March 18, 2008
[Author’s note: It’s been my observation that the deepest compassion often arises from worst adversity, abandonment and neglect. It is those who suffer most who understand suffering best.]
The year was 1954 and I’d been drafted into the Army and sent to Germany as part of the occupation forces. I met Ditha through a friend of hers who contracted with the Army to manage the mess hall at Friedberg Kaserne where I was stationed. As time went on, I learned something of Ditha’s past. She remembered being left one day at her aunt’s apartment in Frankfurt because, as it was explained to her, her Mother and Father had “business” somewhere that day. But they never came back to pick her up, and that’s the last she knew of them or their whereabouts. Later the Nazi’s came and took her aunt away, and Ditha became a ward of the state, housed in an orphanage. In time the whole orphanage was organized into a factory for assembling field uniforms, and the child Ditha spent her days at a sewing machine, stitching together pants and shirts. She wasn’t given much to eat and was hungry most of the time.
The summer we were together , Ditha worked at a travel agency in Frankfurt and she would sometimes catch the train from Frankfurt to Friedberg Kaserne and we’d walk the four-mile river trail to the park in Bad Nauheim where the summer lawn was let to grow as high as pasture grass. Sanford and Calvin, two of my buddies from the orderly room staff, would join us, and Ditha’s mess hall friend would make a picnic lunch for the four of us to share. In the park a string orchestra played on Sunday afternoons and we’d spread the army blankets Calvin brought and eat our lunch and drink Piesporter Moselle and listen to the music.
The park was thick with Robins, the trees hung with nests of squeaking chicks begging to be fed, the parents searching the moist lawn for worms. It wasn’t that uncommon for a chick to fall from the nest or even be expelled by the parents if they had too many mouths to feed, but when Ditha found a fallen chick she was beside herself with the urgency to do something to rescue it. They’re really wasn’t anything you could do. Ditha herself probably knew how hopeless her efforts were. Still she went hunting for worms and when she couldn’t find any she tried to get the chick to swallow little bits of picnic cheese, which it didn’t recognize as food and wouldn’t swallow. When she’d failed to feed it, she sat with the chick cupped in the palm of her hand, stroking it with a finger now and then. “I can’t leave it for the cats,” she said.
It was Calvin that suggested we take it to the park maintenance shed. “Maybe one of the workers there will know what to do,” he said, catching my eye to let me know he understood how pointless the suggestion was. If Ditha understood this as well she didn’t let on, and so the four of us went in search of the maintenance shed where, in fact, we found two workers in coveralls taking a break and sharing coffee from a thermos. Ditha held out the robin for them to see, speaking to them in German too rapidly for me to follow. The two workers listened patiently and, it seemed to me, sympathetically. When Ditha finally fell silent, the older of the two workers said something to her. Ditha handed him the robin, and when he cuddled it up against his cheek she turned and walked away. “What did he say?” Calvin asked her. “He said not to worry that he would take good care of it.” “That’s good,” Calvin told her, throwing and arm about her shoulders and squeezing her up tight.
That evening when I saw Ditha off at the Friedberg train station, she said, “The baby robin’s going to die. I hope they won’t let it suffer.” She started to board the train and then turned and held onto me for a long moment. In a world where young things fall from their nests, Ditha knew as well as anyone the difficult odds of survival.
Ditha’s been on my mind lately. Now that I’ve had children of my own, I sometimes think of the little girl in the Wiesbaden State Orphanage with no one left to look over her and who, when hospitalized for a tonsillectomy, awakened to discover two sore and reddened scars on her “tummy,” and who in time who’d come to realize that she’d never have children of her own, and who as a grown woman would one day refuse to leave a baby robin for the park cats to get.
[(c) Lin Jensen, 2005. Reprinted from Bad Dog!: A Memoir of Love, Beauty, and Redemption in Dark Places, with permission of Wisdom Publications, 199 Elm Street, Somerville, MA 02144 U.S.A, www.wisdompubs.org]