January 17, 2019

A Debt of Gratitude

To mark Thanksgiving, the Journal asked some of its staff members and others to recall people in their lives to whom they are grateful.

Five years ago, I worked in Uganda as a Global Health Fellow. I met a 12-year-old named Conrad when I went out with my Frisbee after work one day.

I came to learn that “Connie” experienced friendships with an open, trusting heart. He asked after my family with great sincerity. He appreciated my being in his life, but more so, appreciated everything in his life, bearing hardships with grace and shamelessly admitting his fears, hopes and cares. He was guileless in his emotions. Once he admitted that he was hungry and it was hard to concentrate.

By that time, I was in New York, trying a three-day cleanse, intentionally limiting my food intake.

Yes, I’ve learned a lot from Connie.

We Skyped last week, just after he celebrated his 18th birthday. He soon will take his final school exams, and, he hopes, begin college next fall. I am grateful to have had the privilege these years of being in his life, cheering him on for his next steps, but more grateful for him being in mine, unknowingly teaching me how to be a better person.

Nedra Hoffman

Whenever I bake a chocolate cake, it’s in honor of my friend Doly, who lost her battle with cancer a few years ago. I make sure to put candy hearts all over it because Doly always served me chocolate cake when I visited and her friendship got me through some of my hardest years.  Doly hated baking and was of the belief that “true talent lies in knowing how to buy well.” And she did. In the first year after she died, if the cakes I baked were true to the way I felt, all the little hearts on them would have been broken. Now, all that remains are my memories of her and my gratitude that she was in my life, even all too briefly.

Yamit Wood, Food Editor

When I was a little girl, visits to my Aunty Gwen on the summer holidays were a highlight. She was the wife of my uncle and she was warm and welcoming. We did things like decorating a cake and making furniture for her period-decorated dollhouses. When I grew up and traveled, she sent me letters full of family news that kept me connected to my cousins. She was the hub of the family, keeping everyone informed and connected. I am so grateful that my family had such a center. She is one of my “special people.”

Naomi Brewster, New Zealander living in Australia

I lived with my aunt while my husband was in Vietnam. Florence asked me to help her prepare dinner for very special guests. The doorbell rang. Two wrinkled people shuffled in, Ruth and David. Her hair was gray, and his was gone. They were Holocaust survivors. Ruth said she never sat at table without wondering whether her family was alive somewhere, and whether they had food and a place to sleep. As she revealed her faded tattoo, I realized how much I took for granted. I looked at my life differently from that day on, with gratitude.

Sharon D. Walling

I was driving in Southern New Jersey when I realized I was lost. It was a time before Facebook and Twitter, and my Nokia 5160 had run out of juice. I tried to find a gas station — which is how lost people used to get directions before GPS — but the best I found was a random New Jersey diner. I had barely asked, “Where am I, exactly?” when I spied a group of people I knew from Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. As I laugh-cried in relief, they told me where I was and how to get to where I was going. Years later, I realized that Ramah was my first social network, my first lesson about the value of a wider network: how in unknown places, finding the familiar can seem like a miracle.

Esther D. Kustanowitz, Contributing Writer

It was on April 20, 1939 — Adolf Hitler’s 50th birthday — that my mother, sister and I left Berlin to find refuge in the United States.

At the Tempelhof Airport’s customs office stood a stern-looking man, in uniform and wearing a swastika armband. Behind him, a sign warned that no departing passenger was allowed to leave with more than 10 German marks — about $4 at the time.

Trained from boyhood to obey all official regulations, I fished in my pocket and, nestled next to a 10-mark bill, found a 10-pfennig coin, worth about 2 1/2 cents. Dutifully, I turned over the coin to the customs official.

He looked at me soberly, while I feared the worst, then returned the coin and wished me a good trip.

The incident has stuck in my mind for close to 80 years as a sign of hope and gratitude that in the worst of times, and under the most fearful uniform, there may yet lurk a human heart.

Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor