Monday, November 23, 2015

The Unexpected Gift

It was still dark when the alarm went off, and it took me a few minutes to orient myself. Getting up at 5 am on Christmas Eve wasn’t my first choice, but I knew it was the right thing to do. Henry had been relegated to full-time caregiver since Eva’s Thanksgiving Day surgery, and I thought that he would appreciate someone clearing the three to six inches of snow that had been forecast overnight. He would definitely appreciate it, but as was his custom, he would complain that I had better things to do than shovel an old man’s driveway on Christmas Eve.
     I threw the covers off and quickly pulled on my thermal underwear and some thick wool socks before I glanced out the window to see how much snow we had actually gotten. I’ve never trusted the weathermen. I figured a forecast of three to six could mean anything between nothing and a foot. I’d love a job where I could be that wrong and still be paid.
     It was difficult to gauge precisely from my 6th-floor apartment, but it appeared that we had gotten closer to a foot. From here, the cars appeared as larger, whiter, and more bulbous versions of themselves. The snow that clung to them in every direction told me two things. First, that it would be heavy and wet. Secondly, that the extra money I laid out every month leasing an indoor parking space was well spent.
     Despite the bad road conditions, I arrived in front of Henry’s house before the sun was above the horizon. The snow was still falling in fat flakes nearly the size of golf balls, and in the predawn light, the entire landscape seemed to be painted in shades of blue-gray.
     I had expected to be the first one out with a shovel in hand, but I was wrong. The brittle scraping of metal against concrete, muffled by the deep snow, echoed from several houses on the street. Early risers with places to be on Christmas Eve, I figured. There was even someone clearing Mrs. Roman’s walkway.
     Marie Roman was Henry’s next door neighbor. She was in her mid-nineties and had been a widow for about a decade or so. Her sons both lived out of town, so she would occasionally ask Henry to help her out with little tasks around the house, which he did without complaint. In exchange, she would deliver homemade grape leaves, baklava, or pita bread. “The food of my people,” she would tell him. It was during one of these deliveries that I first met her earlier in the year.
     “Dylan, this is Mrs. Roman,” Henry said to me after he had relieved her of a large tray of food.
     “Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Roman. I’m Dylan,” I replied, offering my hand.
     “Oh my, this is Dylan? What a handsome young man. Henry has told me all about you,” she said, completely ignoring my hand and opting instead for a big hug. “Please, call me Marie,” she added.
     “As you wish, Mrs. Roman.”
     “Stop it, you! It’s Marie, or I won’t answer.” She punctuated it by putting her hands on her hips and turning her nose into the air.
     “As you wish, Marie.” She reminded me a lot of my own grandmother, and I liked her instantly. In fact, after that brief encounter, I felt like I had known her for years.
     I waved at the figure on her front stoop. He was dressed in bulky overalls, a thick, knit cap pulled down over his eyebrows, and a scarf pulled up to meet it. I assumed it was either one of her sons, visiting for Christmas or a landscaper that she paid to do the work. He returned my wave and went right back to work on the walkway.
     Following his lead, I picked up my own shovel and began the daunting task of clearing Henry’s driveway. To take my mind off of the work, I entered into a secret race with the mystery man at Marie’s house. He had a distinct advantage in that her one-car garage faced the street, and as such, the driveway was short and narrow. Henry, on the other hand, had a corner lot, with a long, wide driveway that ran nearly the depth of the property.
     I pushed through the thick snow, occasionally comparing my progress with that of the bundled-up man at Marie’s. I noticed that he was going considerably slower than me. It had to be her son, I finally decided, as a landscaper would have been faster, and likely would have used a plow, or at the very least, a snow blower.
     I had two passes left to complete Henry’s driveway. My opponent had just finished Mrs. Roman’s driveway, and thrust his shovel into the snow bank in triumph. It’s probably more likely that he simply finished his task and set the shovel down since only I knew we were racing, but it certainly felt like a taunt. I returned, defeated, to the last of my job. My back was toward Mrs. Roman’s so I was startled when I heard the gibe from behind me. “Is that all the faster you can go?” What was even more surprising was that it was Henry.
     “What the. . .Why are you out here? This snow is way too heavy for you, and besides, shouldn’t you be taking care of Eva?’
     The wet snow fell away from the wool scarf as he pulled it down to reply. “Eva’s fine inside. I think she gets a little tired of me doting on her, so I figured, I’d clear Marie’s driveway to give her a break.”
     “But Henry, you’re 83! You shouldn’t be out here shoveling your own driveway, much less someone else’s.”
     “I didn’t shovel my own, you did,” he quipped.
     “You know what I mean.”
     “I do, but Marie’s ninety-something. I’m certainly not going to let her go out there and do it herself. You know me better than that.”

