During the plenty of the holiday season I am haunted by a footprint. The envelope containing the tracing arrived just after Thanksgiving 1956, when I was six years old. It bore the postmark of post WWII East Germany.
My father and uncle emigrated from Germany as boys, and came to the US. Letters traveled between them and their mother until the war and resumed once Germany was divided at the end of the war. we might get a birthday card, but always the holiday letter got through, letting us know what was most needed.
Dad removed the tracing of Grandma's foot from the airmail envelope carefully. Airmail paper was pale blue or white, and very thin and flimsy. I wanted to try my foot against the footprint of the Grandma I'd never met, but knew I'd be in trouble if I damaged it. Her foot had to be twice the length of mine and broad from walking everywhere she went.
Dad cut the outline out carefully and carried it to the Sears in downtown Milwaukee. I gazed at the Christmas displays as Dad slipped the footprint in shoe after shoe. Grandma knew the European sizes were different; hers was a 44. Dad found a sturdy brown pair in size 10 that he thought would last until next Christmas. Such ugly shoes for a gift, I thought. I felt she needed pretty slippers, so I asked to choose them.
I tucked the footprint into several pair, and found a softly shining black pair with red ribbon roses on top that were a perfect fit. Dad paid for our purchases, and asked for an empty cardboard box to pack the gifts we would send.
At home again, we placed things I took for granted into the box. Airmail stationary, toilet tissue, bars of soap, cannned vegetables and fruit, coffee and chocolate. To my six year old eyes, these were hardly the gifts I would have wanted. I couldn't imagine a world without these items readily available.
Dad placed the shoes on top ,and I added the beautiful slippers. He sealed the box with tape, wrapped it in brown paper, and tied it with string. he well sealed package was mailed the next day, sure to reach Grandma long before Christmas itself.
No matter how carefully dad sealed the box, it would have been opened and some things removed before
Grandma got it. It happened every year. Grandma would report empty spaces in the box he'd packed so tightly. Dad referred to it as "the price of doing business with those 'stunks'", in the East Zone government.
He always packed extra food to make up for the pilfering. I was outraged anyone would steal Grandma's things. Dad said the items were taken for personal use or traded on the Black Market. I imagined a black painted store, with blackened windows where people met at night to trade for things they needed. It sounded so ominous when my parents discussed it; it had to be a terrible place.
I wondered if her wonderful slippers had been stolen. I sat quietly next to the piles of presents under our tree as Dad read and translated her letter. She was happy with the gifts, especially the coffee and chocolate, which she coud not buy there. She didn't mention any hardships directly in her letter. If she had criticised her situation, her letter would have been discarded after it had been read by the officials censoring the mail.
It seemed the reading of the letter slowed time itself. I tried hard to sit still as Dad went on paragraph by paragraph. Finally he read the last page. I recognised "Danke" as thank you, and "Hausshoes" as slippers.The Christmas tree sparkled, wavered and danced through my tears of relief. Grandma had her slippers, and I had my first Christmas when the needs of others truly impacted my life.
The memory of Grandma's footprint on flimsy airmail paper has visited me every holiday season since. I realize I am so blessed to have what I do, both material goods and freedom. I remember the needs of others, and donate to food and toy drives. This year I remember as I get ready to seal a brown cardboard box for a special soldier I know. I give thanks for his service to protect my freedoms, the ones Grandma lost, not to be regained in her lifetime.