Besides Thanksgiving, this is also birthday week at my house. First, Nichole's birthday on the 20th, then mine, on the 25th. So in honor of birthday week, and since writing something new this busy week, is impossible, I thought I'd post an old birthday story, instead. I hope you enjoy it. An the photo is of me at 2 years of age. It's the only photograph of me that survived the war with us.
A Grandma's Gift of the Heart
My eleventh birthday was a week away when we arrived at the refugee camp in Austria on that cold November day in 1947. My grandparents and I had fled our Soviet-occupied country of Hungary with only the clothes we were wearing.
To frightened, cold, and hungry people like us, the displaced persons camp was a blessing from God. We were given our own little cardboard-enclosed cubicle in a barrack, fed hot soup, and supplied with warm clothes. We had much to be grateful for. But as for my upcoming birthday, I didn’t even want to think about it. We had left Hungary without possessions or money, but we were still alive. That was the important thing. So I put birthday presents and celebrations behind me.
My grandmother was the only mother I had ever known because her only child, my mother, had died suddenly when I was just a few weeks old. Before World War II intensified, my birthdays had been grand celebrations with many cousins in attendance and lots of gifts.
My eighth birthday had been the last time I received a store-bought gift. Times were already hard then, money was scarce, and survival our utmost goal. But Grandma had managed to pawn something so she could buy me a book. I loved it! Cilike’s Adventures, a wonderful book full of humor and adventure, had transported me many times from the harshness of the real world to a world of laughter and fun.
On November 25, when I awoke in our cardboard cubicle, I laid there and thought about being eleven. I was practically a grown-up, I told myself, and I would act accordingly when my grandparents awoke. I didn’t want them to feel bad because they couldn’t give me a present. So I dressed quickly and tiptoed out as quietly as possible. I ran across the frosty dirt road to the barrack marked "women’s bathroom and shower," washed, combed my hair, and finally returned to our cardboard sleeping quarters.
"Good morning, sweetheart! Happy birthday," Grandpa greeted me cheerily.
"Thank you, but I’d just as soon forget about birthdays from now on." I squirmed in his generous hug.
"You are too young to forget about birthdays," Grandma said. "Besides, who would I give this present to if birthdays are to be forgotten?"
"Present?" I looked at her in surprise as she reached into her pocket and pulled something out.
"Happy birthday, sweetheart. It’s not much of a present, but I thought you might like having Cilike back on your eleventh birthday," she said, tears welling up in her eyes.
"My old Cilike book! But I thought we left it behind," I said. I hugged the book to my chest while tears of joy flowed down my cheeks.
"Well, it almost was," Grandma said. "But when we had to leave so quickly in the middle of the night, I grabbed it, along with my prayer book, and stuck it in my pocket. I knew how much you loved that book, so I couldn’t bear to leave it behind. I’m sorry it’s not a new book, but I hope you like having it back."
"Oh, thank you, Grandma! Having Cilike back means so much to me. So very much." I hugged her again. "It’s the best birthday present I ever received!"
The gift of that old book was a miracle, to me, and I realized that day that God had blessed me with a wonderful grandmother, whose love would always see me through the hard times. And most importantly, she taught me that gifts of the heart are always the best gifts, because they truly are gifts of love.
First published in Chicken Soup for the Grandma's Soul: Stories to Honor and Celebrate the Ageless - copyright, Aug 2005