82: Gifts of the Heart

82: Gifts of the Heart

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grand and Great

Gifts of the Heart

My eleventh birthday was just a week away when we arrived in the refugee camp on that bleak and cold November day in 1947. My grandparents, who were raising me, and I had fled our Soviet-occupied Hungary with only the clothes we were wearing. The refugee camp, called a displaced persons camp, was in Spittal, Austria.

To cold and hungry people like us, the refugee camp was a blessing. We were given our own space in a barrack, fed hot soup and given warm clothes, so we were grateful. But as for my upcoming birthday, I didn’t even want to think about it. After all, we had left our country without any possessions or money. So I had decided to forget about birthday presents from then on.

My grandmother, the only mother I ever knew, had taken over my care when I was a baby because her only child, my mother, had died suddenly. Before the war intensified, my birthdays had been grand celebrations with many cousins in attendance and lots of gifts. The cake had always been a dobosh torte, which my grandmother prepared herself.

My eighth birthday was the last time I received a bought gift. Times were already hard, money was scarce and survival the utmost goal. But my grandmother had managed to buy me a book. It was a wonderful book, full of humor and adventure, and I loved it. In fact, Cilike’s Adventures had transported me many times, from the harshness of the real world of war and strife to a world of laughter and fun.

After that, birthday presents were usually crocheted or knitted items, made lovingly by my grandmother — but there was always a present. However, in the refugee camp, I was resigned to the inevitable.

On November 25, when I woke in the barrack, I lay there on my little cot beneath the horsehair blanket and thought about being eleven. I was practically a grown-up, I told myself, and I would act accordingly when Grandma and Grandpa awoke. I didn’t want them to feel bad because they couldn’t give me a present.

So I dressed quickly and tiptoed out quietly. I ran across the frosty dirt road to the barrack marked “Women’s Bathroom and Shower,” washed, combed my hair and took my time, even though it was chilly, before returning to the barrack. But finally, I returned.

“Good morning, sweetheart. Happy birthday,” Grandfather greeted me.

“Thank you. But I would rather forget about birthdays now,” I replied, squirming in his generous hug.

“You are too young to forget about birthdays,” Grandmother said. “Besides, who would I give this present to if birthdays are to be forgotten?”

“Present?” I looked at her surprised, as she reached into her pocket and pulled something out.

“Happy birthday, honey. It’s not much of a present, but I thought you might enjoy having Cilike back on your eleventh birthday,” she said with tears in her eyes.

“My old Cilike book! But I thought it was left behind with all our other things,” I exclaimed, hugging the book to my chest, tears of joy welling up in my eyes.

“Well, it almost was. 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; I couldn’t bear to leave it behind. Happy birthday, honey. I’m sorry it’s not a new book, but I hope you like having it back.”

“Oh, thank you, Grandma. Having this book again means so much to me. So very much,” I said, hugging her, tears streaming down my cheeks. “It’s the best birthday present I ever received!”

And it truly was, because I realized that day how blessed I was.

Gifts of the heart are always the best gifts. They are true gifts of love.

~Renie Burghardt
Chicken Soup for the Grandma’s Soul

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