From Chicken Soup for the Country Soul

A Special Gift

During the holidays, I sometimes think of Ol’ Art. That wasn’t his real name. It’s just what we fifth-graders called the scrawny, likable classmate with the goofy smile, threadbare pants and poorly mended shirts.

Not that Ol’ Art’s poverty meant much in our rural Georgia area. Few people had money, but most had gardens, a pig for yearly meat and a willingness to share. The problem was Ol’ Art’s mom. She saw such offers as charity and stoutly refused any aid.

Still, Ol’ Art never complained about carrying buttered biscuits for lunch, cheerfully washing them down with water from the hall fountain. The only time Ol’ Art thought about his poor state was after suffering a bout of Lila’s taunts. Lila, a local grocer’s daughter, jeered at us all, but she seemed to take special pleasure in tormenting Ol’ Art. She was in rare form when Ol’ Art drew my name for the fifth-grade gift exchange during the upcoming school Christmas party.

“You won’t even get a used head scarf this year!” Lila crowed, referring to a hand-me-down I received the previous year at the school’s annual gathering. “Ol’ Art here couldn’t afford a box of dirt.”

Ol’ Art blushed beet red to the tips of his hair. He blinked fast and crossed his arms tightly against his thin chest, using his bony hand to try to cover the new hole in his shirt sleeve. Feeling awkward and ashamed ourselves, we all looked the other way. I wanted to comfort Ol’ Art by reminding him it was Christmas, not presents, that mattered. However, I was a clumsy ten-year-old, too shy to say something so intimate to a boy.

Ol’ Art’s gift, wrapped in pieces of toilet tissue held together by a piece of twine, heightened Lila’s mean giggles. However, she stopped midlaugh, her eyes growing wider than my own, when I pulled from that wad of tissue a sparkling rhinestone bracelet with a gold-plated heart attached. Hanging in the middle of the heart, a miniature gold cross was embedded with a red stone. It was, at that point, the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I had never dared then to hope for such a possession, even in my dreams.

In fact, like the vagaries of a dream, something familiar tried to tug at my psyche as I stared at the bracelet, but the mental image would not come clear in my state of surprised pleasure. Slightly dazed, I glanced up to see that even the teacher was staring in open-mouthed wonderment at Ol’ Art. He was smiling so hard in return it seemed as if his face might soon split with the effort. His happy grin lasted that entire afternoon. When Ol’ Art’s mom came to walk him home later, her usually grim expression softened at the sight of Ol’ Art, and, going out side by side, a slight bounce in her step implied she shared her son’s ecstasy.

His mom died the following year, and Ol’ Art was taken in by relatives in another state. We never saw him again, but I never forgot him or that bracelet. It was eons later, after years of adulthood, that I ran across that bracelet again. The rhinestones had blackened with age, and the gold-plated heart was scratched and worn; but when I polished the bracelet, the red stone embedded in the miniature gold cross still gleamed.

“How,” I finally asked after so many years, “did a fifth-grade boy who ate biscuits and water for lunch afford such a gift?”

It was then when an almost-forgotten sense of familiarity from the past became clear. About a month before that same Christmas party, I was in the school bathroom when I overheard a teacher outside the door ask the woman who had been hired to scrub floors for that day if she wouldn’t like to take off her bracelet before beginning.

“I don’t take it off until I absolutely have to,” the woman had replied, almost apologetically. “My husband gave it to me before he died. I found out later he had sold his father’s watch to get the money to buy it. I don’t usually take off this bracelet for any length of time without good reason.”

Making this mental connection at last, I realized Ol’ Art’s mom had eventually felt a compelling enough reason to not only remove her bracelet, but to give it up for good. That reason had been a mother’s love. That love was so strong she wanted her son, the poorest boy in the class, to have one shining moment of glory when he was able to give the best gift at the school Christmas party.

Marijoyce Porcelli

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