What the “Ladies” Taught Me

“The Ladies” with my parents, my brother, and my grandparents

In the small village in Germany, where my family and I lived when I was fourteen, our neighbors, Herr and Frau Stoof, invited us over one afternoon for coffee and sweets. Frau Stoof also brewed a passion-fruit tea, just for me. She let me enjoy the whole pot – a beautiful carafe of German porcelain.

I drank cup after cup of the sweetened tea. Delicious.

I also think that Frau Stoof gave me tea because she knew I was the baby of the family. I was the young one, who wasn’t quite adult enough to handle the strains of good German brew. I wasn’t quite who I needed to be at her table; perhaps she was waiting for maturity in me to blossom.

When I was fifteen, my family moved up the road, to a two-story house, nestled in the center of the village, surrounded by three other house. Our new neighbors, Friedl and Gretl (sisters), invited me one afternoon to play cards with them and drink coffee. My brother, David, and I went together.

Friedl didn’t offer me a carafe of tea. She brewed thick, black coffee. The kind that runs down your throat, directly into your veins, like saline from an I.V., and spikes your hair at the ends.

I loved it.

Maybe it was because she didn’t question a 15-year-old drinking the stuff. She just poured me cup after cup without hesitation.

Suddenly, I was grown-up.

Included. Involved.

After a while, it became less about the coffee as a beverage, and more about what coffee represented in my life. This dark brew, which I always over-stuffed with sugar and cream, provided an opening for me to be myself, to be real, to be…vulnerable.

I referred to them in my journals simply as “the ladies.” They weren’t concerned about my weight, my acne, or my lack of maturity. They wanted me to deal their cards to them, eat their sweets, and listen to their stories of the time after World War II when life for Germans was rough and painful.

They gave me advice, like, “Women today change men like they change shirts, don’t do that!”, and “Getting old is cruel. Don’t do it!”, and “If you’re going to move on from hard times, you have to forget and forgive.

They asked me questions about who I was, what I wanted to do, and what interested me. They were curious about my background and education. They wanted to know all my hopes and dreams and secrets.

I relished those times, huddled in their kitchens. The world shrank to the size of a rough-hewn table, covered with a hand-stitched, embroidered cloth. The clock ticked slowly. The steam from the coffee floated over our pastries and playing cards.

These women loved me unconditionally. They held no private agenda in our times together. There was no topic off-limits. No discussion halted. No remarks unheeded. They expected nothing from me, except the truest version of me.

I can’t help but think these coffee times helped shape my ideals and values. When I think of preparing my home for a future child through foster care—perhaps even a teenager—I think the ladies would approve. After all, they certainly didn’t mind an awkward, socially-shy girl hanging around their houses.

They welcomed me with open arms.

Whether it’s over a cup tea or a mug of coffee or perhaps a pint of beer, I hope we can all learn to nurture a sense of belonging for the people around us. I hope we can learn to stop judging and start listening. I hope that we can right the wrongs and create brighter futures. There is much work to do. I see the needs in my community, my family, my nation, and my world. It is exhausting at times, and it is overwhelming at others. Some days, I’m not entirely sure what the next step is.

But then, I put on some coffee, think about “the ladies” with their hopeful eyes, their inquiring minds, and their strong opinions, and I make a list of things to do next.

One step at a time, I am determined to be a part of bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth. One person at a time, I will do my best to make them feel loved and valued and appreciated. I have “the ladies” to thank for these sentiments. I regret not a single caffeinated afternoon with them.

At the root of all their other pieces of advice and nuggets of truth they shared was this shining gem:

Everyone belongs.

Every. One.

So, to my “ladies”, I say a deep and heartfelt…

Thank you.

I hope I can make others feel as just as accepted as you made me feel.

I raise my steaming mug of coffee to you.

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