Thursday, January 1, 2015

Out with the old....or not.

January is a time for new beginnings: "Out with the old, in with the new".  And  every January I get the urge to purge - to clean my cupboards and closets, bookcases and drawers, sending to thrift those things I really don’t need any more.   After all, just how much does one person need, and who in my small family is going to want this old stuff when I’m gone?  

And yet there is a place for the old – a place for items of great sentimental value, for beautiful objects whose very presence brings pleasure,  for treasures that tell a story.  I keep a few such things.  One of my treasures  is a carved wooden box.  I wrote its story for my writers’ group in November 2012, and share it with you here, on this eighth day of Christmas.  Happy New Year, everyone.  

The Carved Wooden Box
(c) Jean Ballard, 2012

I hold in my hand a carved wooden box on a small wooden base – the sort of thing men of my father’s generation used for their cuff links and watches and loose change.  On the top of the box is the carving of a dog, with long ears and longish fur but a muzzle like a pointer.  One side of the box is engraved with “Deutschland” and on the other “Neuengamme”.

It was my father’s box.  I asked him about it once.  He said it was carved by a German soldier at a POW camp where my dad was temporarily stationed;  Dad obtained it in exchange for some cigarettes. The war was a taboo subject with my dad, so I probed no further.

Dad passed away 37 years ago, and I loved him dearly.  I kept the box because it was his, because it represented a time in his life that he couldn't talk about, couldn't share even with his family.  The box was a part of his history as much as it was part of the carver’s.

I always hated history in school – boring stories of men traipsing across foreign lands, men fighting wars, battles lost and won.  And so I recalled little of what I learned about the Second World War or the cities where atrocities took place.  The name Neuengamme, and its nearby concentration camp,  meant little to me for much of my life.  

Some time in my forties, I started reading history from a different perspective: the history of women and children, of families and everyday life, and I grew to love learning about the past.  My ancestors sang to me from the pages of those books in a way that stories of old dead guys battling other old dead guys never did.  Gradually those dry dates and places and battles took on new life when looked at through the eyes of the families and individuals most affected by the wars, instead of through the eyes of the politicians and military personnel orchestrating them.  It was no longer about who won what battle, or which country sided with which.  War became a story about the pain of saying goodbye, the fear as bombs rained from above, the hunger and thirst and dirt and mud, the missing of family, the death of one’s friends, the trading of goods and sometimes one’s body for food and cigarettes, the carving of boxes.

The carver didn't sign his work – there’s no name carved or written anywhere on the box.  Just a dog, and a place, and a country.   I don’t know where my dad was posted when he obtained the box. But I picture two men on different sides of a war  looking into each other's eyes, communicating with their limited foreign language skills and with gestures, trading a carved box for a handful of cigarettes.  

And I think about the German soldier who carved the box,  and I wonder if  that dog was his dog, if Neuengamme was his home rather than his posting, and if he shed tears of homesickness as he carved. 

I find myself wondering what his children, his grandchildren might say if they only knew that a box carved by their ancestor in those dark days of WW II, a box with a dog carved into the top,  is seventy years later and half a world away now treasured by a woman who loves dogs.

(There’s a footnote to this story – as I polished the box to show my writer’s group, I discovered, for the first time, two tiny initials just below the dog’s ear:  OW.  The carver has spoken.  )


Anonymous said...

What a beautiful treasure you have in that box. Contains both sentimental value and a mystery.


Black Jack's Carol said...

I went through a similar transition when I figured out that history is about living, breathing, feeling people, Jean. This story is beautiful, as is the box. It was especially neat to discover the initials. I wonder if you might some day come across the carver. You never know, do you :)