Felt: Doing Other People’s Cultures Wrong

Cloth doll angel waiting for wings and Joseph with black mustache, beard and wild yarn hair, corduroy palm tree with green felt leaves.
Angel awaits wings, halo and hair. Rastafarian Joseph leans against corduroy palm tree. ©Laurel Decher, 2015

Skin-colored felt is not easy to find, even if you know what color you’re looking for. My youngest and I are sewing figures for a Christmas nativity scene. So far, we’ve made the palm tree (brown corduroy).

Glue overdose means the only original figures are the baby Jesus and the Rastafarian Joseph, named for his wild, black, locks. He tends to tip over easily. The palm tree helps prop him up until we can give him a navy bean transfusion.

Skin-colored felt must have been equally challenging a decade or so ago, when my Mom made him. Joseph’s face is tweedy-beige knit. Hence the search for skin-colored felt, preferably “multicultural.”

A kindergarten teacher (of course!) told me where to find felt in all colors. The colors I took weren’t labelled.

Elementary school kids seem to craft their own names for colors. I remember a lot of “blue-ish, greenish.” Maybe kids know something about color that we don’t.

Two friendly sheets of warm, beige-ish, brownish felt went into my basket.

While I was at the store, I looked for Chanukah candles and a menorah. I wanted to light candles in solidarity with a dear friend who was celebrating alone for the first time. There were all kinds of holiday decorations and candles there, so it seemed a reasonable quest.

The first woman I asked gave me a startlingly blank look and I wondered if my German skills were at fault. At the service desk, I asked again, just to regain my faith in humanity. They had never heard of the Jewish festival of lights. Grief for my friend put a sudden pain in my shoulder.

Don’t leap to conclusions, I told myself. I might be using the wrong words or using the right words in an unexpected way. Knowing each others’ holidays isn’t the only key to cultural understanding. Chanukah is not the most important Jewish holiday, just the one nearest Christmas. Twenty years ago, I learned the words to Shalom Chaverim in Germany.

I know, from personal experience, that German people grieve over the Holocaust and their country’s part in it. The Auschwitz museum was created to help people remember and prevent the horrors from happening ever again. Many, many German students had told me about the guilt they felt that the Holocaust had happened in their country.

I said, “But evil can happen anywhere, why do you feel guilty for things that happened before you were born?”

My friends said the tragedy could have happened anywhere, but the way it happened was particularly German. If my generation had grieved half so thoughtfully about the history of slavery in the U.S., would we be in a better place now?

Much to my relief, the cashier had heard of Chanukah. (She wasn’t Jewish.) I asked if she knew where to get a menorah, but hers was from Israel, a gift from a friend. She drew a quick sketch of it on paper to show she understood. It comforted me to know someone knew what I was talking about. Grief is a mysterious thing.

It’s really easy to do other peoples’ cultures wrong. I’m likely to light my Chanukah candles wrong even though I want to honor my friend. Wikipedia tells me Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha are the most important Islamic holidays.

Next time I meet some new arrivals at the library or elsewhere, I’m going to ask what their high holidays are and how they celebrate them. If they celebrate Eid al-Fitr or Eid al-Adha, maybe they will teach me how to pronounce them. It might take me a while to get the hang of the unfamiliar names. Or they may celebrate holidays that are more familiar to me in a new way.

In the meantime, I’ll give my angel hands and a face in the new beige-ish, brownish felt and put my Chanukah lights in the window. Both are imperfect works of love.

Wishing you joyous and peaceful celebrations with people you love!

 

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What must be said: hardware, broccoli, and love

Drilling a hole in the wall with an electric drill while vacuuming the dust.Last night I learned a dear friend died. She and her husband helped us when our first child was born and were both friends and second parents to us. That’s when she inscribed a copy of THE ENCHANTED BROCCOLI FOREST cookbook: “In our hearts, you’ll always be our neighbors.”

The news reminded me about grief, that black feeling of a hole opened in the night. It’s so palpable. I’d forgotten how it lies inside us like a block of granite and how many tears it takes to melt it away.

My mom died almost 10 years ago. My dad made a memorial service with stations showing parts of her life: lab work as a chemist, travel, family, church etc. I think he wanted to show her off one last time. What struck me at the time were the number of things in her life that were interrupted. I saw for the first time how rarely we have the privilege of finishing.

This new grief brings up familiar questions: What are we here for? What must be done before we go? What must be said?

Before she died, my mom stopped doing certain things, stripping wallpaper or re-organizing junk. But a little later on, she added some back in. “Going to the hardware store seems like it gets in the way,” she said. “But actually it’s what life is.”

I love you, Mom!

I love you, dear neighbors!

I love you, husband!

I love you, my children!

I love you, Dad!

Going to the hardware store now to get a bulb for a friend.

Wishing you all broccoli, hardware, and neighbors during this holiday season and beyond!

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Thanks for your interest in my work! If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.