The Stranger in the Box

Sara Etgen-Baker

Winner--2018 General Nonfiction

© Copyright 2018 by Sara Etgen-Baker

Photo of Grandpa Etgen.
Photo of Grandpa Etgen.

This is a true account of my experience years ago when I was given the key to my grandmother’s attic. I set about exploring her attic, curious about my family. I was not disappointed for her attic was a treasure trove waiting to be explored.

I approached the door leading into my grandmother’s attic. Using her skeleton key, I turned the lock; opened the door; and stepped inside, the floor creaking beneath my feet. I fumbled my way across the dimly-lit attic toward a nearby dormer window and wiped the grime from it, letting the morning light stream in.
I glanced around the room; cobwebs hung off the walls, their owners nowhere to be seen; and dust lay over every surface like dirty snow. Stacked all around me was a maze of broken furniture; forgotten toys and old board games; rolled up rugs, dirty paintings; sealed boxes; and idle suitcases—the abandoned odds and ends that had once been used and a part of the everyday life of the people who’d lived in the house below. But those people were dead and forgotten, like the relics they’d left behind. Even so, I was curious about them.

I sat down on the floor; and over the course of several hours, I rummaged through the boxes’ contents touching the stuff previously used by the people I’d never known and peeking into their world. I lifted off the lid of an antique trinket box unveiling a collection of vintage lace dollies, handwritten recipe cards, newspaper clippings, and some old stamps and letters postmarked from Germany.

I removed the lid from a crumbling, dilapidated shoebox and uncovered a small, red leather-bound journal, its original stitching barely holding it together. The thin volume smelt faintly of lavender with an overlying hint of mustiness; and although it was cracked and dried, it felt soft and delicate as I ran my fingers over its timeworn bindings. A dainty scrawl on the title page divulged that the journal once belonged to Anna Mettner. But who was Anna Mettner? Wanting to learn more about her, I turned through her journal’s flimsy pages; they were soft, pink and powdery under my fingers, like the papier-poudre my grandmother used to buy in booklets for taking the shine off her nose. But the faded scribbles and words on the pages made it almost impossible to decipher many details.

I laid the journal aside and scoured through another box where I found the family Bible; generations of birth and death certificates; a withered-looking scrapbook; and an envelope filled with an assortment of tattered black and white photos, many covered with dust and age. I thumbed through the fragile photographs, attracted to the picture of a dapper-looking, elderly gentleman. My eyes met his, and immediately our connection felt deep and enigmatic. I surveyed his serene but proud face.
His face was mapped with wrinkles; his forehead deeply grooved; his laugh lines too numerous to count; and his eyes—strong as boulders—were filled with kindness. I recognized those features, for they were the same ones I saw on my father’s face. But who was he, the stranger in the box? I turned over the photograph hoping his name had been scribbled on the back. But the inscription on the back was washed out, and the only word I could clearly make out was Grandpa. But Grandpa who? I immersed myself in the scrapbook’s brittle pages searching for answers. I scrutinized the journaling inscribed on each page and gently lifted each picture from its corner tabs, reading what was written on the back. By late afternoon, a story emerged about the man known as Grandpa.

Grandpa was Wilhelm Itchen, born outside Dorn, Germany, where he lived with his parents—poor struggling farmers. As Wilhelm matured, he grew weary of the toil and strife. So, he traveled to Bremen and joined the Merchant Marines hoping to find a better life on the high seas. By happenstance during one of his tours, his ship anchored in the Gulf of Mexico, just outside Galveston Bay. While standing watch on the main deck, the young sailor heard faint music and laughter coming from just beyond the shoreline. He grabbed his binoculars, focusing them on a huge rotating wheel that lit up the night sky with all sorts of bright colors. He watched it circle round n’ round; and the rhythmic rat-tat-rat-tuh of the Ferris wheel’s machinery was like a siren’s irresistible song luring him ashore.

Wilhelm threw down his binoculars; removed his shoes; ran to the edge of the ship; and jumped into the cold, murky water—risking life and limb and forsaking his native country. He swam toward the shore with only his faith and the distant city lights to guide him. His muscles cramped, and he feared he’d die before making it ashore. But Wilhelm reached the shore where he fell to his knees and hailed, “Danke, Gott! Jetz bin ich ein Amerikaner!” He passed out from exhaustion, and the next morning a young couple discovered him—weak and emaciated with nothing but the wet clothes on his back. They took Wilhelm into their home, caring for him until he regained his strength. He left Galveston and migrated throughout Texas, often working 12-hour days in cotton fields.

Just outside New Braunfels, Wilhelm met Anna Mettner, a woman 12 years his junior, and instantly fell in love with her.

Love, he wrote in a letter to her, “you are the sky and the clouds; you are the gentle river and the birds that sing. You are laughter and hope. You are the one I love, and the one I want to share my life with. I knew that the moment we met. I could never wish to go back to even a day before that. You are the greatest treasure of my life. You are the one, the only one.”

 Within weeks of their first encounter, Wilhelm and Anna married. During the course of their marriage, the couple had eight children—all born on US soil—sealing their fate and the fortune of generations to follow as citizens of this country. After World War I, Wilhelm moved his family to Dallas, Texas, where he worked as a railroad conductor; obtained his citizenship; and Americanized his name changing it to William Etgen. But in 1912, his beloved Anna unexpectedly passed away leaving him to raise their children on his own.

A photograph taken at Anna’s funeral depicts a devastated Wilhelm standing beside her casket draped in forget-me-nots—his eyes glazed over, filled with the shear nothingness that grief had brought to his soul. The epitaph engraved on her headstone touches me the most. It succinctly expresses his pain in letting his dear Anna go while revealing his faith, strength, and courage. The inscription reads, “It was hard indeed to part with thee. But Christ’s strong arm supported me.” Grandpa never remarries; and in 1939, some twenty-seven years later, he joins his beloved Anna after having lived the life many immigrants dream of having.

A wave of tiredness washes over my, and my eyes flicker to a halt. I study the photograph of the dapper-looking, elderly gentleman—the stranger in the box. The map of wrinkles on his face tell the tale of his incredibly fearless journey as he jumped ship, forsaking his homeland just for the chance of a better life in America. His laugh lines tell the tale of his joy in becoming an American citizen; in seeing his children and grandchildren born in America; and in experiencing their laughter, warm smiles, and affection. The deep grooves on his forehead tell the tale of his tenacity and resolve in facing life’s trials, tribulations, and tragedies.

I close the scrapbook and glance out the dormer window; dusk has come sooner than expected. The sun is slowly dipping behind the horizon, the last of the sun’s rays cosseted behind a dove gray cloud tinged with a subtle hint of purple. The neighborhood outside looks like the old photograph in my hand, everything thing a shade of gray.

I stare into the photograph; Grandpa’s gaze, undimmed by time, meets mine. I feel his love for me and sense a plaited link exists between us—one that goes beyond time, our bloodline, and our shared genealogy. As the light inside the attic begins to fade, I close my eyes, quietly thanking my great grandfather for my own existence; and I’m comforted knowing that he silently dwells in the attic of my soul giving me strength and an indelible, timeless connection to my ancestors and my past.

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