A Gift to Remeber
It was more
than choosing a gift.
It was choosing a way of life.
by Mary Higgins Clark
There was a december chill in the air when I pulled out of the driveway of our Short Hills home early this afternoon, but my daughter, Kathy, will be thirteen soon, and I wanted to shop for her birthday.
A maxi coat, I thought as I headed for the Milburn shopping center, and sweaters and records. But when I finished with the list, I hesitated at the toiletries counter of our suburban Lord and Taylor. Kathy has begun to peer into the mirror with anxious appraisal, and I decided to encourage this budding femininity.
When I explained what I wanted to the salesgirl, she asked, "How about perfumed soap? There's something quite special about it to a young girl."
I took the gaily decorated box she held out, and even before I looked, I knew that the soap had to be pine scented.
It was strangely quiet when I got home, and I remembered that Kathy's team had a basketball game and the twins, Christopher and Robbie, were planning to see it. I went into the living room, sat down in the wing chair by the fireplace, and opened the box of soap. I ran my fingers over the smooth, oval shapes and inhaled the cool, dry pine odor, and the years began to slip away. My early-American living room, with its carpeting, handsome furniture, and good prints, became a smaller room with rough-plaster walls, white lace curtains, and a frayed Persian rug. I was in the Pelham Parkway section of the Bronx. It was Christmas Eve 1940 and my thirteenth birthday.
I began that day with a hard, hurting lump in my throat. An unfamiliar cloud of anxiety had been hovering over our house for two weeks. Until then, my life had been completely untroubled. My brother and I were born very late in our parents' lives, he first and I eleven months later. Perhaps our serenity was based on their joy in each other and in us.
Yet oddly, I never could take my life for granted. I literally rejoiced in each day, but from earliest memory there was a tiny lick of fear in my mind that someday it would all be gone. Like Adam and Eve, who found the gates of Eden locked behind them, or the ancient mariners who feared that someday they might sail over the edge of a flat earth into nothingness, so my secret fear was that once the pattern of our life was disturbed, it would be forever lost.
Perhaps it was the knowledge that my parents were the age of my friends' grandparents—memories of school assemblies: Let us pray for the repose of the soul of John's grandmother or Susan's grandfather or Peter's or Sharon's—that made me so wary of looking ahead.
When I slowly dressed on that thirteenth birthday, it was with the knowledge that the changes I had feared had begun. My brother, Chris, was critically ill in the hospital. He had an infection in his hipbone, and the doctors, after trying everything, even an untested new remedy called sulfa drugs, had concluded that the only way to save his life was to operate and remove his hiobone. If the new specialist who was coming in that morning agreed, they wanted permission for the operation.
I dreaded going downstairs and facing the worry that had become a part of my parents' expressions. I didn't want to hear their discussions over the potential decision. I sensed that soon they would ask what I thought, and I knew that when they did, I was going to be desperately unfair to Chris.
When I went out into the upstairs hall, I began to hurry, averting my eyes as I passed Chris's room. The fact that we clashed loudly and frequently—"Moira, you and your silly friends keep out of my room." "You think you're such a big shot just because you're in high school, Chris, well you're not"—didn't prevent us from being very close. Chris was a born leader in studies, in athletics, in everything he did, and I secretly gloried in my title of "Chris Kilmartin's kid sister."
My mother and father were in the dining room and had nearly finished their coffee. A half-grapefruit and slices of toast were untouched in front of them. My father got up when he saw me and pulled out my chair. He even tried to smile when he said, "If it isn't our birthday girl."
I held myself rigid as I sat down and stared straight into my napkin holder. I wanted to say, "Let's postpone my birthday. We'll celebrate when Chris gets better." But I couldn't say that, because I didn't believe it. Instead I said, "Please, don't!"
The touch of a smile my father had managed vanished. He sat heavily in his own place, and I saw that his face had deep, new lines. His handsome silver hair seemed lifeless and drab, and his usually erect shoulders sagged. He had an unnaturally neat look. Even his tie was impeccably knotted. Years later, I realized that he must have spent agonizing minutes achieving that perfect knot and that he was probably trying to escape his great problem by inventing small challenges.
If extreme worry had made my usually unpressed parent neat, it had affected my mother differently. Her gray-white hair, normally drawn back in a smooth chignon, was simply twisted into a bun, and she ran her hand back over it frequently to catch the tiny wisps that slipped away from the large hairpins. I guess that, of the two, her torment was the greater then. My father had made up his mind.
