My husband Elliot often reminisced about that day in 1959 when a new student showed up in his fourth grade class—wearing lederhosen. Peter’s family had just returned from a year’s stay in Germany, where his father had been a visiting professor. Intrigued, Elliot informed the boy they were going to be best friends. In fact, he did so even before discovering that the suspendered leather shorts weren’t the only souvenir brought from overseas. Peter also owned a rather spectacular set of Märklin trains.
Until mid-high school, when Peter’s father accepted a professorship on the West Coast, the two boys were always together, often around the train table. Elliot memorized every detail of the European locomotives, passenger cars, Alpine houses, and pantographs and determined early on to someday have a layout of his own. Peter even gave him an engine and a few cars to get started, and as an adult, Elliot did put together a modest set. But his friend’s was forever the gold standard.
In the early ’70s we got the devastating news that a quirky accident had claimed Peter’s life. Elliot stayed loosely in touch with the family until about eight years ago, when he decided to visit Peter’s elderly father to get some closure. For two days they shared memories and anecdotes, including, of course, stories about the trains. It turned out those Märklin boxes were never reopened after the move west, and they remained stashed in the attic of a nephew with other interests. Elliot offered to buy the trains if no one else wanted them, but nothing came of it … until last summer.
Shortly after Elliot received a grim cancer diagnosis, our daughter Jackie decided to see if she could somehow make her dad’s lifelong fantasy come true. I wasn’t privy to all the conspiring, online conversations, negotiations, and phone calls but was let in on the surprise once everything was planned—at which point I eagerly anticipated my husband’s reaction but agonized over whether the shipment would come in time.
Ten days before Elliot died, four cartons arrived—loaded with the dream he’d carried since childhood. As he opened each small cardboard box, the memories flooded in. Speechless, he scrutinized every engine and passenger car and carefully unwound T-shirts that had protected those familiar plastic buildings for 50 years.
We helped him spread everything out on the hospital nightstand, overbed table, and windowsill so he could take it all in. He never expected to see this boyhood hope fulfilled and was stunned by the lengths Jackie went to in making it happen.
Ordinarily outgoing and talkative, Elliot had trouble finding words to convey his profound delight but let us know he had just received his favorite gift ever. And when being moved to hospice a few days later, he insisted on bringing his prize locomotive, visible through the cellophane window of its original box.
Though intended for Elliot, Peter’s trains have actually become a gift to our entire family. Had it not been for Jackie’s jaw-dropping Märklin caper, the miniature railroad in my basement would probably be primarily a reminder of loss. Instead, it represents a remarkable shared experience, when three generations were in on a surprise and witnessed joy one last time in Poppi’s eyes.
Read “Present Perfect” by Sandy Feit to see how you too can find the perfect gift for your loved ones.
Photography provided by author