The Stranger in the Box

by Sara Etgen-Baker

I approached the door that led to my grandmother’s attic, and using the skeleton key she’d given me, I turned the lock and opened the door.  Not knowing what to expect, I hesitated momentarily but then 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 early 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 were 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 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. 

So, I sat down on the floor, and over the course of several hours, I rummaged through the boxes’ contents touching the stuff once used by the people I’d never known and peeking into their world.  I lifted the lid of an antique trinket box, unveiling a collection of vintage lace doilies, 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.  Although it was cracked and dried with age, it felt soft and delicate as I ran my fingers over its faded bindings.  The thin volume smelled faintly of lavender with an overlying hint of mustiness, and what remained of the book’s original stitching was barely holding it together.  I gingerly opened its cover, and a faint scrawl on the title page declared that the journal once belonged to Anna Mettner.  But who was Anna Mettner?  Hoping 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 that 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. 

So, I laid the journal aside and scoured through another box where I found the family Bible and what appeared to be 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 the photograph over hoping his name had been scrawled on the back, but the inscription on the back was faded, and the only word I could clearly identify was Grandpa. But Grandpa who?

I picked up the antique scrapbook and opened it, immersing myself in its brittle pages, searching for clues and 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 in Dorn, Germany, where he resided with his parents—poor, struggling farmers.  As Wilhelm matured, he became weary of the toil and strife and increasingly leery of the autocratic German government that both oppressed and persecuted its people.   In desperation, Wilhelm traveled to Bremen and joined the German Merchant Marines seeking 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 and round; it seemed like a circle of never-ending hope and magic, and the rhythmic rat-tat-rat-tuh of the Ferris wheel’s machinery was like a Siren’s irresistible song luring him ashore.  

He threw down his binoculars, removed his shoes, ran to the edge of the ship, and jumped into the 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. 

Against seemingly insurmountable odds, Wilhelm reached the shore.  When he did, he fell to his knees and hailed, “Danke, Gott!  Ich bin frei; ich bin ein Amerikaner!”  He passed out from exhaustion, and later that morning while combing the beach, 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, Texas, Wilhelm met Lyda Annabel (Anna) Mettner, a woman twelve 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 days of their first encounter, Wilhelm and Anna married.  During the course of their marriage, the couple had eight children—all born on U.S. 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, 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 passed away unexpectedly leaving him to raise their children on his own. 

A photograph of her funeral depicts a devastated Wilhelm standing beside her casket draped in forget-me-nots—his eyes glazed over, filled with the sheer nothingness that grief had brought to his soul.  But it is the epitaph inscribed on her gravestone that 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. 

As the day nears its end, my eyes flicker to a halt and a wave of tiredness washes over me.  Dusk has come sooner than expected, so I study the photograph of the dapper-looking, elderly gentleman—the stranger in the box.  The map of wrinkles on his face tells 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.  The sun is 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 a shade of gray. 

I stare into the photograph; his 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. 

About the Author

Sara’s love for words began when, as a young girl, her mother read the dictionary to her every night. A teacher’s unexpected whisper, “You’ve got writing talent,” ignited her writing desire. Although Sara ignored that whisper and pursued a different career, she eventually re-discovered her inner writer and recently began writing. Some of her manuscripts have been published in various anthologies and magazines including Chicken Soup for the Soul, Guideposts, My Heroic Journey, The Santa Claus Project, Finding Mr. Right, Wisdom Has a Voice, and Times They Were A Changing: Women Remember the 60s & 70s. She’s currently working on her first novel, Dillehay Crossing. When not writing, she enjoys spending her time with her husband, Bill.


A box of old photographs.