Nothing Bad Between Us author Marlena Fiol has written a new blog post where she looks back on the Christmases she spent in her birth country, Paraguay.
Like many of you, I will spend this holiday season at home, just Ed and I. The inability to travel or host guests has led to reminiscing about Christmas as a child in Paraguay. Below, you’ll find a post I wrote a few years ago about my memories of that time. I hope you find peace and joy this holiday season.
You’d think, since my family lived in Paraguay, South America, that our Christmas traditions would be Hispanic, including pan dulce (a vanilla bread sort of resembling fruit cake), Papá Noel and cotton on our Christmas tree to simulate snow during the hot summer month of December.
My parents were German Mennonite missionaries who founded a leprosy station in Paraguay the year I was born. And their supporting staff also consisted of Low-German Mennonites who were part of the clan that escaped from Stalinist Russia and established colonies in west Paraguay in the early 1930s.
So my memories are more German, more Mennonite and more missionary-ish than they are Paraguayan.
I Remember the Barrels
Every year MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) collected donations from Mennonites back in the States and shipped barrels full of wonderful stuff to our leprosy station — and to other missionaries around the world — for us to hand out to our patients and to other poor people at Christmastime.
I remember one Christmas in particular. The MCC barrels had arrived. They stood sealed and silent, taunting my nine-year-old curiosity when I periodically peeked into the warehouse where they were lined up. I was dying to know what was in them this year.
Finally, it was time to open the barrels. A few women had constructed three long tables in the warehouse with planks of wood supported by sawhorses. We stood in a semicircle, about ten of us, including my mother and me and station workers, as one of them pried open the mysterious containers from the north.
The lids fell open. I breathed in deeply, savoring that sweet fragrance I could always count on. At the time, it would have been hard for me to describe that United States smell. Today I know it as the distinctive new-clothes smell of U.S. department stores.
I hopped from one foot to the other. “Can I see what’s in this one?”
“Settle down, Marlena,” my mother said. “We can’t get into the other barrels until we’ve emptied this one with the towels.” She lifted out one large soft fluffy bath towel after another and handed them to us. I knew the drill. We used the towels as wrapping for other items we would place inside, and then we’d pin them up into neat packages.
I put each luxurious towel against my face and deeply breathed in the magical perfume before passing it along the assembly line we had formed. We folded them once, and then carefully placed them in rows along the makeshift tables.
Finally, Mom began to hand us items from the other barrels. Washcloths, soap, combs, bottles of shampoo, shaving cream, as well as small items of clothing and children’s toys.
“Oh, smell this soap,” I held the bar up to Marichen, a heavyset woman working beside me, her long braids wrapped like yellow garlands around her head. “It smells like flowers. If I got some soap like this, I would never use it. I’d just keep it right next to my bed where I could always smell it,” I added.
We stood at the long tables and sorted the items into separate piles. “Now remember,” my mother said, watching me hug item after item to my chest. It felt like the best candy store ever. “Remember, put only one toiletry item, one washcloth and one piece of clothing into each towel. We need to make almost a hundred towel packages this year.”
The towel packages went into big boxes marked “Women,” “Men,” “Boys” and “Girls.” We made packages for the leprosy patients, for neighboring Paraguayan families, and for the station volunteer workers and their families.
I Remember the Pfeffernüsse
I could smell the cinnamon and cloves and anise out on the veranda, even before entering the kitchen. I saw Mom standing over a large bowl, stirring the doughy mass, one side of her face spattered with flour.
I grinned, pinched a bit of the dough between two fingers and popped it into my mouth. “Can we start now?”
“Go get your brother and sister,” she said. “I think we’re ready.”
“Time for Pfeffernüsse,” I yelled out the open door. I couldn’t wait to get my hands into the dough.
“Can I please start rolling the dough?” I asked.
David and Mary Lou came through the door just as I finished rolling a large portion of dough into a long thin snake.
“Hey, no fair starting without us,” David said, grabbing the end of my snake and snapping it around until it broke into pieces.