     I had no comeback. I certainly did know him better than that. As if she had waited for the lull in the conversation, Marie opened the front door and shouted to us. “You two boys must be exhausted and freezing. Come inside for a minute. I made you some hot chocolate.”
     Henry looked at me. “You go ahead. I’m going to run in and let Eva know where we are going so she doesn’t worry. I’m right behind you.”
     I shook myself clear of as much snow as possible before I went inside. I was greeted by the aroma of hot chocolate, and some sort of dessert either still in, or fresh from the oven. Exactly what dessert it might be was being masked by the vague scent of mothballs. A patchwork of carpet runners led the way through the high traffic areas of the house. I wondered at first if she had just laid the there to protect the floors from me, but the wear patterns made it evident that they were a permanent part of the d├ęcor. It was quiet except for the slow march of the Regulator clock keeping time on the living room wall.
     “Let’s go sit in the kitchen,” she said, leading me toward the back of the house. “I just baked some nut horns as well. I hope you’re hungry.”
     “Do you think I’d be foolish enough to turn down anything you made by hand.”
     She handed me a large mug of hot chocolate. The steam rose from it in waves, and the two big marshmallows on top had already began to melt. I cupped my hands around the mug in an effort to get my circulation to return.
     “I can’t thank you enough for clearing my driveway. My boys wouldn’t have been able to do it,” she said. “They’re getting up there.”
     I laughed out loud without meaning to. “I’d love to take credit, Marie, but Henry did every inch of it.”
     “I’m going to kill him. He knows better than that!”
     “No argument here,” I said. “I pretty much told him the same thing just before you invited us in.”
     “I want to give you this,” she said, sliding a beautifully wrapped package across the table.
     “What is it,” I asked.
     “It’s a gift, silly.”
     “I know that,” I said. “But I told you I wasn’t the one who did your driveway. I can’t accept it. You should give it to Henry.”
     “It’s not Henry’s gift. It’s yours. Please, just open it.”
     “Okay, but I didn’t get you anything.” I unwrapped the package to find an exquisite china pedestal bowl. I know next to nothing about china, but I could tell it was a fine piece – delicate and rimmed with gold.
     “It’s Lenox,” she said. “It’s actually a fruit bowl – I think they’re called compotes or something like that – but my husband used to keep it in his armoire and lay his rings and watch in it at night. I want you to have it.”
     “It’s gorgeous, Marie. I really don’t deserve it. I wasn’t expecting anything.” I figured it was useless to remind her again that I wasn’t even the one that did the shoveling, so I didn’t.
     “I know you weren’t expecting anything. Sometimes, unexpected gifts are the best kind.”
     “I suppose that’s true,” I said. She was truly a delightful woman to be around. “Since you’re giving me something so sentimental, do you mind if I ask you about your husband?”
     “He’s one of my favorite subjects. What would you like to know, dear?”
     She proceeded to tell me about how they met. It was during the war. He had stayed home on a medical deferment. It was love at first sight – for both of them. She told me about her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. They were her world, and it came through both in her words and in her eyes as she talked of them.
     “I can’t believe he’s been gone for almost fifteen years. I miss him every single day,” she said. I detected a little quiver in her voice as I reached for another cookie. “I don’t want to get all philosophical, but why is God keeping me around?”
     “These nut horns,” I answered quickly, trying to lighten the mood a little.
     “I’m glad you like them, but I’m serious, Dylan. The kids are grown. Heck, their kids are grown. There’s nothing I can do except be a burden. Why is God keeping me alive instead of letting me go be with my husband? I’m a nobody. I swear that I’m only here because I’m so insignificant that even God forgot about me.”
     I was caught off guard. How was I supposed to respond to that? I didn’t know her all that well. In fact, this was the first one-on-one conversation we had ever had. But as I said, she was the kind of person you felt you knew intimately after five minutes together. “Well, Marie, I think God wants us to be happy, so he puts sweet, kind, joyful people in our paths all the time. You’re one of those people. Henry and Eva swear they’ve never seen you in a bad mood. And you make me smile every time I see your face. Maybe that’s why God keeps you around. To be a joy to others.”
     “I don’t know if I buy that, but thank you for cheering up an old lady.” She smiled a wrinkled smile, and she was beautiful. “You ought to run along. You have better things to do on Christmas Eve than talk to me.”
     “If there’s something better than this, I haven’t experienced it yet, my dear,” I said as we both rose from the table. She hugged me for a long time – a deep grandma hug – before she let me leave.
     “Thank you so much for the gift,” I said. “I know just where I’m going to put it.”
     “Thank you, Dylan.”
     Henry was just about to knock on her door as I opened it to leave. He apologized to Marie for being so long and asked for a rain check. As we walked to my car, I told him about our talk and showed him the bowl. “She is one of the sweetest women I’ve ever met. I just don’t understand why she gave me such an expensive gift,” I concluded.
     “Maybe she feels like she’s repaying you for an even more expensive gift,” to which I gave him a puzzled look. “You’re a smart guy. Figure it out.”
     “Challenge accepted,” I replied. “Give Eva my love, and tell her I’ll stop and see you both after church tomorrow.”
     “Will do,” he said, hugging me. “Merry Christmas, Dylan. Oh, and thanks for shoveling. It was a huge help,” he added with a wink.

