By Piotr Ulmer, MSPT
When I think of gifts I’ve received during my lifetime, some particular events come to me right away. I remember vividly a few months before Christmas in Poland in the early 80’s, a time of economic shortages; meat, flour, sugar and alcohol were rationed (food stamp system). The only thing available in a neighborhood grocery store was vinegar. There were literally empty store shelves – all shelves, except one, with 10 or 15 bottles of vinegar. The salesperson was informing customers about the future delivery of butter, milk, or any other goods to the store. Some of them were supposed to be delivered in a day, some in 2 days. I remember once standing in a two-hour line in front of the store (before going to school at 7 am) to buy two blocks of butter, which was the limit per person, after my family was tipped off about a delivery happening that morning.
It was in a daily scenario like this that a miracle happened. Our neighbor came to us excited and said that a few 18-wheelers from the German Red Cross arrived at our town’s bus station, and the drivers were giving away boxes with Christmas gifts. I went, and the crowd was big. I was about 16 or 17 years old, and I managed to “drill” myself into the crowd and grab (and not let go of) one of the boxes. I brought it home, everyone knelt around it, and we opened it. The contents were all unexpected: two or three Granny Smith apples, two boxes of chocolates, truffles, some other cookies and crackers, clothing items like one or two pairs of pants, a sweater, a plastic pipe (a decoration) and so on. All the items were unusual for us. We were all ecstatic. We felt like the “Loot of Treasure Island” landed in my parents’ bedroom. My parents decided right away that most of the package would wait for Christmas. We did open one truffle candy bar, cut it in four (a piece for each one of us) and ate it. It was this never before experienced taste, unknown, exciting, surprising…just marvelous and delicious. The pants did not fit anybody in the family, but I had already done some alterations of pants by hand in the past, so sowing the trousers into narrow sleeves was not too difficult. I wore them until the end of high school. The plastic pipe became a present for my Grandpa, while Grandma got the box of chocolates.
“We opened one truffle candy bar, cut it in four (a piece for each one of us) and ate it… The plastic pipe became a present for my Grandpa, while Grandma got the box of chocolates.”
At the bottom of the box was a letter with the address of the couple who had packed the package and sent it to Poland. My father knew some basic German, so he translated the letter with the help of a dictionary and right away on the same evening wrote back. We received a few more packages over the following years, and finally Dagmar (the lady who was sending the packages) came to visit us in Poland to be an honorary guest during the First Communion of my sister Katarzyna.
During these times, despite the seeming difficulties, we never experienced true hunger. We were always blessed with some solution to challenging situations. I understand now from the perspective of decades that our faith had created an incredible foundation on which our family (as well as many others in Poland) could rely for daily perseverance. I was never scared of being hungry, since most people around us were more than willing to help others in time of need. My family still recalls Dagmar’s packages. We are still indebted to this generous German lady who literally created the most memorable Christmas for my family in the time of crisis. Later, I learned that she had similar beliefs to mine, and that it was her faith that led her to help others in need, even though she lived in a different country hundreds of kilometers away.
This experience taught me that the best gift, the most usable, the most practical, and the one that truly lasts “forever” (because it is for eternity) is the gift of faith. For me there is nothing that comes close to it. All of life activities depend on it. It is truly the “skeleton” to which all other dimensions of life are attached, and from which all other ideas and activities get their foundation and grounding. Today, I’m going to fill a paper bag with food, jars, and other boxes and take it to church this coming Sunday. There is a collection of items to be sent to people in need. Christmas is coming.
Piotr Ulmer established CTS Physical Therapy in 2001. A native of Warsaw, Poland, he received his Master of Rehabilitation degree from that city’s Academy of Sports in 1991. He formerly served as the director of an outpatient physical therapy clinic in Clarksville, TN and as a Sports Medicine Physical Therapist in Knoxville before starting CTS Physical Therapy.