If the new specialist could save Chris's life by operating, then let it be done. Hadn't Chris led his class all eight years through grammar school? Wasn't he a freshman in Fordham Prep on a full scholarship? Even though he would be crippled, still, through his intelligence, he could achieve.
"He has a gift for words," my father concluded, as he absently crumbled the uneaten toast. "He could be a great writer without ever leaving a wheelchair."
I noticed that my mother's hand trembled as she poured more coffee in her cup. "Chris is every bit as much athlete as he is student," she insisted. "Isn't it better to risk his life than to destroy him?"
She looked at me appealingly, and I turned quickly away. I knew that she was right. Chris would want a chance to be completely well. Why, he was so good at baseball that when the college boys were home on vacation, they asked him to play in their games.
My father got up abruptly. "Let's get over to the hospital," he said. "Maybe that new specialist won't even recommend the operation." He looked at me. "Mrs. Robinson rang the bell before. She wants you to stay with them today."
"No," I protested quickly. "Can't I just be here? I'll tidy the sign up." That statement brought a near smile to my father's lips, and I rushed on, "I'll . . . I'll put up the Christmas tree." We'd bought one, but it was still just trussed up in the living room.
"You couldn't do that alone," my father said. "Wait till I get back."
After they'd gone, I did the dishes and made the beds. I loved every inch of our home and considered even the ve-lour chairs by the fireplace handsome. My father used to tease me about my taste. "I'm surprised that at your age, you're not wishing for a castle or a mansion."
I wandered into the living room and tried to forget the Christmas tree that was leaning at a precarious angle against the fireplace wall, but it was impossible to ignore it.
IF EVERYTHING hadn't gone so wrong, we'd be getting ready to trim the tree now. Daddy would send Chris to the basement for the stand, but despite all his efforts, the tree would have a slight list—no carpenter, he could never nail the trunk in the stand properly. Then the lights would be strung, but despite all the new bulbs my mother would have bought, at least one set never worked properly. No electrician, my father could never fix a short.
Even though it was still trussed up, the tree looked full and plump, and I remembered the year that, after the ropes had been cut and the branches spread, we'd found ourselves gazing at a straggly, uneven pine. Daddy had muttered that he'd succeeded in purchasing the only cactus plant on offer in the Bronx.
It was then that I realized that we would be missing the choral singing ceremony. Every year, the Bronx Heights Improvement Association put up a community tree. At twilight on Christmas Eve, the tree was lit by Mr. Mullen, the president of the association. Then we had choral singing, and the program was wound up by Mr. Sweeney dressed as Santa Claus. Every year, he'd come around the block yelling "Ho! Ho! Ho!" as though he had invented the words. Then he'd pass out the hard, cinnamony candy that none of us much liked but would have been disappointed not to receive.
Resolutely I tried to forget about the tree and the choral singing and the broken pattern of all our Christmas Eves. I wandered over to the window, pulled back the curtain, and looked out. I was amazed to see Mrs. Carlson, who lived across the street, stringing lights on one of the evergreens by her stoop. Her little daughter, Penny, was there watching her.
How could she, I wondered as Mrs. Carlson reached down and took a bulb from her daughter. Penny was about the cutest little girl I'd ever seen. She was three then and had blue, blue eyes and long, dark hair. She was the image of her father. Everyone said so, but they didn't say it to Mrs. Carlson anymore.
Mrs. Carlson was tiny and not really pretty, but when she smiled, her large, gray eyes glowed and her teeth were so even and white that you wanted to keep looking at her. Whenever she used to even glance at her husband, she got such a warm, happy look that it made me feel funny just seeing it.
He was an actor, and my mother's friend, Mrs. Robinson, used to say that his wife had certainly landed in a tub of butter when she caught him. "If she can just hold him," Mrs. Robinson would add ominously, "a grand-looking fellow like that and a bite-size thing like her."
Mrs. Carlson finished putting the lights up, and she and Penny went into the house. I remembered that last year, on my twelfth birthday, we stood with the Carlsons at the choral singing and she said, "Happy birthday, Moira, and a blessed and happy year."
It certainly hadn't been any blessed or happy year for her. Mr. Carlson had been offered a movie contract in the spring, and he hadn't taken her to Hollywood with him. Not that Mrs. Carlson acted any differently. She never once mentioned her husband, and Mrs. Robinson said it reminded her of when her own first husband had died. She cried every night in her bed for him, but during the day she was so gay that her friends called her the merry widow.