     On the morning of December 27th, Henry called me with the news that Marie had passed away. Henry had found her in her bed. He had gone over to check on her when her son couldn’t reach her on the telephone. I was silent as he told the story. I hardly knew her, but I felt the pain of her loss as if she were someone who had been a part of my life for a long time.

     “When you get a chance, I want you to come over,” Henry said. “I have something I need to show you.”
     “What is it? Can I stop by after work?”
     “That’d be fine. I’ll just show you when you get here.”
     I made the drive from my office thinking about Marie – her white, wispy hair, the wrinkles that added so much character to her olive skin. I wondered what it would have been like to live through the Depression, World War II, and all of life’s hardships and still manage to smile every day. What a lady.
     When I got to Henry’s, he poured us each a glass of scotch before sliding a small, leather-bound book across the table. The thick, brown cover was embossed with a rose, and the year 2015. A pink ribbon protruded from the pages near the back.
     As I reached for it, Henry asked, “Have you figured it out?”
     It took me a second to figure out what he was asking. “You mean what Marie was repaying me for?”
     “Yes, that.”
     “Well, she loves you and Eva. I think that she was thanking me for helping you.” My voice involuntarily trailed up at the end, making it more of a question than a statement. Henry waited silently for me to continue so I did. “Maybe she was thanking me for spending some time with her too. I know we didn’t talk long, but it was a good conversation.”
     “Not bad. You’re on the right track. Maybe you’re wiser than I give you credit for,” he teased, using his head to gesture me toward the book. “Read it from the ribbon until the end.”
     Her penmanship was exquisite – round, flowing cursive written with a fountain pen. Her last three entries were as follows:
December 24th
It looks like we’re going to have a white Christmas! I can’t believe the snow we got – almost a foot. But I woke up to a clean driveway thanks to Henry! How sweet. I also had the most enjoyable conversation with Henry’s friend, Dylan. What a wonderful young man. I gave him John’s jewelry bowl today. It was hard to part with it, but he deserved it. He’s so kind. Just like John. We talked for a long time (maybe longer than I should have kept him on Christmas Eve) and he wasn’t in a hurry to go. He talked to me – not with me or at me, but actually to me. He made me feel like I mattered for the first time in a long time and he said I bring people joy. That conversation was an early Christmas gift. I am blessed.
December 25th
Christmas was wonderful! Both of the kids and even some of the grandkids were here for dinner. They showered this old woman with gifts. I got a lovely sweater set, new perfume, and best of all, they cleaned up after dinner. I love my family. I wish they could have stayed longer. Henry, Eva, and Dylan stopped by to wish me a Merry Christmas. Too sweet.
December 26th
I’m in bed early tonight. I wasn’t feeling well – probably the excitement of the holiday. I keep thinking about what Dylan said, and how he made me feel. I feel awful for saying it, but it was honestly the best gift I got this year. After all these years, he made me see that I actually might matter. Tomorrow, I’m going to write him and tell him so. I need to thank him for giving this woman such an unexpected gift.

With tears in my eyes, I closed the book. Sometimes unexpected gifts are the best kind, I thought. Requiescat in Pace, Marie.