The Gift

The Gift

From A 2nd Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul

The Gift

“Grandpa, please come,” I said, knowing he wouldn’t. In the pale light that filtered through the dusty kitchen window, he sat stiffly in his padded vinyl chair, his thick arms resting on the Formica table, staring past me at the wall. He was a gruff, crusty, old-country Italian, with a long memory for past hurts both real and imagined. When he was feeling testy, he responded with a grunt. He gave me one now that meant no.

“Come on, Gramps,” pleaded my six-year-old sister, Carrie. “I want you to come.” Twenty-one years younger than I, she had been a startlingly late addition to our family. “I’m going to make your favorite cookies just for you. Mommy said she would show me.”

“It’s for Thanksgiving, for God’s sake,” I said. “You haven’t joined us for dinner for four years now. Don’t you think it’s about time we let the past be?”

He glanced at me, his blue eyes flashing the same fierce intensity that had intimidated the entire family all these years. Except me. Somehow, I knew him. Perhaps I shared more of his loneliness than I cared to admit, and the same inability to let emotions show. Whatever the reason, I knew what was inside him. The sins of the fathers will be visited on their sons, it was written, and so they were. How much suffering occurs because of the unfortunate “gift” each male receives before he is old enough to decide if he wants it, this misguided idea of manhood. We end up hard on the outside, helpless on the inside, and the few feet that separated me from my grandfather might just as well have been measured in light years.

Carrie chattered on, still trying to convince him. She had no idea how hopeless it was.

I got up and walked to the window overlooking his backyard. In the winter light, the disheveled garden was a delicate gray, overgrown with tangled weeds and vines gone wild. Grandpa used to work miracles there—a substitute, perhaps, for his inability to orchestrate his own nature. But after Grandma died, he let the garden go, retreating even further into himself.

Turning away from the window, I studied him in the deepening gloom. From his prominent chin to his thick, rough hands, everything about him reflected the relentless discipline his life had been: work since age 13, the humiliation of unemployment during the Depression, decades of hard manual labor in the Trenton Stone Quarry. Not an easy life.

I kissed him on the cheek. “We have to go now, Grandpa. I’ll pick you up if you decide to come.”

He sat stone-still, staring straight ahead, sucking on his old pipe.

A few days later, Carrie asked me for Grandpa’s address.

“What for?” I asked.

She was neatly folding a sheet of paper to fit into a blue envelope. “I want to send him a gift. I made it myself.”

I told her the address, pausing after each line so she could get it all down. She wrote slowly, concentrating on making each letter and number neat and round. When she finished, she put her pencil down and said firmly, “I want to mail it myself. Will you take me to the mailbox?”

“We’ll do it later, okay?”

“I need to do it now. Please?”

So we did.

On Thanksgiving I awoke late to the delicious smell of pasta sauce. Mom was preparing her special dinner of ravioli, turkey, broccoli, sweet potatoes, and cranberry sauce, a wonderful amalgam of Italian and American traditions. “We need only four places, Carrie,” she was saying as I entered the kitchen.

Carrie shook her head. “No, Mommy, we need five. Gramps is going to come.”

“Oh, honey,” Mom said.

“He’s coming,” my sister said flatly. “I know he is.” “Carrie, give us a break. He isn’t coming and you know it,” I said. I didn’t want to see her day spoiled by crushing disappointment.

“John, let her be.” Mom looked at Carrie. “Set an extra place then.”

Dad came in from the living room. He stood in the doorway, hands in his pockets, looking at Carrie as she set the table.

Finally we sat down to dinner. For a moment we were all silent. Then, glancing at Carrie, Mom said, “I guess we had better say grace now. Carrie?”

My sister looked toward the door. Then she set her chin, bowed her head and mumbled, “Please bless us, O Lord, and the food we are about to eat. And bless Grandpa . . . and help him to hurry. Thank you, God.”

Shooting glances at each other, we sat in silence, no one willing to seal Grandpa’s absence and disappoint Carrie by eating. The clock ticked in the hallway.

Suddenly there was a muffled knocking at the door. Carrie leapt to her feet and ran down the hallway. She tore open the door. “Gramps!”

He stood straight in his black, shiny suit, the only one he owned, pressing a black fedora against his chest with one hand and dangling a brown paper bag with the other. “I bring squash,” he said, holding up the bag.

Several months later, Grandpa died quietly in his sleep. Cleaning out his dresser, I found a blue envelope, a folded piece of paper inside. It was a child’s drawing of our kitchen table with five chairs around it. One of the chairs was empty, the others occupied by faded stick figures labeled Momy, Dady, Johny and Carrie. Hearts were drawn on the four of us, each cracked jaggedly down the middle.

John Catenacci

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