A mother’s selfless love
(Based on information from a German newspaper article. This is how I envisioned the story happening…)
Large snowflakes planted themselves like kisses on the bundle a mother held in her arms. It was a hard winter that year of 1726 in Rustenfelde, Thuringen of central Germany. The mother was thankful she had swaddled her infant in a woolen blanket.
The woman willed her feet forward as she ambled along the cobblestones. The snow lay twinkling like Stern on the ground and was starting to accumulate, so she tread carefully. Her destination was the Catholic Kirche in the middle of the town. It was named after two strong disciples: Saints Peter and Paul, and she yearned for some of their strength at that moment. When the mother came to a large, stone wall she knew she was almost there. She pressed the child closer to her chest and trudged forward. Wiping a tear from her eye, she whispered to the sleeping babe, “I love you, mein Leibling. That is why I am doing this.”
Perched high on the church grounds, the young Mutter paused to take in the view and bide more time. The timber-framed homes in the village were constructed from wattle and daub and were topped with thatched roofs. Candles glowing in the windows gave a sense of warmth to the scene. Tufts of smoke rising from the chimnyes created a feeling of hominess, for which the mother craved. The farmlands and woodlands beyond were beautiful even at dusk. To her right, at the outskirts of town, she saw a deer family foraging in the wheat field near the treeline. On the distant mound, the castle called Rusteberg loomed like a protective fortress. This was where counts and knight crusaders often lived during the past 500 years. Hanstein Castle, granted to the Archbishop of Mainz in 1209, still sat atop the hill above the Werra River. “It will be a safe place,” she whispered to the baby.
The mother turned to face the impressive Kirche. All was calm, all was bright–except for her heart. Votives were lit witinin, near the altar. Seeing them pacified the mother.
Someone hustled on the road below. The woman lowered her head and put her cheek to the baby’s. When the man had passed them, she made sure nobody was around to see what she had to do out of love for her little Leibling. After one last embrace the mother tenderly placed the baby on the front step of Saints Peter and Paul and then knocked on the wooden door. Fleeing to an enclave nearby, she watched from the shadows. She felt like Miriam must have while serving as sentinel to the baby Moses adrift in his basket until his adoptive mother found him.
The young Mutter whispered to the Blessed Mother: “You were alone and frightened, too, weren’t you Mary? Will you wrap your shielding mantel around my baby and safeguard him, bitte? Just like you did the Christkindl?” The door was opened by a holy man. A light from inside the church poured onto the stoop illuminating the wrapped gift. An expression of surprise and joy crossed the priest’s face as he looked down. Bending, he picked up the Bundel; the child fit perfectly into the crook of his arm. He hastened outside and spent a moment looking around, but he didn’t see anyone. With his right hand, the man dusted away the white fluffs of Schnee which had collected upon the swaddling. The woman saw a smile on the priest’s face before he closed the door.
“Geh mit Gott, meine Engel,” the birthmother said from the shadows. “Go with God, my angel.”
The foundling is named
The priest brought the baby into the sanctuary of the church and unwrapped das Bundel. The infant was no bigger than a doll. He awoke, displaying luminous blue eyes for just a brief moment. Das kleiner Junge licked his lips and mewled. The man comforted the child and told him not to cry: “Hab keine Angst.”
There arose the question as to what he should call the baby boy. The holy man must have had a sense of humor, so he gave him a name that recalled how the child was covered with white Schnee on the church’s doorstep.
The priest decided to name the baby Schneemann (the surname of my husband’s family). We are told it is not a usual name in Germany–just as you wouldn’t find ‘Snowman’ used as a surname in this country.
Baby Schneemann is adopted
Eventually, the babe was adopted, but we do not know by whom. Perhaps the priest himself took the child in, or maybe he was raised by a couple living in the area of Rustenfelde. All we know is that he was christened Ambrosius Schneemann. He may have possibly been named after the 4th-century theologian and doctor of the Church, St. Ambrose. The name is Latin, taken from the Greek word “ambrosia” which is known as the food of the gods. It also has other meanings: “immortal,” “undying,” or “divine.” Maybe the child’s Christain name was chosen because the name-giver was challenged, as my husband and I were, by the question: What works with the last name ‘Schneeman’?
This baby was indeed created–as all babies are– from the breath of God. They are a blessings bestowed to mortals. Likewise, Ambrosius Schneemann’s birthmother was accessing God’s grace when she chose for her baby the gift of life. And wasn’t the newborn blessed because she did so? She could have left him in an unsafe place like the Werra River, a dark alley, a trash heap, the woods, or one of the nearby culverts, canals, channels or wells. But the desparate Mutti made two unselfish decisions: She willed her baby to live even though he was born in some sort of crisis, and she allowed another woman to call him “meine Sohn” through the gift of adoption. For he truly was a “treasure.”
And the first Baby Schneemann bestowed a gift to the world, too–which was his undying lineage.
All babies–planned and unplanned–are gifts, and deserve to live. Throughout Germany today, there are nearly 100 warm incubators built into hospital walls. They serve as “safe places” for mothers to leave children whom they wish to place anonymously for adoption. These “baby boxes” receive considerable public support because they save little ones from infanticide.
“They are a revival of the medieval ‘foundling wheels,’ where infants were left in revolving church doors. In recent years, there has been an increase in these contraptions –also called hatches, windows, or slots in some countries–and at least 11 European nations now have them [Germany has by far the most--Poland and The Czech Republic are next, and they have more than 40], according to United Nations figures.” (Associated Press, December of 2012)
Sadly, some human rights advocates think these boxes are bad for the children. That they avoid dealing with the problems that led the baby to be abandoned. But how, pray tell, can saving the life of the baby be a negative thing? Hundreds of babies in Europe have been placed in these boxes in the last 10 years. It is estimated that one or two infants are placed in each “safe place” every year.
According to the Associated Press article, Germany’s Health Ministry is considering other options. “We want to replace the necessity for the baby boxes by implementing a rule to allow women to give birth anonymously that will allow them to [place their] child for adoption,” said Christopher Steegmans for the ministry. (This sounds like our Safe Place for Newborns campaigne here in the States.)
Schneemann Baby’s ripples
In the summer of 1947, a couple named Wilma and Kurt Schneemann of Köln, Germany were married. A family tree fell into their hands. The newlyweds did some research in Rustenfelde and found the story of the Schneemann family beginnings in the church records there. “This child is the forefather of all Schneemanns” wrote a joyful relative to our cousin back in 1999 at Christmastime.
Ambrosius Schneemann obviously had had at least one child, and that child went on to produce more offspring. And so on, and so on, and so on. I like to think that Ambrosius’ birthmother continued to watch him from a distance. Maybe she also witnessed her grandchildren thriving. Today, many descendants are living in America, and the name was Americanized to ‘Schneeman.’ She’d be happy to know there are successful artists, musicians, students, architects, business managers, doctors, nurses, military leaders, teachers and lawyers, to name a few. One descendant went to Germany to play professional football in 2012, and some kin have returned as tourists; unable to resist the pull of their heritage.
Today, Rustenfelde has a population of about 500. Two Schneemanns sit on the city council under the Bürgermeister Ulrich Hesse.
What a ripple (er, snowball?) effect one baby–and one choice–can make in this Odyssey called Life. If we are open to God’s gifts, even during the Schneesturms (snowstorms) of our journey, He will give us so many graces in return.
Fröhliche Weihnachten! Merry Christmas!
(Danke to my Mutti, Cecelia MacDonald, for editing this blog. She also corrected my German and taught me that ALL nouns in the German language are capitalized. And a big Danke to the birthmother of that first Schneemann baby!)