I've balanced my laptop on a wooden table purchased at an estate sale for five dollars, more years ago than I can recall. A stout cup of French roast cools at my elbow. At the far end of the scarred oak dining table, an assemblage of Christmas decorations stands at the ready for a later event.
The five-foot tree purchased a decade ago at a January half-price sale shines in its customary corner, lights glowing, only a few plastic needles falling to the floor. Christmas stands proud at the end of the next two rows of boxes on my German calendar. I braved the "early shoppers" sale at Kohl's yesterday, and even did a round at Target, being as I needed cat food any way. Every single sales clerk whom I encountered flashed smiles; but then, it's early yet.
Nearly sixty Christmases span the backward circuit of my life. As I make my lists, check them twice, buying presents for everyone regardless of whether I consider them naughty, or nice, I think about successful purchases in the past: the radiant smile of my best friend's granddaughter Nora just last year, when she opened a life-size, soft Christmas doll; my son's grin at the remembered request of a clock made from reclaimed computer parts, which he had spied at the VALA Gallery; and years ago, the same boy's shrieks upon spying the tall Batman with light-up eyes that Santa had finally found after searching a dozen stores.
But one of the most satisfying presents that I've purchased -- and I have purchased hundreds -- was the American/French idiomatic dictionary that I bought for my cousin Kati's then-husband Bernard in 1983.
He had little English at the time. Kati and I had reunited on their relocation from St. Louis to Kansas City, sitting for hours in their apartment chattering about our childhood and the decade of events since our college days. Bernard could not follow our conversation. He thumbed through a French-English dictionary and could not determine the meanings of phrases rushing around him in our common St. Louis twang.
For weeks, he grumbled about his crazy American wife and her wild cousin Corinne, though said in French it sounded elegant. I got it into my head that he might feel less alienated if he understood our vernacular, so I set about -- in the days before Al Gore invented the World Wide Web -- to find a French/American idiomatic dictionary.
Not easy, I discovered.
My search extended to the considerable reach of area bookstores available at the time. Harried clerk after harried clerk shook head after tired head. Finally, in Whistler's Books, then located in Westport, a salesman took pity on me. I'll try, he said, in a weary voice, seven staggering shopping days before Christmas. Don't get false hopes, he cautioned, and turned away to answer a question about the tells-all-star-biography-of-the-week, which No, they did not carry, we are an independent bookseller, we don't carry that kind of stuff, try Walden Books, he said, with only a slightly disdainful sneer.
Kati and Bernard had invited me to share a meal at their home for the holiday. I could never have declined. In addition to my craving for the company of family, the allure included the fact that Bernard, a French chef, would certainly provide something succulent and decadent. But I did not want to go without a present for Bernard, and I had despaired of finding what I wanted most to give him. I purchased a back-up -- I think it was a boring wool scarf -- and hoped it would suffice.
A half hour before I should have been arriving at their apartment, the phone rang. You ordered a book from us, said a very, very tired voice. It's here. I drove faster than I should through the thick traffic of last-minute shoppers, not noticing the lovely rise of Christmas lights on the Plaza, narrowly escaping a crash with Cinderella's horse-drawn carriage in my haste to get to Whistler's Books before it closed. My parking karma provided a narrow spot into which I crammed my vehicle, and I slammed the car door, barely pausing to lock it, arriving ten minutes before the store closed, and fifteen minutes after my scheduled arrival time at Kati and Bernard's apartment.
The man who had called was the same man who had promised to try to find the book. He handed it to me, and I gazed down at it with surprise. Slightly battered, a little care-worn, clearly used, nonetheless, it bore the title: Dictionary of American to French Idiomatic Translations. Or something like that. I looked at the clerk. How did you find it, I asked, with true wonder.
He smiled. I searched a lot of catalogs at first, he told me. Books in Print, too. Then, when nothing I did worked, I called a friend of mine.
The friend, it turned out, ran a bookstore in New York City. That friend had a friend who ran a bookstore in Paris, France. That friend had a friend who ran a used book stall on a side street in Paris, a hand-made structure with a slanted tin roof that did not even have a name. In the stall stood a small shelf of guides for French folks planning to travel in various countries, and on that shelf, my present for Bernard had waited. The Paris bookseller bought it, shipped it to the New York book store owner, who sent it to Kansas City, where I purchased it for less than the postage to mail it from France.
I gazed at the salesman with frank admiration. So much trouble for one book, I murmured, running my hands along its cracked spine. He shrugged. I told them about your cousin's husband, he admitted. About the two of you talking all night in their living room, and poor Bernard sitting in the kitchen, clueless as to what half your chattering meant. We all felt bad for the poor guy. He shrugged again, a careless lift of a wool-clad shoulder. I got the sense that his efforts rose more from his sympathy for a man with a crazy wife, and a crazy cousin-in-law, than from his desire to satisfy a customer. The motivations of the New York and Paris connections, I can only imagine.
I wished him a very Merry Christmas. I left the store, unwrapped book clutched to my chest, and made my way to Kati and Bernard's apartment. The meal did not disappoint, nor did the shining smile on Bernard's face when he saw his gift.
In an hour, three seven-year old girls will descend upon my home, to decorate my Christmas tree and paint glass ornaments. One of them, my friend Elisabeth's daughter Accalia, has hired herself out for the morning to raise money for Operation Smile (www.operationsmile.org). I will compensate her efforts with a check to that charity. I invited the others -- my friend Sherri's nieces, my flower girls, Courtney and Allie -- just to make a merry morning. I will feed them ants-on-a-log, and take their pictures to post on Facebook. When they have gone, I will sit in my rocker by the fireplace, and gaze upon the ornaments dangling from the branches of my artificial tree, recalling each Christmas that I have spent in this home. When I start to feel that I have been lazy enough, I will set aside that pleasant occupation, and get on with my day.
Saturday, December 10, 2011
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The Missouri Mugwump™
- M. Corinne Corley
- 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.
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