When I was a child, I thought that gifts were something tangible. I believed that they came in boxes, and were carefully wrapped in shiny paper, with bows attached. Just the other day, I told my little grandson that I was giving a gift certificate to his Dad for his birthday.
“No, Nonni,” he said, “Presents have to be wrapped! You have to open them and they have to have wrapping paper.”
I smiled. And I hugged him and assured him that I would carefully place the gift card in a “real” birthday card which I would decorate.
But for the past few days, I’ve been thinking.
One of the things that the pandemic has taught me is that the world is filled with gifts and that many of them come from the people around us, whether or not they are wrapped in ‘shiny paper’.
I’ve been looking back on my 65 years of life, and I’ve been recognizing those gifts.
I am thinking about the girl who was my very first “best friend” in the world. She lived right next door to me, and we went to kindergarten together. I remember that I loved her very blue eyes. I loved her creativity. When I was too timid to make up good stories, Patti pretended that the big lilac bush between our houses was a rocket ship, and we were heading off to space. I can still remember the thrill I felt, way back in 1961, pretending to be inside a rocket on its way to the “atmosphere”.
Patti was a key part of my life for the next few decades. Her gifts included some adventures in hiking and swimming, some moments of getting into a little bit of trouble, and some serious laughter that I can still recall.
Those were gifts. I didn’t necessarily see them that way at the time, but in my elder years, I see them for what they were.
And I’m thinking of my old friend, Sue. My first school buddy. Sue was fascinating to me from the very first time we met. She had flaming red hair, pale white skin and freckles, a beauty mark that this Italian American yearned to share.
Sue was the best reader in our grade. She was smarter than anyone I knew. She and I used to walk to the town library and come out with stacks of good books. We’d sit on the wall outside of the old building, with a pile of snacks beside us, reading “The Black Stallion Mysteries.”
Sue introduced me to the “Hobbit” and then to “The Lord of the Rings”. These books changed my life, ignited my love of words and provided solace for me through the next five decades of life.
Sue gave me more gifts than I can count.
And I am remembering the family that hosted me when I became an exchange student in 1973. I was sent from my safe, middle-class, Catholic family in Massachusetts to the wilds of North Africa and into the arms of a family in Kairouan, Tunisia. A family that turned out to be a safe, middle-class, Muslim family in a beautiful city.
The gifts given to me in my three short months with them are uncountable. The gift of understanding. The gift of acceptance. The gifts of new and wonderful foods, a new and beautiful language, new music, new art, new ideas. The gift of realizing that this is in fact a very small world and that we all share it.
A gift that came back to me many many years later in the person of an unknown cousin in Italy, who welcomed me and my family into his home with love and food and laughter. A cousin who answered my apologies for bursting in on them unannounced with the statement that “Tutto il mondo è una famiglia”. All the world is one family.
A gift. Right?
I think of the many, many gifts given to me by my students.
The child who told me, “You’re kind of a weird teacher. You really like the boys.”
The child who said, “It makes me happy to look at your eyes.”
And the one who said, “You are a very funny lady.”
I think of the lessons they taught me, about how to be fair. How to be kind. How to support without judgment.
And I think of the many, many gifts given to me by their parents.
Sure, some of those were tangible gifts, like the necklace of silver beads that read “Teach, Inspire, Love”. But there were many more intangible gifts given by these parents. The book about “Social Stories” that helped me to help my students with autism. The Mom who gave me a book of math challenges to support my above grade level students. The parents who sent me messages when my father died early in the school year and I had to take some time off. The families who thanked me and those who challenged me to do better.
I remember one child who told me that my attempts at humor made him uncomfortable. “You like to say, ‘Because I am she who must be obeyed. I really don’t like that.” And the little girl who asked me to stop saying, “Oh, my God!” because her religion found it offensive.
These were things that helped me to grow.
They were gifts.
They all were gifts that have helped me to build the person, the woman, the mom, the teacher that I believe myself to be.
Gifts do not always come in shiny paper. They don’t always have ribbons or cards. Some of them prick a bit when you get them. Some go sailing right over your head for a few decades.
But every act of sharing, every act of trust, is a real and true gift.
I am so grateful to be the recipient of so many lovely presents.