The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Anonymous Gifts and Other Surprises January 28, 2012

Many years ago, when my husband and I bought our first home together, it was a magical experience. I had admired the house from afar since I was little, and long before it came to be ours, we would sneak into the screen porch of the dark and empty house and imagine ourselves living in that gorgeous, dusty mid-century behemoth. Its purchase was anything but smooth; after having bid on it for six months to no happy conclusion, I’d ended up trumping an eleventh hour bid from some new party, donning a suit (the one I wore for temp jobs downtown), filling an empty brief case with various books (for heft), swabbing on some very un-me perfume (from a free sample) and walking into the manager’s office at Coldwell Banker insisting that I was prepared to pay cash for that house. I had no such cash to back up my offer. I’d made the offer without benefit of much discussion with my partner, as he was in Japan at the time. I remember a finger on one hand twitching constantly with residual nervousness for many days after I’d made the bluff. A few incredibly stressful weeks later (that in of itself is a story of gifts and other lucky events), we had ourselves a house.

Neither one of us can explain why we did what we did on that first day. At the threshold, Fareed picked me up and carried me into the house. Strangely, he did not put me down right away, but instead carried me down the long front hall, made a right, and deposited me in front of the refrigerator. Everyone knows a good party always convenes in the kitchen, perhaps it was in this spirit that he conveyed me there. There we two stood, facing the fridge head-on. And so naturally, we opened it. There, before us, was a platter upon which stood a bottle of champagne and two champagne flutes. In the center was an envelope on which was written “Welcome to 520”. Immediately our eyes filled with tears. Instantly we realized the love with which the former owners had assembled this gift. After a toast to this magical day, we began looking over the old photographs as we sipped our champagne. Through them we met the family that had lived here for half a century. We saw Christmases in the living room around an enormous tree, we saw the mother and dad – Marcie and Gene – in this very kitchen. We saw children sitting on this very floor. No matter where life may take us now, neither Fareed nor I will ever forget this gift of welcome.

Only a few days after we’d bought the place and had begun camping inside, sorely under-furnished, we received another gift. We’d come home one day to find a massive mound of purple mums in an apple basket on the landing to our front door. A simply stunning arrangement – the kind you admire but quickly pass up as you’d never dare spend that much money on yourself. In it was a card as enigmatic as the delivery itself. It simply said “Blessings on this house.” It was signed “Moon Rain and Storm Cloud”. In the middle of the small card there was a drawing of an eye. Altogether it was very ominous. Obviously, their intentions were good – even perhaps protective. Yet that picture of the eye was slightly disturbing. What was that about? Just what had this house meant to them? What did this house mean to the people in the area? Did folks have a proprietary feeling about the place? It had stood empty over a year. It was a dramatic and distinguished, if not different, looking house. There was no mistaking it, this house had a thing. But a thing that warranted some Native Americans shelling out fifty bucks for a bushel of flowers and offering their unsolicited blessing?? In the end, after sleuthing to the best of our ability in a pre-google world, we gave up and simply offered thanks to our unseen friends for their anonymous gift.

Skip ahead many gifts and many years. I am no longer living in the midst of things. I’m no longer a hostess. My home is no longer a social hub for friends. Now I live alone. Now I live far from the road in a tiny, plain house, devoid of any aesthetic value. I am no longer living in a way that I recognize. I am poor. I go without. Once upon a time, gifts were a nicety, always an expression of love, yes, but mostly they were a genteel thing, a kindness added to an already abundant life. The past few years things have changed. The gifts I’ve received have taken a different form. Some friends, wanting to help, have given me gifts of food and staples – and even money. Given in love, yes, but this is still tricky for me. This is not something I’m accustomed to. Accepting a gift of cash? Is that not crass? In poor taste? This is the voice of a woman who doesn’t understand the true spirit in which the gift is given. A woman who, out of pure need, must soon soon learn to accept it with nothing but sincere thanks given in exchange. (I don’t remember too much about my grandma, but I do remember her telling me that the best way to receive a gift was to say thank you. So simple, so true.) Such gifts have made me cry, made me feel uncomfortable, but in the end, made me feel blessed. They’ve enabled me to warm my house, eat fresh vegetables at supper, pay the electric bill, even move my piano out of storage. These have been life-saving gifts. In my past life I’d never known such generosity in any personal way. I do remember sending five hundred dollars to the Red Cross just after hurricane Katrina. And it too was given in love. So I know how it feels to give. How natural, how important it is that you help others when you’re able. Yet somehow, this seemed different. Gifts of this sort were always anonymous – made through the right channels, legitimate organizations set up for such charity. So when the tables were turned and I became the charity in question, I had to remember how good it had once felt to give of myself, let down the walls of my ego and now learn how to accept. Not always easy, but sometimes essential.

