Sim­ple Gifts

The aroma of fresh-baked bread was at the top of his Christ­mas list.


In the early 1900s, my grand­mother Marie Has­sel­busch and her sis­ter Lena trav­eled from Ger­many to the United States. They were two ad­ven­tur­ous and brave teens leav­ing their fam­ily be­hind for a brighter fu­ture. Once in Amer­ica, they started to build their lives in this coun­try. My grand­mother mar­ried Wil­liam Witte, who also came here from Ger­many. They had four daugh­ters and a son. My mother, Lil­lian, was the old­est child. My grand­fa­ther worked as a stair builder, and he con­structed a home from scratch on Chicago’s west side. They lived in that house for the rest of their lives. Their five chil­dren went on to have their own fam­i­lies, bless­ing Grandma and Grandpa with 21 grand­kids! I am the old­est, so I watched our huge fam­ily grow. My grand­mother in­sisted on giv­ing Christ­mas presents to ev­ery grand­child. On Christ­mas Eve you could hardly en­ter their bun­ga­low be­cause of all the pack­ages. They were not ex­pen­sive, but rather sim­ple gifts from the heart, such as gloves and crayons. Even so, once they be­gan hav­ing more and more grand­chil­dren, gift-giv­ing be­came a chal­lenge for Grandma and Grandpa. One year when I was a teenager, I told my grand­mother that I didn’t need a Christ­mas gift. But she in­sisted. So I told her, “Just give me a loaf of your bread.” When Grandma came over from Ger­many as a girl, she didn’t bring many pos­ses­sions with her—but she re­mem­bered how her mother baked bread. For as long as I can re­mem­ber, Grandma baked sev­eral loaves of bread al­most ev­ery week. You could tell when she was mak­ing bread by the tempt­ing aroma com­ing from the kitchen as you walked up to the house. She would set tins of dough in the be­d­rooms to rise. The aroma, and the sight of her mak­ing the bread, are things I will never for­get. She baked with wheat and white flour, and it was de­li­cious! Ev­ery year on Christ­mas Eve, Grandma and Grandpa sang an emo­tional “O Tannenbaum” in their na­tive Ger­man, and then we opened our presents. My gift that year was in­deed a loaf of my grand­mother’s bread. It was such a cher­ished part of her his­tory, and that made it so spe­cial to me.

Grandma’s bread was more pre­cious than any toy or treat.

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