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
In the forests of
What immortal hand
Could frame thy
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.
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.”
she said. “Now, would you like to hear the tiger poem?”
answered. She sat down near me and began
with a dramatic flourish.
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.