By Pam Mellskog
A story I heard about strawberries came to mind last week in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
For 29 years it sat in my breadbox – my collection of mental notes on stories that nurture and heal. But I knew it was in there. I also knew that, like every story I hide, finding it would rekindle my faith in it – that the possibilities play out around our humanity as surely as the hardships in Ukraine and everywhere, during war and peace.
Over time, these bread box stories have become almost a mark of how each took me by surprise; revealed something wholesome and true through words and deeds; and took place in less than five minutes.
Two recent examples of these bread box stories stand out last October when I visited my parents with our youngest son, Ray, then 11, who then had the flexibility of homeschooling .
The first materialized as I stared out the living room windows of my parents’ home in rural Galena, Illinois. One of my teenage nieces had crouched down in the mud and stayed there to soothe Gussy Girl – our family’s cherished pasture ornament. Then, while the farrier cut and filed each rear hoof, CJ leaned against the wobbly pony to stabilize it.
This scene would be Gussy’s last fight for balance, his last farrier visit before his death later that fall after an incredibly long life. But this story keeps coming to mind as a picture of what unassuming empowerment looks like in a power-dominated world.
I’m verklempt as I type.
Another breadbox story surfaced later that month at the church of my boyhood and youth – the First Presbyterian Church on Bench Street in downtown Galena. The sturdy and chiseled stone building completed in 1838 is the oldest continuously used church building of any denomination in the former Northwest Territory which today covers an area of five states.
After the last Sunday service we attended before returning home to Colorado, our pastor invited our youngest son, Ray, then 11, to ring the heavy bell in the steeple when the congregation disbanded. .
The Reverend Jim McCrea, someone I’ve known for decades, gave Ray a quick, impromptu tutorial on how to pull the thick rope and swing the bell vigorously – to sound out the joyous transition underway as the people inside are leaving one sacred space for another outside.
The sun poured down on Ray’s young face as the old bell swung overhead. And some glory filled the hall that morning for me after seeing someone in charge give someone who wasn’t in charge an invitation to bring it!
But I digress digging for the Strawberry story, the one I gleaned as I sat alone and emotionally drained in the dark, empty holds of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
It had been a long day of wandering around the museum with a press pass before it opened to the public in April 1993.
In a small, narrow room, I crossed a low bridge over a floor filled several feet deep with old shoes of all sizes salvaged from the death camps after the war.
This exhibition and many others have helped journalists like me and future visitors to better imagine a person, not just a people, destroyed by war.
So by the time I arrived at the little theater with brief videotaped interviews with Holocaust survivors, the face of an elderly woman – about 3 feet tall on screen – looked like a knockdown on this theme. As she talked about strawberries, her enduring tenderness and capacity for friendship bubbled through time like a secret wellspring as I sat on a bench in the dark, deserted room.
I looked up into her face and listened for the next three minutes as she told a little tale of her time spent as a youth in a concentration camp.
As her friend there showed signs of eclipsing in the spring of 1945, she flashed back to a pre-war era when they were picking strawberries and enjoying the fresh, ripe fruit together on a beautiful summer day.
Eventually, her sick friend died just before the Allies liberated their camp in April. But until then, the speaker shared the strawberry story whenever she felt the other’s need to be respected, encouraged, and grounded in kindness.
So I wore it – minus some now forgotten details about the name of the camp and their exact age – as an example of how one woman captured the ordinary beauty of our humanity as balm for her sick and heartbroken friend. .
It’s a breadbox story to remind me that war can’t take away our best – something championed by Anne Frank, a 15-year-old Jewish teenager, in her namesake and classic war diary published posthumously for the first time in 1947: “How wonderful that no one need wait a single moment before beginning to improve the world.
Pam Mellskog can be reached at [email protected] or 303-746-0942. For more stories and photos, please visit https://www.timescall.com/tag/mommy-musings/.