Gerda emerged from the trees near Stuttgart because she heard a woman singing a song she recognized. The woman was one of several nuns gathering vegetables, and these nuns held Gerda at arm's length, noted her light skin, and took her in. Gerda's mother had been raped by a Dane who had escaped the occupation. Like most war babies, Gerda was not acknowledged by her peasant mother's family, but could often rely on the benevolence of the nearest church because of her fair coloring.
This is all Gerda knows about ending up in an orphanage. She is not even certain she had a name before the nuns began calling her Gerda, protector of gardens. It was a loving and caring place but there was a lot of physical labor to be done. The children all earned their keep. When Gerda was five years old she was switched from folding laundry to working in the kitchen peeling potatoes and cracking eggs. The nuns taught her to use her finger to wipe the inside of each egg shell. If one cracks a dozen eggs into an institutional-sized bowl one will have a dozen eggs ready to be scrambled, cooked, and served to twelve children. But if one wipes the slimy insides of each egg into the bowl with one's finger then the cook receives the equivalent of thirteen eggs. The 13th egg means one more child will be fed. The 13th egg must be chosen deliberately, like a lucky orphan. It takes care and attention to choose thirteen eggs. One must be patient and reach just a little farther.
Gerda was taught to choose the 13th egg. She leaned over the big bowl every day, choosing the 13th egg again and again. She went through ten dozen eggs every day. Every child would receive precisely one egg per day. Because of Gerda, a simple orphan, more than 120 children were fed breakfast. It was, in fact, 130 children. Children who otherwise might have no breakfast at all.
One day as Gerda was cracking and wiping the eggs, a woman came in to adopt a child. “In those days,” my mother says with a sanctimonious air, “women who longed for a child but were single did not go to a sperm bank or a man. They went to an orphanage.” The woman looking for a child saw many clean, hard-working children but her gaze fastened on a child who obediently wiped every egg shell in the preparation of thirteen eggs. The woman chose Gerda. In the twinkle of an eye, the life of this WWII orphan was changed forever.
I could tell you she grew up with a loving mother and no father, that she survived WWII in Germany, that she married an American serviceman with whom she had three children, that he became a businessman in Oklahoma and arranged for the indomitable oma to join their household in Oklahoma City, so that when he worked in the Murrah building and survived the Oklahoma City bombing only to be killed by a heart attack a year later, the woman who chose her in Stuttgart was by her side. But what I really want to tell you is that Gerda chose. She chose to look at a dozen eggs and see thirteen, and because of this choice she was chosen many times in return.
I am not writing Gerda's story; only she can do that. I am writing in obedience to my calling and teaching. I am choosing the wonder that is thirteen eggs. I am grateful that sometimes stories take twists which make them stranger than, well, fiction. I am grateful that sometimes children are obedient and good. I am especially grateful to know that sometimes good things happen to good people, and sometimes bad things happen to good people, and that we can all choose to see thirteen eggs in a one-dozen carton. Choosing to see thirteen eggs is sometimes hard, but by doing so we draw people into our lives.
Choice is a duty. And it is lovely to be chosen. Maybe your grandmother chose you to pick out the first quilt. Maybe your lover chose you for the first wild dance. Maybe your parents chose you as their last child. Have you chosen a teacher who will show you thirteen eggs in place of a dozen? There is a person right now who is waiting to be chosen in order to teach you something you need to know.