93. Half Full

93. Half Full

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas in Canada

Half Full

The manner of giving is worth more than the gift.

~Pierre Corneille, Le Menteur

When I attended school as a child in Montreal, it was customary to give your teacher a Christmas gift on the last day of school before the holidays. I was never able to participate. Instead I would watch sadly as my classmates eagerly waited for their offering to be pulled and opened from the staggering pile on the teacher’s desk. There was no extra money in our house to splurge on presents. Often there was barely enough for my parents to feed and clothe their rapidly growing four children.

I adored my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Brennan. Always optimistic and encouraging, she made every student feel special. Early in the year she noticed that I had some ability to write, and encouraged me in that direction. I and wanted so badly to give her a token of my admiration.

As that last day approached, I feverishly tried to come up with anything in our tiny home that she might like. Just once, I wanted to feel that warmth and satisfaction of giving someone a present — to see their eyes light up with joy as they unwrapped something special that I’d carefully selected.

I searched frantically through my meagre belongings. The few items I owned were cast off toys that no one else wanted. They were treasures to me, but were pathetically worn out, and there was no sense going through them anyway; Mrs. Brennan had long ago stopped playing with toys. It didn’t take me long to abandon my search through the room I shared with my three brothers. I owned nothing that could be re-gifted to an adult.

Next, I began digging through cupboards, hoping to find something my mother might be willing to part with. It was fruitless. She needed every pot, pan and chipped dish or cup we used every day. Now all that remained was a recessed dark cubicle of bathroom shelves that always smelled musty. Even in the dead of winter it was inhabited by spiders, which terrified me. Putting my fears aside, I continued on my quest. I pushed aside towels, facecloths, medications, shampoos and thin slivers of leftover soap we saved “just in case.” Suddenly I felt a familiar item.

I pulled out a miniature flat bottle of hand cream that had been there forever. It was half gone, and the vivid pink colour had long since changed to a ruddy hue. When I opened it and sniffed it smelled rancid, but I was excited! Perhaps I could fill it to the top with a little water and a few drops of Mom’s special perfume!

I did exactly that. The scent was strong and somewhat unpleasant. No matter how much I shook, it resisted blending with the old dried cream. I poured out the added liquid and decided it was still better than nothing and would have to do.

I washed the outside carefully until it gleamed. Next, I carefully tore a sheet of paper from a copybook. I grabbed my red and green crayons and coloured until no white or lines showed through. Finally, a wrinkled piece of ribbon from our junk drawer completed the wrapping and I placed it in my school bag. I couldn’t wait to put it with the other packages my classmates were bringing in.

On that last afternoon of class, I watched Mrs. Brennan open her gifts. She cooed over every one equally and, as she displayed each treasure, I began to squirm in my seat. She received glistening new decanters of cologne, cosmetic sets, soft flannel pyjamas, a watch, earrings — someone even bought her a beautiful fake fur jacket.

I shrank into my chair as the pile diminished and my pathetic, makeshift parcel came into view. It looked cheap and ugly tucked in between the remaining gaily decorated boxes. What had I been thinking? I wanted to run up and snatch it away before she got to it. I even prayed that she would knock it over so it would roll away unnoticed, hoping I could retrieve it on my way out. Of course, none of that happened. Instead, I could only sit there and wait, knowing someone was sure to jeer at my offering.

Finally, her fingers closed around it. She announced who it was from and proceeded to open it. Pulling out the glass container, she stared at it for a long time before holding it up to the cries of “Let’s see! Let’s see!”

My eyes filled with tears when someone shouted out, “It’s half empty!” Another giggled and said, “It’s used up shampoo or something. What a stupid—”

Silenced by a rare penetrating glare from our teacher, the last word never left his mouth.

“This,” she began holding it up again, “happens to be my very favourite hand cream — and it comes all the way from Paris, France,” she informed the mocking heckler. “It’s not half empty. It’s half full,” she corrected, “and that’s how they sell it because it’s so expensive. A little goes a long way.”

With that, she twisted off the cap, turned over the container, and made it seem like she was dabbing a scant amount on her wrist. She palmed the bottle in such a way so that no one could see nothing was coming out. She pretended to rub it over her skin, then raised her hand to her nose and inhaled deeply, spreading a blissful smile over her face as if it truly was an outrageously costly lotion.

“I love it,” she said looking at me with a huge grin, as the tension and embarrassment slowly left me. “Thank you so much, dear.” Several moments later, she dismissed the class, wishing us all a Merry Christmas.

For the next two years I often passed Mrs. Brennan in the school halls. She always had a warm, beaming smile for me. As much as I wanted to, I never found the courage to thank her for saving me from humiliation that day.

When I was in grade six our teacher told us that Mrs. Brennan had been sick with cancer, and it had now recurred and she was undergoing treatment. When I learned this I was very sad. I wrote her a poem, and asked my teacher to give it to her. Mrs. Brennan died not long after, having continued to teach almost to the end.

The entire school went to her viewing. While I was there, her sister began asking around, “Which one of you is Marya?” When I identified myself, she took me aside. First she mentioned the poem, and said, “My sister asked me to tell you to never stop writing.” Then she tucked a small bag into my pocket, and told me to open it when I was alone. I recognized it immediately. Nestled in the wrapping paper I’d coloured were the familiar bottle and crumpled ribbon I had given her. Included was a short note in her immaculate handwriting:

“Dear Marya,” she wrote. “This lotion was all you had to offer, and you chose to give it to me. That beautiful gesture meant more to me than all the expensive gifts I received that day, because it told me you loved me. I am returning it to you so you never forget that it’s the small things given with pure love that matter at Christmas. May every one of your future Christmases be as special as the one you gave me when you gave me this gift.”

Each December, that little bottle, still half full, is unwrapped carefully and placed under my tree as a reminder that the true spirit of Christmas is the gift of love.

~Marya Morin

St. Lin des Laurentides, Quebec

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