The Joy of Giving

The Joy of Giving

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Be The Best You Can Be

The Joy of Giving

Neither fire nor wind, birth nor death can erase our good deeds.


I was eleven when my grandparents and I fled our country, Hungary, with only the clothes on our backs. We ended up in a refugee camp, also called a displaced persons camp, where we joined throngs of other refugees who had arrived before us.

Our new home was made up of old army barracks that were lined up like soldiers as far as the eye could see. Although the camp was cramped, it was an improvement over the life we had known in our war-torn country for several years.

Soon after our arrival, we were taken to one of the barracks that would serve as our new home. They had small rooms with sleeping cots, a blanket covering the entrance, and not much more. But I was grateful for the “safe” roof over my head, and the warm soup they served us.

Soon, a girl with long, curly black hair came over and introduced herself.

“Hi, my name is Piri, and I sleep on the other side of the cardboard wall, so we’re neighbors,” she said, smiling at me. I liked her instantly.

“Nice to meet you,” I said. “My name is Renie, and I’m eleven. How old are you?”

“I’m nine and a half,” Piri replied, “and I can show you around the camp. We’ve been here over a year now.”

So Piri and I became friends, and although I soon made friends my own age, I let her hang around with us. It was nice to have someone look up to me and admire me just because I was older. And it was comforting to have her on the other side of the cardboard wall at night so I could tell my problems to her.

Because most of us in the camp had no money, we looked forward to the donated clothes they gave to us each spring and fall. And if the clothes came from America, we fingered them in awe, for that is where most of us hoped to go.

Of course, the clothes weren’t new, but they were clean and good, and we were grateful to get them. This also meant that no one looked better than anyone else at camp.

One winter morning, we had lined up to receive our winter clothes when the man in charge made an announcement.

“This year, a rich lady in America donated this beautiful fur coat in a young girl’s size.” He held up the coat for everyone to see. Oohs and aahs rang out through the crowd.

“Since we only have one coat and many young girls, we have decided to have a drawing for it. Girls will come up and try it on, and if the coat fits, they will write their name on a piece of paper and drop it in this box. Then we will draw the name of the winner.”

“That coat looks like it will fit you perfectly,” my grandmother said. “Go try it on, and put your name in the box.”

“It looks too big for me,” Piri said. “But I will keep my fingers crossed that you win the coat. It would look beautiful on you.”

So I went and felt the coat. It was soft, plush, and lovely to the touch, and I wanted it very badly. So did many of the other girls. And after what seemed like forever, a small girl was asked to reach into the box and draw a name.

“Renie Szilak,” the man shouted, waving a piece of paper in the air. “Come on up here, young lady, and get your coat.”

I stood there in a daze, not quite believing it was true until Piri nudged me on. I walked up, feeling the hundreds of eyes watching me. And when I walked back, wearing that beautiful coat, I heard a voice in the crowd call out, “You look just like a real princess in that coat!” It was the cutest boy in our school. I blushed, but I hoped I was walking the way a real princess would.

“I can’t believe some girl in America gave up this coat,” I told Piri as we walked back to our barrack.

“Maybe it no longer fit her,” Piri said.

“But it is so beautiful. I won’t give it up even after it no longer fits. It will be mine forever!” I vowed.

By this time, Piri had become the closest thing to a sister I would ever have. Since her father was sick and needed her mother at his side most of the time, she spent much of her time with my family and me. And since both of our families had applied for immigration to the United States, a lot of that time was taken up with dreaming about our future lives there.

“I hope we’ll be neighbors in America and always be friends,” Piri would often say.

“I hope so, too,” I would add.

That winter, I felt like a refugee-camp princess. Everywhere I went in my new coat, admiring glances followed, and when I walked to school, boys who usually threw snowballs at the girls let me walk by untouched.

Then spring arrived, and I put the coat in a box and shoved it under my sleeping cot. But I knew it would be there for me next winter.

Not long after, we received the news we had been awaiting. Our papers had been approved, and in September we would board the ship taking us to our new country: the United States of America. I rushed out to find Piri and tell her the good news, thinking their papers had come through, too. I found her outside the barrack, her eyes red from crying.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“We haven’t been approved. They say my dad is sick. Only healthy people can go to America,” she replied quietly, turning my world upside-down.

“Oh, I am sorry,” I said, putting my arms around her, wishing I could do something more to help her. We spent the remaining few months practically glued to each other, but soon the day we had to part arrived.

Piri and I were about to say our last farewell before my family and I boarded the truck that would take us to the ship.

“Don’t forget me. Write to me,” Piri said, hugging me as tears rolled down her cheeks. Suddenly, it hit me hard that not only would we never see each other again, but Piri would not be going on to a new life in a new country. I had to somehow ease her sadness. I broke away from the crowd and ran after my grandfather, who was just boarding the truck with a large box in his hand. I yanked the box from him without an explanation and raced back to Piri’s side.

“I want you to have the coat. I love you, little sister, and I’ll write as soon as we have an address,” I said tearfully, shoving the box into her hands.

“But… but you said you would never give up this coat,” Piri stammered.

“I’m not giving it up. I’m passing it on to my little sister. Think of me whenever you wear it.”

Then I raced to climb aboard the truck, which was about to depart without me. I will never forget the expression on Piri’s face as she stood there clutching the box, teetering between sadness and gladness. That was the moment that I, a mostly selfish girl, discovered how much joy there is in giving.

It was mid-November by the time I could send my address to Piri. I received her happy reply just a few days before Christmas. There was a photo enclosed in the letter, too. It showed a girl with curly black hair and a beaming smile. She wore a beautiful fur coat, and she looked just like a real princess it.

And that made my heart happy.

~Renie Burghardt

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