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Robert Hively-Johnson: An uncommon box — of happy |

Robert Hively-Johnson: An uncommon box — of happy

Ida Gerke (“pronounced “GERK-eee) was a mid-60s widowed Jewish grandmother. Tiny, just under 5-feet, always “chipper.” Her ebullience radiated from her neatly bunned hair to the quiet politeness and manners most of society once practiced. Ida was, quite literally, sunshine in a gray housedress.

Mrs. Gerke lived above a Chicago “currency exchange,” on the second floor of a three-floor walk-up. Her home was a single furnished room. A small kitchenette faced two large doors that hid a Murphy bed, small dresser and closet.


If Mrs. Gerke had a peculiarity, it was that she always wore a long-sleeved dress, summer or winter. And, though alone, Ida Gerke was one of the kindest, friendliest persons this shameful, roustabout dodger has ever been privileged to know. Let me now sow her tribute, a tale I should have sown long ago.

One warm spring Sunday Mom needed sugar and tasked me to ask Mrs. Gerke if she had enough to spare a cup.

When Mrs. Gerke opened her door, she wore too-large, long rubber gloves so popular then. (Rubber was scarce during the war, so families and housekeepers used these novel gloves for just about any wet job.)

I had interrupted Ida’s spring window washing and had caught her off-guard, for she was wearing a short sleeved house-dress. Warm yes, but too early for fans and open windows. Air conditioning, so common nowadays, was a novelty limited to theaters and taverns.

Mrs. Gerke had to remove the long gloves to find her sugar and fill the measuring cup I held. She began to remove her gloves. I noticed the largish, ragged numbers scrawled along her usually covered left forearm, as she accepted the measuring cup. She filled it and with a smile and a pat on the arm said to say “hello” to Mom.. I thanked her and took the sugar to Mom, puzzling over the numbers on Ida’s arm.

Years later, days before Ginger and I were to be married, Mom gave me a large-ish cardboard box. It had fancy wrap stretched from one base end, across the top, and down the other side, exactly as wide as the box. The wrap was fastened by Scotch Tape; the sides were bare cardboard. This box contained Ida Gerke’s wedding gift.

I took the weighty box to Ginger’s place, where we were accumulating sent wedding gifts. We placed Ida’s box beneath the dining room table. The box was not only heavy, it stood apart among more elegantly wrapped gifts.

Mom told me that Ida’s box contained a Currier and Ives blue china set for eight—eight dinner plates, smaller plates, cereal, salad and soup bowls, cups and saucers; plus butter dish with cover, sugar bowl, cream pitcher and salt-and-pepper shakers. Each was individually wrapped and nested.

A chain grocery store occupied the corner one block north of Ida’s place. Kroger had been offering pieces of china dinnerware as purchase incentives.

Imagine trudging down many stairs, crossing a busy street to walk the block to the grocery, shopping around to find and match needed pieces to the coins in a small coin-purse, paying for the items, then returning to climb the creaking stairs.

Ida then carefully wrapped each piece in salvaged newspaper. Each trip negotiating the stairs, dragging her grocery cart; checking, wrapping and storing the collection — for a year.

Opening the box, we smiled. It was subtle but very apparent that Ida’s giving was love; patiently assembled by the piece — like love arises in life.

When we removed the wrapping, “The Littlest Angel” (Loretta Young—Victor Young recording) came to mind — A child-angel unselfishly gave the things he loved most, as gift to a newborn son of a god he did not know. “The Littlest Angel’s” gift “arched the firmament” to become the guiding-star of Bethlehem myth.

Ida Gerke had given young lovers a box of love that still grows, piece by-carefully wrapped-piece.

The Ida Gerkes of the world glow within us. Love is our hidden star-shine. Let it out. It’s there.

Love is a “Now.” Love is being; and being is the heaven, the happiness too many seek elsewhere.

Seek Ida’s happy box. Bring the happiness of holiday seasons — joy — to every day.

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