A few weeks ago I sent my divorce attorney an email in which I’d told him that it was in his personal interest that he help me secure a better support settlement; paying him otherwise would take years on my small income. He responded by telling me that he knew my financial situation well; he hadn’t expected to receive payment from me. I was stopped in my tracks. I’d already begun crafting an idea of a payment schedule to him, imagining a tab now in the tens of thousands. Having been absolutely raped by an egotistical, downtown Chicago divorce lawyer early on, I’d come to expect more of the same. I’d sensed something much gentler about this new man, but still and all, he was an attorney, and attorneys are busy, busy people whose time is a very costly thing. When I saw him in person last week, I hugged him in thanks – telling him that I in no way assumed this was a pro bono case, and that I still intended to pay him. While that is true, I’m not sure what that will be. But I will work something out. I will. I mean to make modest monthly payments, and if it doesn’t work to cover much else, I hope he can at least use it to buy some fresh flowers for his wife when he comes home late for the umpteenth time this month.

Just last month, on a rainy December night, Elihu and I arrived home late after I’d played piano at a Christmas party in town. He was to leave for Chicago soon, and as in years past, he lamented his being gone for the holiday, and wondered if Santa would visit him here too (Santa has yet to disappoint in that regard, he needn’t have worried.) Bent over under the rain, we ran to our door to find a couple bags of bird seed in our path. One was a bag of Niger seed. The real stuff – not the second-rate blend you find at the box stores that had been cut with half filler seed, but the real deal. The pricey stuff. At the time, we didn’t get the whole picture. But it was enough to shock me – and to let Elihu know that Santa had remembered him. Of course it was Santa, he told me, because no one else would give real Niger seed! Indeed. No one I knew had the stuff. It was only the next morning after I’d braved the cold to let out the chickens and then returned to the warm kitchen that I did a double take. Huh? Had I seen something unusual on the lawn just now? I looked out the window to see a beautiful iron shepherd’s hook bird feeder holder, complete with three bird feeders. All of them filled. One even held pepper suet to discourage squirrels. What?! I too was pretty close to convinced that we’d been visited by Santa. In the month that’s followed I have asked people, posted on Facebook, even called the local firehouse, all in an effort to learn who this Santa really was. I’d considered putting up a sign of thanks on the roadside, but didn’t want to chance Elihu seeing it. He already knew who’d been here, this was my problem alone. Then yesterday I went to the very boutique where the feeders came from. A store filled with beautiful but pricey bird-related items, it’s not someplace we shop. It’s a place we visit once or twice a year. I had the occasion to stop in as I was buying a bird toy for Elihu’s sister’s birthday. It gave me a chance to query the woman behind the counter. Luckily for me, she did seem to recall the story. She gave me a few hazy suspects. So, be warned, you kind-hearted friends, I just may be on to you. You know who you are. Soon I will too.

Gifts arrive unannounced, anonymously, and also in less than obvious forms. (Take, for example, my surprise divorce and the resulting about-face in my life.) Often, when things go wrong – or appear to be going wrong – Elihu and I remind ourselves that within this immediate disappointment a gift of some sort is surely waiting to be discovered. Perhaps not one that can be recognized immediately, and certainly one that will be harder to receive if one is being all pissy and crabby about how things are not going as they were supposed to, but nonetheless, we’re sure that there is something positive in the mix that will present itself shortly. At least that’s the attitude we try to take (make that I try to take; it’s far more natural and effort-free for Elihu) when plans run aground or take a frustrating turn. I would like to stress – as much for myself as for anyone reading – that to simply consider that there is a joyful outcome hidden within a current upset really does transform the event. It creates hope and possibility. If it changes nothing at a glance, it diminishes the present anguish by offering the potential for something delightful and unexpected yet to happen. It turns a stress-inducing situation into a treasure hunt. You are now on the expectant lookout for a gift. In the form of a serendipitous meeting, a happy conclusion to some other forgotten story, the acquisition of something helpful. Gifts come in many forms. Some much harder to discern than others. Some may even take awhile to present themselves. So keep an eye open. Ya know?

Thank you, all you givers of gifts. Those who have received them are so very grateful.

 

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