I turned away from the window. Surely, surely, the decision about the operation had been reached. Determinedly, I picked up a book and curled on the couch, but I guess I dozed, because it felt as though a long time had passed before I heard the door open and my mother come in.
She was very pale and walked stiffly like someone who is afraid of falling. I started to ask about Chris, but the question died on my lips.
"The new specialist agrees that the operation is necessary," she said, and her voice was a monotone. "He even told us that we'd be responsible for Chris's death if we don't allow it. Daddy wanted to sign the permit right then and there, but I asked for a little more time."
There was a knot in my throat that choked me so that I could barely speak. "Did all the doctors want the operation?"
Mother shook her head. "There was just one who didn't agree. He said that if it were his son, he'd give the new drugs a chance. He said that if the operation is performed, Chris will be crippled unnecessarily. And somehow I believe him. But the other doctors say if we wait much longer, it will be too late to operate." She stared right through me. "Dear God, what should we do?" she whispered.
I got up quickly. "I'll make some tea for you." I wanted to shout, "Let them operate. Let them save Chris's life."
When I came back with the tea, my mother sipped it slowly and then said, "Moira, we're so much older. You and Chris have your lives before you. Do you know what Chris would want?"
Of course I knew, and I made a silent bargain with my conscience. If I would not speak for Chris, neither would I speak for myself. But I couldn't help thinking of how Chris and I had gone ice-skating a few weeks before. I was wobbly and unsteady, and Chris crossed hands with me and pulled me soaring across the ice. "Thrust, glide," he instructed and laughed exuberantly. "Isn't this great?"
Then I said, "Oh, no!"
Mother looked up quickly. "I forgot," I told her. "I have to change Chris's present. Remember I got a hockey stick for him?" Mother had been with me, and she waited while I discussed with the proprietor of the sports store whether to get the medium or full-size stick. When We established that my brother wasn't too tall now but would probably take a spurt because my father was tall, the proprietor suggested that I get the medium-size stick now and the full-size one next year.
"What are you changing it for?" Mother asked quietly.
"I don't know," I answered. "But after the operation, Chris won't need a hockey stick. Maybe if I get a chess game, we could learn to play it together."
Too late, I realized what I'd done. Mother had come home hoping that I, who so understood Chris, would back up her own judgment, and I had plainly shown my feelings.
She sighed, but her voice was almost brisk when she said, "Perhaps you and Daddy are right. Chess requires a good mind, and we know Chris has that." She pulled on her gloves. "Daddy feels that a good mind can overcome a handicapped body."
After she left, I got the hockey stick and started out for the sports store. It was nearly dusk, and one by one the neighbors were turning on their Christmas decorations. The whole block took on a bright and joyful look in the cold winter twilight, but it only intensified my feeling of alone-ness.
When I went into the sports store, the proprietor recognized me immediately. "Don't tell me your brother grew so tall that he needs the next size already?" he laughed.
I laid the stick on the counter and shook my head. I said, "No, it's just that Chris . . ." but then tears choked my throat, and I couldn't go on. I turned and ran out in the street and started running the three blocks toward home. When the need to cry had passed, I slowed down, slipped my hands in my sleeves, Japanese style, and bent forward against the wind.
After a few minutes, I thought I was dreaming, because I could hear people singing "Silent Night." But when I rounded the corner, I realized that they were having the choral singing ceremony at the community tree. Most of our neighbors were there, and I stopped abruptly, wanting to slip away before I was seen. I heard a fretful voice say, "But you're not tall enough and I can't see and I want daddy here."
It was little Penny Carlson, and she and her mother were only a few feet from me at the edge of the group of singers. Mrs. Carlson was holding her as high as she could, and she said, "Daddy can't be home this year, but he surely will be another Christmas." She said it so calmly that I could tell she really believed it. I turned away. I thought I heard Mrs. Carlson call after me, but I wasn't sure.
I'd only been home a few minutes when the bell rang. It was Mrs. Carlson. She was still carrying Penny, but in one hand she had a package that she held out to me. She smiled that lovely warm smile when she said, "Happy birthday." She handed me the package, and before I could even say "Thank you," she was gone.
I guess it was force of habit that made me take the present upstairs to my room to open. I was sure it would be a book, but when I undid the wrappings, I was holding the prettiest box that I'd ever seen in my life. It had tiny sketches all over it of pretty girls dancing, driving, skiing, and talking on the phone. I opened the box slowly, and inside were three oval cakes of pine soap.
