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A Neighbor's Gift

posted Dec 21, 2016, 3:06 PM by Janie Watts

She lived up the street in an aging house, and she was my friend.  With her neck permanently bent down at an angle from the ravages of arthritis, Mrs. B. was a kind and welcoming neighbor who invited me into her darkened living room filled with dusty books and ferns. The antimacassars placed on the sturdy chair arms could hide wear and tear, but not the musty smell of passing time. The house was silent except for the sound of a ticking grandfather clock, and when she spoke, it was with a voice low and gravelly, but always cultured.

Unlike many of our southern neighbors, she offered nothing to drink or eat. Our conversations were food enough. She would ask me about my day at school, what I liked to study, and what was I reading?  I was 10 or 11, and being the youngest of four children, not accustomed to so much attention from someone who seemed to have all the time in the world.

If I were lucky, Mrs. B. would take time to recite her favorite poem by the English poet William Blake.

“Tyger, tyger, burning bright.

In the forests of the night;

What immortal hand or eye,

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”

Enraptured by her clear enunciation, the rise and fall of her voice emphasizing words she thought important, I sat still and listened. I imagined the huge tiger and a dark green jungle filled with ferns much like those perched on a shelf behind her sofa. I peered through the leafy ferns, hoping to catch a glimpse of the big cat’s eyes.

She recited the poem in its entirety. Afterwards, for a few minutes, we sat in shared silence.

 

          This happened on more than one occasion, and each time Mrs. B. recited her Tyger poem, she seemed to be in another world, in a place and time far away from the confines of her aging house and crooked body. Her hooded blue eyes would fill with light.

          Year round, I stopped at the squeaky, vine-covered gate to enter her yard and climb the stairs to her porch. I’d ring the doorbell, and she would welcome me into her world. One December when Christmas was approaching, she offered me a seat, and with much mischief in her eyes, she announced she had a gift for me.  With faltering steps, she left the living room to retrieve the present from another part of the house.

I waited, anticipating what I was about to receive. I let my eyes wander around the room to see the books, the ferns, the dim light that filtered through the yellowed windows.  I knew she didn’t have a lot of money, and I wondered if she would give me one of her books, perhaps even the book with the tiger poem.  She returned with a rectangular box wrapped in plain white tissue paper, the size of a book.   She placed the gift in my hands. 

“Would you like to open it now?” she asked.

Yes,” I answered, although I knew it was a book.  I would act surprised when I opened it. This would make her happy.  I placed my finger under the seam and ripped up, expecting to see a dusty cover. Instead, I saw yellow and black, some type of label. A box of prunes!

“Oh,” was the only word that popped out of my mouth. And a few seconds later, “Thank you.” 

“You’re welcome,” she said. “Now, would you like to hear the tiger poem?”

“Yes,” I answered.  She sat down near me and began with a dramatic flourish.

“Tyger, tyger, burning bright…”

On this afternoon, I was not transported to the jungle. All I could think about was the box of prunes sitting on my lap. Why had she given me with such an odd gift? I knew enough to act pleased with her gift, even though I was puzzled. I was having a hard time understanding why anyone would wrap up a box of prunes for a child.  Didn’t she know most children didn’t eat prunes? As soon as she finished the tiger poem, I’d thank her and run home to show Mama. Maybe she could make some sense of it.

A half century has passed since I got that box of prunes, and I am now closer to the age she was when I knew her. Unable to drive, and confined to her house, Mrs. B. wanted to share what she had. She took something she liked from her pantry and wrapped it up. She gave what she had on hand. She was a proper sort of person, well mannered, and she wanted to participate in a Christmas ritual.

I am ashamed to say I cannot remember if I gave her anything at all.  If I did, it was probably something handmade such as one of my horse drawings.

All these years later, I’ve changed my mind about those prunes. I’ve come to appreciate their rich, moist flavor, and I’m pleased when someone gives me dried fruit at Christmas.  I smile when I think of unwrapping that yellow and black box, yet I realize that gift taught me how to think beyond my expectations, how to receive a present graciously, especially one that seems odd.

I also now realize Mrs. B. was my first literary friend. What has endured is her real gift to me:  an appreciation for books and poetry, a love for the cadence of words, and always, a soaring imagination.

 

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