11: Grandmother’s Gift

11: Grandmother’s Gift

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: For Mom, with Love

Grandmother’s Gift

Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.

~Charles W. Eliot

My grandmother has been gone for many years now and while she was alive, we were not particularly close. We saw each other infrequently and each conversation was strained. How is it possible that a woman whose life only briefly intersected with mine would influence me in such a profound way? This is a story of a grandmother who loved a little girl and bestowed upon her a gift. She did not know if she would ever receive a thank you. This grandmother knew that what she had to give was one of the greatest gifts a child could receive.

My grandmother lived alone, far away in an apartment in a big imposing building my brother, sister and I called “the castle.” She was well educated, spoke several languages, traveled through Europe alone, collected antiques, and listened to opera. Her apartment was decorated with antiques and filled with hundreds of books she read and spoke of often.

I lived in suburban Long Island and only saw her once each year or so. My father would call her on Sunday nights and ask me to speak on the phone with her. I would wail at the thought. My father would always make eyes at me, which told me I didn’t have a choice. He would always insist that she missed me and loved me but I didn’t really ever believe him. I knew she would ask me about school, about what I was reading and what I was learning about. I was a horrible student who could never pay attention and squirmed in my classroom seat. I wanted to be outside playing and talking with my friends.

I would begrudgingly take the phone and speak to her for a few long moments. “I wish this lady would get a clue to what life is really about,” I would think as I hung up the phone. Her inability to know what was important was never more evident than at gift-giving time.

Each year, on Christmas morning, my brother, sister and I would run down the stairs and see a beautiful tree surrounded by brightly wrapped packages. We would dive into the pile with great delight, ripping the paper and revealing all the latest toys. Eventually, I would see an odd-looking package deep under the tree that I knew could only be from Grandmother. She never used traditional Christmas paper and her presents always had brightly colored ribbons in yellows, oranges or lavender. Each year I would take that package, feel the weight of it in my hand, knock on it with my fist and hear a sharp tap. “Another book, just like every year!” I would think and then promptly toss it aside without even opening it. I would gleefully play with my toys on Christmas morning and for days and even weeks after. Eventually, I would open Grandmother’s gift and glance through the pages of the book she had chosen. My grandmother, in her distinctive, beautiful handwriting, would inscribe each book: “To Elizabeth Rose, with love, from Grandmother.” I would read the book and sometimes memorize the text. I still didn’t count this as playing, or having fun. I certainly knew in my heart that reading a book or talking about school was no fun for a child.

As the years passed, my interest in school remained minimal. It was all too boring and formal for me. I was more resistant than ever to speaking to Grandmother on Sunday evenings. School, books and what “interesting things I had learned lately” were boring topics for old people to discuss. Didn’t Grandmother know that all I cared about was friends, clothes and boys? Each Christmas, more books were under the tree, reinforcing my belief that she really didn’t care.

Although I was not interested in school, I had enormous patience with younger children. Our neighbor across the street asked me to help her daughter with her homework after school. I was able to teach her in the way I wish I were able to learn. I made up songs and stories to help her memorize facts and we played games to test what she had learned. Her mom remarked, “You should become a teacher when you grow up Liz; you are so good at helping children.” At first, the idea seemed ridiculous to me. I was a terrible student. How could it ever happen?

Slowly the idea took root and I decided to give college a try. Having a goal made things easier for me and I began to apply myself. Selecting courses and having different teachers suited me as well. My second semester, I sat in my first required education class — Children’s Literature. The professor spoke about making children’s books come alive, filling children’s worlds with rich vocabulary, and the characteristics of a classic children’s book. It was my favorite class and I was always eager to get there and participate in each discussion. About midway into the class our teacher discussed the differences between a children’s book that is here for the moment and those that are enduring classics. She flashed a list of books on her overhead projector that included titles that had been awarded a Newbery Medal or were Caldecott winners. It was then a lump began to form in my throat.

Armed with a handwritten copy of my teacher’s list of classics, I raced home, dropped my schoolbooks and ran to the basement. There in the corner on a dusty shelf sat the most amazing collection of children’s books any teacher could hope to have. As I ran my fingers across the bindings of Frederick, Tales from the Ballet, The Trumpet of the Swan and Stuart Little memories came flooding back. Memories of receiving these books, staring at those pages late at night curled up in my bed and gazing at beautiful pictures. I remembered my grandmother reading Leo Lionni’s Frederick to me when she came to visit one spring. I was so sure I had figured out the ending, and finding out I was wrong delighted me.

It was then I realized I didn’t remember most of the toys I had gotten all those Christmases and with the exception of one old doll, all of the mounds of presents did not make it to my adulthood. Most, in fact, were discarded soon after they were played with or were broken or sold at garage sales. Now I stood before a treasure that I would not trade for anything. As I bent back the cover of Make Way for Ducklings, I saw my grandmother’s familiar and stylish handwriting that read, “To Elizabeth Rose, with love, from Grandmother.” Love was exactly what my grandmother had been giving me all of my years. She resisted the happiness of a beaming child opening an expensive toy and replaced it with a gift that was a part of her. She didn’t give me what I wanted in my little girl mind, but what she knew I needed — a gift for the soul that would last a lifetime. Now I saw how wise she had been and how each book was so carefully selected at different times of my life.

I sat down that day and wrote my grandmother a letter. I expressed as well as I could how much I was enjoying school and how my collection of children’s books was a treasure. I wrote about my happy memories reading them and about how much I knew I was loved. I placed my letter in a box with a pillow that had a mallard duck on the front. It looks like the duck in the book, Make Way for Ducklings, I wrote. This letter was as much for me as it was for her and I planned on telling her more about school and hearing more about her favorite books each time we spoke. Sometimes, what we plan never happens. Shortly after she received my letter, my grandmother died. My aunt who lives nearby told me how much my words had meant to her in her final days.

I continued to water the seed she planted so long ago. I graduated college with honors and received my master’s degree in remedial reading. I became a teacher and I try my best to plant those tiny seeds in all my students. Sometimes I can see the world of words opening up right before their eyes. Some students squirm and do not pay attention, but I do not lose faith or feel as if all my efforts won’t someday change their lives and that seed won’t take root. I know now that I don’t have to see the finished product to believe that a work I have started may take many years to reach completion.

I find that I am most happy now only when I am stealing moments in my busy day to read a good book. Although my own children can now read independently, I still take delight in reading aloud to them. This summer I read them Island of the Blue Dolphins and they would groan when I called them over to listen. Undaunted, I would read, and by the close of each session they would always ask for more. Now, I consider my time reading peaceful, a world of possibilities, second only to church. As I open the cover to a new book, I feel the shadow of my grandmother beside me and it is almost as if the inside cover of every book reads, “To Elizabeth Rose, with love, from Grandmother.”

~Elizabeth Rose Reardon Farella

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