“When you reap your harvest in your field and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow, in order that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. “When you beat your olive tree, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow. “When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not go over it again; it shall be for the alien, for the orphan, and for the widow. – Deuteronomy 24:19-21
Lydia has been a long-time gleaner with Edmonds Lutheran Church. She has a deep-seated conviction that comes from childhood memories of gleaning under the cover of night. Not even old enough to enter school, she spent her nights sneaking into a neighboring field, being mindful to keep hidden from farmers and landowners, fumbling in the blinding darkness, digging through the earth for a single potato or whatever she might find to eat. “It was a very happy day when I could come home with two or three small potatoes. My father was off fighting in the war. We didn’t even know where he was, perhaps in Russia, maybe Germany. My mother was left alone to raise my sister and I. When we each had our own potato, it was a feast.” I remember my mother weeping when she would help me get dressed or help me bathe, she would poke at my protruding ribs and she would whisper, “my daughter is starving”. I tried my best to comfort her. I would often lie to her, saying “mom, don’t worry, I ate lunch at the neighbors” or “so and so gave me an apple”. I thought I was being so clever, but my mother knew better. She knew that all our neighbors were nearly starving too.”
Growing up in Munich, Germany in the early 1940’s, worrying about where your next meal would come from was far too common. Lydia was only 2 years old when World War II commenced, and with it, the disappearance of almost every commodity needed to sustain human life. Memories of standing in long queues for a ration of oil or milk, memories of passing time and holding her breath in underground shelters while US bombs ravaged her home; those memories bring her back each week to serve, to make sure that precious food is not wasted and that no one leaves the church hungry. “My mother was venturing outside of town to a farther field, hoping to find food. She got on her bicycle, which was the only transportation we had. As she pedaled down the road, a large lorry passed by, she grabbed the back of the lorry and let it tow her quickly down the road. When the driver saw her, he became enraged, he pressed on the gas and began swerving back and forth, accelerating higher and higher, until she could no longer hold on, she went flying off her bicycle and crashed into the bushes on the side of the road. A kind-hearted stranger found her later on, battered and bruised, lying in the bushes, he carried her home. We were so lucky that she survived. So many years later as I recall these things, I am amazed at the risks she took to make sure we had food to eat.
Munich was badly wounded, but as the war settled, American GI’s began filling the streets. Passing out chewing gum and waving at passers-by and smiling to the children. A young American soldier passed by as my mother was scrubbing our clothes in a bucket on the sidewalk. He didn’t speak German and she, no English. But with a little sign-language we agreed that in exchange for my mom washing his laundry, he would bring us food. The trade was not for money. Money was useless. What’s the purpose of having money when the stores are either in a heap or rubble or all their shelves are bare? So once a week, this nice young man would bring his bag of laundry for my mom and in exchange, he would give her a cake of “Palmolive” soap, bananas and oranges, which we had never seen before. He also brought “Hersheys” chocolate. When he gave us the first piece, I was very perplexed. I had never seen chocolate, it was brown and ugly and I didn’t want it. But when my mother said “Lydia, just put a little piece on your tongue to taste,” I couldn’t believe it! It was wonderful, the most amazing treat!
These childhood memories, while painful, taught us some of the most profound life lessons that simply cannot be learned from a book. Hunger in your belly is like a war. Food, like safety and security is a basic human right.