Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Perfect Gift: Lebkuchen

My late father-in-law was in all matters methodical and measured; no detail was too small for precision and consistency. This is typical of the German culture from which he fled as a young refugee. As a 20-year-old immigrant bereft of parents and lacking education, this attention to detail stood him in good stead as he gradually worked himself up from warehouse hand to bookkeeper to manager. When it was time for wife-shopping, he looked back to his home community and married a fellow refugee from the same city, now also a new American. The two steadfastly set forth to succeed. Victory would be reinstating the family’s status stolen from them by Nazi Germany. And succeed they did.

Early on in our married life, my mother-in-law – ever practical and not the slightest bit sentimental – suggested we forgo material gifts for the usual occasions. We happily agreed, and a highly regulated system was set in place. There were checks for us for birthdays and anniversaries, a phone call from them every Saturday evening, and in our salad days, a “mitbring”, a check left behind when they were our houseguests to cover any extra expenses they might have incurred. For big birthdays and anniversaries, we did give gifts, like their first computer, or a token gift when visiting. But by and large, it was a no-gift universe.

Eric’s one indulgence was sweets, particularly Bavarian treats from his youth. Up until Kristallnacht his childhood had been a happy one, and reminders of that time and place pleased him. His favorite treat was lebkuchen, a crumbly Christmas ginger and citron cookie with a paper-thin sugar wafer crust. Nurnberg is the heart of lebkuchen country, and each year Cousin Friedel from Nurnberg would send a gift tin of these treats. The tins themselves, embossed with scenes of Medieval Germany, are beautiful works of art, making the lebkuchen eating ritual even more delectable. He would enjoy a morsel of lebkuchen each day, daintily rewrapping the goodies and sealing them up, stretching out the experience for as many weeks as possible. Once I baked lebkuchen from a recipe I found, thinking it would warm his heart. He was polite about it, but let me know there was really no relationship between my offering and the genuine article.

Time passed and Eric retired, aged, and mellowed. A move to a Continuing Care Community coincided with a cancer diagnosis. For three years, he carefully followed a regiment of surgery, treatment, and chemo, but it was clearly a downward spiral. Friedel aged, too, and the lebkuchen stopped coming, a very sad state of affairs for my father-in-law. When we heard this, it occurred to me that in the 21st century, it should be possible to buy Nurnberger lebkuchen on the net. Ten minutes later I had located them not in Germany, but from the Texas German Deli, and two tins of them were on their way to California. Eric was quite tickled, and I was pleased that there was something we could actually send him that he was guaranteed to enjoy.

Last summer on one of our many visits during his last months, we reminisced about his surprise at receiving lebkuchen again. He allowed as that he had really enjoyed them, but they were not the best brand - the ultimate lebkuchen being Haeberlein-Metzger. My husband duly jotted this down, and a few months later we had the opportunity to send Eric the very best and he was still well enough to enjoy them, despite a decreased appetite. By then his world had become very small. Hospice nurses once or twice weekly, no more driving because of frailty and medications; his cronies had passed on. Each day there were four phone calls: each son, his brother, and his sister-in-law. Our daily conversations now included a lebkuchen report and how much he had enjoyed his daily portion. I never recall giving a gift with such staying power.

A few weeks later we learned the lebkuchen was gone. My father-in-law was clearly not going to be around next winter, so I figured – what the hell. I brought up the website and shipped off another two tins. A second batch of lebkuchen! This was unthinkable. But oh so much enjoyed. On our next visit a few weeks later, he was still doling it out each lunch and savoring each bite. When the subject came up he said, with alarm: “Don’t send any more!” And then he told us this second batch was even fresher and better than the first. The whole concept of a second shipment of lebkuchen was very unsettling for a methodical, measured man, but there was glee under his disapproval of our excess.

He stretched the lebkuchen out for three more weeks, each day weaker and in more pain. On January 22nd he ate the last of the lebkuchen and the following morning he awoke unable to move and in unbearable pain. He was transfered to the nursing facility, tended to by devoted hospice staff, and died a week later.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Betsy gives me a new way to look at money. I can't wait to read her next post and hear her written voice. SPK