Romeo and Strawberries
August 10, 2010
First an update. After considering all the votes and suggestions about what to name our new kid, err…kitten, boiling it down to Fritz, Spirit, and Purrsee, we decided on…Romeo. He is a true lover as well as his own little Joy Project, and I am therefore announcing that I have nothing else to seek or say, and so will be retiring to Maui (or, Meowi?) next week, just me and he. Oh yes, I guess Shelley can come too. I mean, I wake up each morning and there he is, happy to see me. What could be wrong with the world? All I want to do is pet him and scratch him — I’ve become a complete cataphiliac! More than this, I’m still struck by the miracle that he can be in my life at all as I had long ago defined myself as someone who could never live with such a creature.
Second, it’s summer so I figure it’s a good time for some summer reading. One of my favorite stories was told to me long ago by my friend, graphic artist David G. Klein. It’s a true tale he’d heard from a woman about her mother, who had lived in Vienna, about 1945.
The war in Europe was just over, and little 9 year old Edna was ill with some strange disease. No one knew what her symptoms meant — the splotches on her skin; the swollen, bleeding gums; her profound and growing weakness. And no one knew how to treat her, but everyone could plainly see she was growing worse by the day and at this rate she would soon be gone.
In desperation, the family, which had somehow, though Jewish, survived the war, called in a doctor. There were no Jewish doctors left in the city, and the Austrian man they’d contacted had at first protested he was too busy. But he eventually came and took time to examine Edna. After some silence, the doctor called the concerned members of her family into the next room to regretfully inform them that their beloved daughter was dying of a rare and incurable disease. There was nothing they could do, he was sorry to say, except to make her as comfortable as possible.
Though the family couldn’t bring themselves to tell her of what they’d just learned, Edna could see from their faces, and from her own worsening condition, that she hadn’t long to live. And her brother in particular, upon hearing this news about his younger, and favorite, sister, was broken hearted.
He stayed in her room talking with her that night, and told her that he’d be happy to do anything, anything at all for her.
The next morning, she awoke and when she saw him sleeping on the floor next to her, woke him up.
“If you really meant what you said last night, I would like you to do something for me.”
“Of course I mean it!”
“Strawberries. Get me strawberries!”
Her brother’s heart sank. “But you know we’ve had no strawberries here since before the war!”
“O.k. But you asked me if you could do anything. Last night I dreamt of eating strawberries. They were so delicious! I ate platefuls! They made me so happy! Right now it’s the only thing that I want.”
Her brother was distraught but also determined. Against the wishes of his parents, he decided to set out that day, vowing not to return until he found some strawberries for his dying sister. After searching the city for 2 days, he managed to procure several ripe pints on the black market, and rushed home.
When he got there, he didn’t know whether he’d find his sister dead or alive. She was going in and out of a coma, and was in a weak daze when she opened her eyes to see that her brother was there with her final request.
With difficulty, she managed to slowly chew and swallow a few of the softer, more overripe strawberries. And perhaps you can guess what happened next.
She somehow survived the night. And in the morning, refusing the tea and soup her mother offered, she would only eat more of the strawberries she craved. Edna slowly began to rally, and decades later, in the States, she would tell her children the story of how the doctor, probably a Nazi sympathizer, had neglected to inform her family that the disease the young girl was dying from was Scurvy.
And why do I love this story so much? I guess it’s because it’s about who — or more accurately, what — to trust.