“Mom, tell David to stop. He ruined my snake.” I pushed my brother aside.
“Stop fighting, children. Here’s your portion, David,” Mom said, handing him a big glob. Then she called my little sister. “Louie come here and we’ll work on making a snaky together.”
We rolled out our snakes, cut them into small pieces, ate lots of them, and then put what was left on cookie sheets to bake.
The aroma of our freshly baked Pfeffernüsse wafted out of the kitchen windows and door. Now our house finally smelled like Christmas.
Pfeffernüsse, which translates to peppernuts, are a popular Christmas treat in Germany, Denmark and The Netherlands, as well as among my German Mennonite people in Paraguay. They are small spice cookies about the size and shape of hazelnuts. We were always excited about making them together as a family, although I don’t remember my father ever being a part of it.
I Remember the “Tree”
Finally, it was the week before Christmas.
“It’s time to get our tree up,” Dad announced after his long morning prayer. Every Christmas season, he took a whole morning off from his important duties — treating leprosy patients and running the station — to help us put up the tree.
I squealed and jumped from my chair. “Can I help you cut down the branches?”
“Najo (roughly translated from Low German, this means “OK”). Come with me. You can choose which branches we should cut.”
Saw in hand, my father led the way into the fields, where small scrappy-looking pine trees were just starting to mature. He had explained to me many times that it was wrong to ever cut down any of those trees. But we could carefully trim off some of the branches. “That way the tree can continue to live,” he said.
We came back from the fields, our arms full of pine branches of various lengths. Years ago, Dad had drilled holes at an angle all the way up and down a wooden sawed-off broomstick, which we pulled out at Christmastime. The pole, attached to a platform of two crossedboards, stood about five feet tall. “Would you like to decide which branches are just the right length and start sticking them into the holes in the pole?” I thought maybe his eyes were smiling at me, and my heart did a little happy dance.
“Let’s do it together, you and me, Dad,” I said.
When we were done, our branches, inserted into each of the holes, more or less formed the shape of a five-foot Christmas tree. Dad and I stood back, pleased with our work.
“Beautiful,” Mom said, coming out onto the veranda where the tree stood. “Now let’s make some garlands.” She placed a large bowl of popped corn on the table. “Where are David and Mary Lou?”
While she rounded up my brother and sister, I started by threading a needle, and then slowly and carefully, so the corn wouldn’t split in half, pushing the needle through one piece of popped corn at a time.
“Mary Lou, can you hold the end up while I keep sliding more corn along the thread?” I asked. My little sister held onto the end and patiently waited until we had made a really long white strand.
“Schön, schön – pretty, pretty,” she said in her babyish German, clapping her hands together.
David started clipping little candleholders onto the tree’s branches. We didn’t have clip-holders to fasten the candles to the branches, like the kind you can purchase online today. But we made our own clip-holders with wire that we got from the station workshop. We snipped the wires into short segments and then wrapped them around the candle base and the tree branch.
“Mom, please, I know it’s not dark yet, but can I please, please light the candles? Just for a minute?” I was skipping around and around our tree, nearly bursting with the excitement of it all. We had the most beautiful and magical tree ever.
As I lit the candles, I heard my mother behind me, humming my favorite German Christmas carol, “O du fröhliche, o du selige, gnadenbringende Weihnachtszeit!” (Roughly translated: Oh you joyful, oh you blessed, merciful Christmastime!). I felt a great big wave of warmth spread through my chest.
I Remember One Special Christmas Eve
It was a hot summer night. At 7:00, I could still see the sun blazing in the western sky. The cicadas continued to sing all around me, competing with the chatter of the frogs and crickets.
I was alone on our veranda, pacing back and forth. What was taking them so long? We had taken our weekly shower and were dressed in our Sunday best. I wore a brand new red dress my mother had sewn for me.
Let’s all walk over together,” Mom said, straightening out the big light blue bow in Mary Lou’s curly blond hair.