I drew in my breath slowly. It was such a grown-up present. It was a present for someone who went to dances or had dates. The card inside the box said: "Life is always changing. To a young girl who will soon be a young lady."
I held up the box and sniffed the cool, dry smell of pine as I whispered, "Life is always changing." But I feared change. Change meant an end to happiness. Unless . . . unless . . .
I thought of how Mrs. Carlson used to look at her husband. Her life had changed from good to bad, but she could bear it because she expected it to change back to good again. Good to bad. Bad to good. The earth wasn't flat. It was round. Adam and Eve lost Eden, but in the end they gained heaven.
My life would inevitably change, too. For the first time ever, I thought about the future with eagerness. Like the girl in the sketches, I'd go to dances and have dates. I could just see myself growing up, and I could see Chris growing up with me. Like Mrs. Carlson, he had gone from good to bad, but he could go to good again. He could get completely well. One doctor believed that. Mother believed it. And clutching that box, I began to believe it, too. I knew then what gift I would get for Chris, and if I hurried, I could make the sports store before it closed. I rushed downstairs, but before I left, I phoned a message to the hospital.
When I explained to the man in the sports store, he kept nodding his head and saying, "You're right, you're right."
This time I didn't notice the cold as I hurried home with Chris's new present. But when I got to our house, the lights were on and I burst in, suddenly fearful. "Mother," I cried, "did you get my message? Daddy didn't sign, did he?"
My mother came out of the kitchen, a cup of tea in her hand. She looked terribly tired but somehow less strained. "No," she said. "When I got back to the hospital, Daddy and I sat by Chris's bed trying to decide. Chris woke up for just a minute, and do you know what he wanted? He wanted to know if you took the hint and got him a hockey stick for Christmas. Then when the nurse came in with your message, we were sure. If we all believe, God won't fail us. You were able to get it, weren't you?"
I held up the long, thin package I was carrying. When I phoned the hospital, I asked the nurse to say that I was changing the medium-sized stick for the large one so that Chris could use it next year.
It was then that I realized that our Christmas tree was in the stand. As usual, it was listing slightly. I heard someone coming up the cellar stairs, and my mother explained. "When Bob Saunders got home from college and heard about Chris, he went right over to the hospital to offer blood. Daddy decided to stay with Chris in case he wakes up again, so Bob drove me home and insisted on putting up the Christmas tree for us."
A tall, good-looking young man in a turtle-neck sweater came into the room. I knew that Bob Saunders was the one who always invited Chris to play ball with the older boys and that Chris thought he was wonderful. I felt suddenly shy and barely nodded when he said, "Hi, kid."
Bob was holding a hammer and nails. He squatted by the tree. "I'm no Saint Joseph," he told mother, "but maybe a few more nails will make this thing stand up straight."
I slipped upstairs and got my birthday present. Then, while Bob hammered, I sat cross-legged on the floor quietly holding it in my lap, and the scent of the soap mingled and blended with the fragrance of the tree.
THE FRAYED Persian rug and velotir furniture faded, and I was back in my own living room. My hands felt cramped as I realized how long I had been reminiscing with Kathy's present in my hand. I knew that this gift for my daughter's birthday would have no special meaning for her. We cannot expect others to understand the symbols of the turning points in our own lives.
I thought of how much had happened in the years that followed my thirteenth birthday. Chris had justified our faith and became completely well. The doctors thought he would always have a weakness in his hip, but the winter after his illness, he and I went ice-skating, and he used his hockey stick until it cracked. He was terribly afraid that the war would end before he was eighteen, but he enlisted in 1944, and six months later he was killed in action.
I thought of little Mrs. Carlson, who waited nearly three years before her husband finally came back to her. He never did amount to much in Hollywood, and one day he was there in the neighborhood, back in the house with her and Penny, just as though nothing had ever happened.
The front door opened and my husband called, "Anybody home?"
I felt a quick surge of gladness as I answered, "In here." When he came in, I held up the box of pine soap. "What does this remind you of?" I asked him.
He looked thoughtful. "Didn't I give you once . . . ?" he asked.
I shook my head.
"Or did you have . . . ?" Then he smiled, "Oh, I remember. Someone had just given you a box of pine soap that year poor Chris was so sick and I put up your Christmas tree."
From The Sign, December, 1970