A GIFT FROM HEAVEN
April 3, 1966
As soon as I opened my eyes this morning, Mem was hovering close to my face from above, which scared the bejesus out of me. “Happy Birthday, Mon Petit Chou! You’re a teenager now!”
I think Mem was more excited about my birthday than I was. She made me fresh chocolate glazed doughnuts but said we couldn’t eat them until after church and that she also had a special birthday present she couldn’t wait for me to open.
I begged Mem to let me stay home and skip church just this one time, but she insisted I go, saying that I needed to receive the body of Christ and rejoice in God’s birthday blessing.
I doubted that God or His Son knew it was my birthday, but I vowed to go with Mem and Mere Germaine without any complaints. Mom was sound asleep, which I thought was terribly unfair. Mem never made her go to church because it always caused a hateful fight first thing in the morning of God’s day.
Before leaving for church, Mere Germaine asked me to play a song for her on Adam’s piano. I played Climb Every Mountain from the Sound of Music while she sat beside me on the piano stool and softly hummed. I played it at least three more times until Mom yelled from upstairs, “Enough with Climb Every Mountain, already! Is that the only song you know how to play? And oh, Happy Birthday, my little monkey.”
I wish Mom would call me her little angel or the love of her life like Mem calls me. But monkey? I yelled upstairs to Mom to find another pet name because calling me a little monkey made me fuming mad. She laughed and called me little monkey three more times before Mere Germaine ordered her to hush.
I told Mere Germaine that when I have a daughter, I would call her precious and sweetheart, but never a little monkey. Plus, I’m way taller than Mom, so she’s the little one.
Mere Germaine asked me two questions: “Would you rather she call you a big monkey? And what if you have a son?” I looked at Mere Germaine like she had three heads. “A son? How would that work?”
Then I proudly told Mere Germaine, “We’re all girls in this family, and that’s how it’s going to stay.” And she replied, “Then get ready to fight for her your entire life because it’s not easy raising a girl.”
After church and before doughnut time, Mem dragged a large, beautifully wrapped heavy box from the downstairs closet between the kitchen and the living room. The only thing in that closet is a folding chair where Mom sits while talking on the phone. It’s Mom’s favorite spot, so Mem leaves it empty to give her privacy.
I sat on the living room floor and carefully opened the box, saving the wrapping paper and bow for another time. My first impression was the tickle in my throat from the mustiness of the contents, followed by terrible disappointment when I realized that the box was full of old books.
I looked at Mem, puzzled and slightly annoyed. A bunch of old, smelly books? Really? Happy thirteenth birthday to me.
Mem hardly noticed my disappointment as she explained the books were leather classics Adam had asked her to pack up as a gift for me right before he passed.
She went on to say that Adam was impressed that I was reading my way through the library and wanted me to have his family’s treasured collection, but he died before he had the chance to give them to me himself.
Then she said that getting a gift from heaven is a blessing with a hidden message and was Adam’s way of speaking to me from above.
After her explanation, I didn’t have the heart to tell Mem that at thirteen, I was hoping for my very own record player and a couple of 45s.
Mem helped me pull the books from the box and place them on Adam’s long wooden dresser in our bedroom. Once they were all lined up, Mem went downstairs to fix us some birthday doughnuts.
I leaned against the dresser, ran my fingers across the colorful leather books, and decided maybe it wasn’t such a lame gift after all.
And sure, the books had a musty smell to them, but they also smelled of fine leather, which I liked.
Each book was soft to the touch and beautifully stitched. When I opened the deep purple book titled “Vanity Fair,” there was a black and white sketch of a young girl by the name of Jos flying through the air. I had a feeling I was going to like Jos.
I was immediately drawn to the pale blue cover of “The Portrait of a Lady” — especially the drawing of a beautiful young girl called Isabel — and then on to the emerald green book of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” which was full of spectacular illustrations.
But for whatever reason, my hand stopped at a ruby-red book titled “Fathers & Sons” written by Ivan Turgenev. I pulled it out of the line-up and brought it downstairs with me.
As soon as Mom saw the title, she asked, “Please explain why you want to read a book about fathers and sons?” I answered her that maybe it was because I didn’t know any. Mom rolled her eyes in exasperation.
From the first moment I opened the book, it drew me in. I didn’t dare tell Mem that the book was about Russians because she thinks they’re all evil communists.
I think the hidden message Adam is trying to send me from heaven is that I might be poor, but I can never let that stop me from pursuing my dream of becoming a successful writer and maybe even a poet.
Mem works her fingers to the bone to give me a better life, but she can’t read or write, so I owe it to her to be great at both. Mem’s the one I need to honor. And Adam.
My lay teacher, Miss Pontiac, has often told me how impressed she is with my use of four and five-syllable words. She believes empathy and kindness should be taught, but can often be learned through reading.
She also pointed out that someone can be down and out, with seemingly nothing to live for because they have lost everything or never had anything to begin with, but they can never lose their knowledge.
When Miss Pontiac asked me if I had any questions about the power of books, I didn’t dare ask the number one question on my mind, which was, “Why do Catholic Schools call non-nuns lay teachers?”
I may not have gotten the record player I so desperately wanted, but even in death, Adam is working hard up there in heaven to smarten me up.