The station workers and our family began the evening by serenading all of the leprosy patients, and bringing them towel packages and plates heaped high with Mom’s fudge, a popcorn ball and often an apple. When we arrived, the patients had already gathered around in a circle in an open courtyard. Some of them lay on the ground, others squatted and others stood when we arrived, offering us their stools or chairs. They weren’t dressed any differently, I noticed. They didn’t have any Sunday best.
Someone had already piled all of the towel packages on a nearby table. I helped carry one to each patient. “Feliz Navidad,” I said in their native Spanish, as I delivered each one. Doña Ramona’s face beamed as I helped her open the towel, and placed the items against her face so she could sense the beauty. She was blind.
“Feliz Navidad. Muchas gracias. Feliz Navidad.” It felt to me like the air around us vibrated, as the toothless, limbless, blind and crippled people in that circle showered their love on us.
We all held hands and together sang a few verses of Noche de Paz, Noche de Amor (Silent Night, Holy Night).
Then the really fun part started. I skipped all the way from the circle of leprosy patients to the main station building. Long tables draped in white cloths had been set up in the yard, laden with towel packages and treats. All of the station personnel, as well as Paraguayan families from the surrounding area, already had gathered around the tables and were curiously eyeing the treasures.
But I knew that first there would be lots of singing, and then those long, tedious prayers to get through. As the prayers droned on, I daydreamed about what might be in my towel package. I hoped I would get one of those sweet-smelling bars of soap.
Finally. My fingers shook with excitement as I undid the safety pins on my package. There it was. Wrapped in pink, with the words LUX Beauty-Soap across it and a picture of a pretty lady’s face. I held it in both hands and glanced up. My mother was watching me, smiling.
But Mostly, I Remember Christmas Morning
Early Christmas morning, before the 10:00 o’clock service with the leprosy patients, was all ours. Just our family. I barely slept the night before. I had placed the precious items from my towel package neatly beside my bed, and periodically reached over to bring the soft washcloth or the fragrant soap up against my face. Over and over, I imagined the magic the next morning would bring.
We kids sprang out of bed early and all lined up outside the living room door on our veranda, from the youngest closest to the door, to the oldest farthest away. We stood and waited. I could hardly stand still. Finally, we heard Mom starting to play Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht (Silent Night, Holy Night) on her portable pump organ in the living room.
“OK, jie tjenne nü nenn kohme– you can come in now,” Dad called out in Low German. On tiptoes, Mary Lou turned the round wooden doorknob and we all marched in. There it was, the big blue-topped dining room table, which usually stood on our veranda, in the center of the living room. Around the perimeter of the table, my parents had placed large plates, one for each of us, filled with candy, Pfeffernüsse, nuts and an apple. Apples were a big deal because they didn’t grow in Paraguay, so they were imported, usually from Argentina. We located our plate around the table, and waited while Mom and Dad finished singing the carol. I spotted the beautiful pen lying next to my apple, the exact pen I had wished for. Dad stood beside the organ and led the melody with his soaring tenor voice. Mom pumped both legs vigorously on the organ while harmonizing with her lilting alto.
As I think about those Christmas mornings, remembering us kids lining up outside the living room door, I realize that my excitement had less to do with the Pfeffernüsse, apple, or even the candies or gift I was about to receive. What I loved most was the sound of our parents singing that Christmas carol just for us. And the image of that scene most clearly etched in my memory is the radiant look on their faces when they watched us file into the living room.
In that moment, I felt loved. I felt special. I wished that was how it felt all the time.
A Mennonite Missionary’s Daughter Finds Healing in Her Brokenness
This story differs from similar accounts of childhood domination or abuse because it tells the story of the author’s seemingly paradoxical responses to the powerful forces in my life, but doesn’t leave it at that. It sheds light on the social and religious dynamics underlying these responses, giving readers insights into and understanding of her otherwise incomprehensible choices, as she found my way back into loving relationships with her parents and the Mennonite community.