Saturday, December 24, 2011

Saturday Musings, 24 December 2011

Good morning,

The stack of wrapped presents begins to grow on my dresser. Two carry bags on the floor hold additional gifts, sorted by the households to which they will be taken. A third pile has yet to be wrapped, and in my closet, more await. As I cut paper and pull tape, I try to cough away from my work, desperate to keep my germs to myself.

I lean against the bed, gazing at the happy results of my shopping efforts. Simply put, I love Christmas. I'm not religious but I have adopted this holiday as my opportunity to bestow each person in my world with a tangible manifestation of my gratitude for their existence.

Yesterday, my secretary opened the small gift that I had chosen for her while shaking her head back and forth. I thought I saw her hands tremble. She has worked for me for just a few months, and I know nothing of her life, nothing that would explain the emotion displayed as she lifted the scarf and truffles from their gift bag. As I left an hour or so later, she spoke in a faltering voice: I'd sure like to give you a hug. I put my arms around her thin frame. Merry Christmas, merry, merry Christmas.

I've purchased many scarves for people through the years. I give my friend Basimah a new scarf each Christmas and birthday. I'm not sure how she wears them all, but I am certain that she will never have to buy one for herself. I try to think of another gift to give her, but find myself standing in front of the display of silk, cashmere and wool, caressing the lovely threads, fascinated by the shimmering colors, choosing yet another piece of fabric that she can wind around her neck or drape over her shoulders. She has never said, Enough, enough!, and accepts each with the same sweet, sincere smile.

Years ago, when I was a senior in high school, I purchased a matching hat, scarf and mitten set for a little girl whom I tutored. I used my babysitting money to buy them. I stood in Kresge's dime store for a long while, running my fingers over the knitted yarn. I imagined the child with her stringy, unwashed blond hair, and her deep blue eyes, and thought about the colors and how they would frame her face. I shifted from foot to foot, debating, and finally chose the red set, imagining the bright pom pom atop her small head, thinking of the light in her eyes as she tore away the paper and opened the box.

The following Saturday, I traveled to the church at 14th and Mallincrot in St. Louis for the Christmas party staged for our students by the parish sponsor of the tutoring program. I gazed out of the window of the vehicle in which my friends and I rode, watching the suburban houses fall away as we traveled south and east into the city proper. Apartment buildings with broken sidewalks took their place, and the quiet streets of our county neighborhood yielded to blaring horns and sirens; clean pavement gave way to littered slush.

But inside the church, dozens of small boys and girls chattered as volunteers handed out paper cups filled with hot chocolate. Among them, I found my student standing silent, gazing at the colored light bulbs draped from the folding table which held plates of cookies.

As the other children eagerly pulled toys from gift bags, my girl gently lifted the scarf and held it high enough to keep it from draping on the floor. I stood over her, encouraging her to wind it around her thin neck. I settled the beret around her curls and eased each of her tiny hands into a crimson mitten. She stood, gazing at me, wearing an expression that I could not understand, not moving, holding her thin frame rigid. I finally took pity on her, and removed the knitwear, returning it to the box. I thought she would run off then, but she reached for the gift and clutched it against her chest, and said, thank you so much for these beautiful things, and as she spoke, tears ran down her face.

The next week, my girl came to tutoring without her hat, or scarf, or mittens. When I asked about them, she shrugged. After the session, I mentioned them to our teacher, who told me that likely they had been lost or stolen. I felt a small measure of regret for having given her something so transient, something so briefly brightening her life.

At the end of the session, I learned that no one had come to retrieve my student, and that we would be delivering her to her parents' home. She sat beside me in the car without speaking, holding my hand, gazing out the window. When we parked near her building, she quickly wiggled out of the car and swiftly walked away from me, with only the briefest of glances in my direction. I stood beside the car, troubled, and from that vantage point, saw the door of the building open and her mother's narrow frame step onto the sidewalk.

The rush of shock propelled me forward several steps before my teacher's hand stopped me. We watched my student's mother walk forward to greet her, wearing a flimsy, tattered dress, a scarlet hat on her head, a matching scarf wound around her neck, and mittens on each hand. From the short distance between us, I could see hollow cheeks and dark smudges under sunken eyes. I saw the woman reach for her daughter with long, fragile arms, drawing her close, pulling her into the yawning gape of the battered door which closed behind them with a dreadful thud.

There was nothing to do but get back into the car and leave the place. The other girls talked happily among themselves during the ride home. When the car stopped, they spilled out onto the parking lot and called holiday wishes to each other as they ran to their parents' cars. I got out last, and stood waiting for my ride to arrive. The teacher spoke my name, and I met her eyes with a sharp snap of my head. Merry Christmas, she whispered, as my mother's Ford pulled into the driveway. I did not reply.

Decades later, my son's cell phone starts to ring and buzz in his bedroom. He's scheduled for his customary volunteer work with Meals on Wheels today. In a few minutes, he will stagger out and grunt a request for coffee. He will have tarried too late over his guitar and his computer. We finished Christmas shopping last evening, with dozens of other people at Barnes and Noble, where we had a coffee and talked about his fall trip to West Virginia. We went out one night with a bunch of people that I didn't know, and I had a really good time. That trip was great, he told me, and I believed him, for rarely do I see him speak with such uncontrived passion.

I purchased a scarf for my son this year, and as I wrapped it in tissue and gently placed it into a box last night, I thought about my little girl and her mother. I remembered the look in her eyes above the box which she clutched to her chest. I saw again the brief flash of red disappear behind a heavy door, and I felt again the cruel bite of wind on a St. Louis street, long ago, under a leaden sky.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley

Merry Christmas, and God Bless You, Each and Every One

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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.