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When my daughter, Jessie, was three she was terrified of tow trucks.  That was my fault.  I’d say, “C’mon, c’mon, we have to hurry, the tow truck’s gonna get our car.”  She’d run ahead of me and reach up to grab the door handle, protecting the car from marauding tow trucks. 

“As long as I’m here, no tow truck will take our car,” she seemed to say. 

Imagine her delight when she spied a tow truck towing another tow truck.  It felt like vindication to her.

I told that story for years until it became part of Jessie’s legend. She grew up and told it to her daughter Molly.  Molly loved it so much she begged to hear it over and over, then she told it to her friend, Flynn, as if she’d seen it with her own eyes.  Then Flynn told the story as if he’d been there.  Now it’s legend and I’m sure one day Flynn’s grandson will say to his grandchildren, “Did I ever tell you about the time I saw a tow truck towing another tow truck?”  A story becomes a legend.

 

“I just re-read The Fire Next Time,” I told Jessie. “James Baldwin.  What a beautiful writer he was.”

“I know,” she said.  “I’ve read everything he wrote.  Plus, he said I was a cute baby.”

“Oh, I think that’s just one of your father’s stories,” I said.

She said to me, without anger, “Why would you take that away from me?”

Why indeed? I could have bitten my tongue. 

“You know, now that I think of it,” I said, “James Baldwin did live on Horatio Street when we did, and I often saw him walking by.  I’m sure he looked into your stroller and of course he would have said you were a beautiful baby.”  

I have since checked with Arthur, who was there.  He said, “Yes, it happened.  I wouldn’t make that up.”  So it’s true, and it’s Jessie’s story, her legend.

 

My mother was born on Long Island in May 1927, the week that Charles Lindbergh took off from nearby Roosevelt Field to make his historic flight across the Atlantic.  My grandfather liked to say that as he drove his wife and new baby home from the hospital home he looked up, saw the plane, waved and said, “Good Luck, Lindy!”

Is that a true story?   It’s a good one, full of hope for the future, the beginning of a heroic journey and a brand new life.  Is craft involved?  Did my grandfather conflate two separate events to make a compelling narrative?  He wasn’t writing a newspaper account, he was creating a family myth.  I believe in the absolute value of verifiable facts but I also believe in the value of a good story. I’m sorry he’s not here for me to ask.

  Our stories make us who we are and they are ours to tell. Sometimes they’re absolutely true in the verifiable, fact-checking sense.  And sometimes they’re true in the sense of legend and myth. 

My father was a storyteller who often repeated himself and we teased him for it. One Christmas as we drove away from his house my son Sam, age ten, said, 

‘I don’t know why you give PopPop such a hard time.  I think his stories are great and I love them every time.”

Oft-repeated, well-loved stories make up our family lore.  When they move into the next generation they bring back lost loved ones.  Sam reminded us to be grateful for them.

Will you tell me your story?

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It’s the season for gift giving and I’m sorry that it’s often more of a chore than an act of love.  Lately it’s become an act of war, with people using pepper spray and trampling their fellow shoppers. What could Wal-Mart have that's that precious?

Here are some of my thoughts on gifts and their complications.

In the Nativity story the Wise Men bring gifts to Baby Jesus and then it says “but Mary took these things and kept them in her heart.”   I always thought Mary was stealing Jesus’s birthday presents. It took me a long time to get over my suspicions about her and understand that there are gifts that don’t get wrapped in paper.

You know that book,  Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree?  It’s a classic, supposedly a children’s book which gets held up as an example of true giving.     A headmaster I know read it to a group of little girls.

I have a bone to pick with Mr. Silverstein.

Here’s the story. There’s a tree and a boy.  They have a great time together.     He climbs and swings in her branches, eats her apples and rests in her shade.  Sounds like a fairly heathy boy/tree relationship, right?

Did I mention that the tree is a she?

Then the boy gets older and wants to buy things and have fun, so he tells the tree he needs money.  She says take my apples and sell them. Does he say thank you or offer something in exchange?  Nope.  He takes the apples and goes away and the tree is lonesome.

Now we’re getting exploitive.

Then he comes back and tells the tree he wants a house.  Does she say so get a job?  No, she says take my branches.  He cuts off her branches (ouch!) and goes away to build his house.   Does he say thank you?  Nope.

Now the relationship is abusive.

He comes back and says he doesn’t like his house anymore.  She says take my trunk and make a canoe.  He cuts down her trunk and leaves just a stump.

How is that not murder?

He’s not satisfied until  she give him everything she has, until she’s nothing but a stump.   Actually, he’s not satisfied even then, but he knows she has nothing left to give him.  And he still doesn’t say thank you.

So what’s the message here? Is this what we’re supposed to give-- Everything we have and are so we’re left with absolutely nothing?  Is that supposed to be a happy relationship?  See why I have a problem with a male authority figure reading this to a bunch of little girls?

Okay, I know, Jesus sacrificed himself freely and completely, but he did have expectations for us.  Is the tree God?  Maybe the tree is the Earth, and the boy is humankind.  That makes some sense.

I think we should give as much as we can, give until it hurts even and we should take joy in giving but we should treat ourselves as renewable resources.

It’s hard to find the right gift, but it’s worth the effort.   I once asked my Grandfather Brown what he wanted for Christmas.

“Now don’t be giving me a lot of stuff,” he said.  “You don’t take on baggage at the end of the line.”  I thought about him and the fact that he was always chilly, so I got him flannel pajamas.  When he opened them on Christmas morning he said, “Oh, you DOLL!”  I had hit a home run.

When I was eight I stayed with my other grandparents for a long visit.  They gave me some chores to do and I saved up my money.  It was the first time I was allowed to walk around town by myself so I went shopping  and bought a present for my grandmother-- a teacup with lilies of the valley.  That was her favorite flower, because Jesus was called the lily of the valley.  She opened it and shed a few happy tears and then my grandfather said “That’s a present for me, too.”

Uh oh.    Should I have gotten something for him, too?  Does he feel left out?  Is he mad?  Am I in trouble?

It took me years to understand that seeing me make her happy brought him Joy.  When you give a gift you don’t know how many people you’re actually giving it to.

Which leads to my mother’s mink stole.  My father brought it home from work one day--he couldn’t wait for Christmas.  She was thrilled.  She danced around the living room and gave Dad a very nice kiss. She wore it for years and then stoles went out of style.  It stayed in the back of the closet until she wore it to a Hallowe’en party where a friend, Mrs. B, looked at the stole with longing and said, “Oh, I’ve always wanted a mink stole.”   And Mom said, “Here, it’s yours.”

The next day Mom ran into Mr. B.   “That mink stole!” he said.  “She came into the bedroom in the stole, her high heels and nothing else!  Ginny, thank you for a wonderful night!”

Remember what I said in Organized at Last about passing it on?  How you never know how a thing you don’t use anymore can be someone else’s treasure?

Then there’s the way we receive our gifts.     My mother and my grandmother and grandfather  knew how to accept a gift with joy, but I had another lesson in the way to appreciate  a gift from a little baby.   That's appropriate to the season, don’t you think?

We were visiting my old friend Valerie to meet her son Ted for the first time.   Ted was about a year old, so we bought him a little wooden car.   We didn’t have time for wrapping so we made a big wad of the paper bag and gave it to Ted.   He was delighted with the gift of a big wad of paper and played with it until he discovered the little car and that was even more delightful!

May we always be just as delighted with every gift we receive!  As I said in my title, I wish you all the gifts of this happy season, and I wish you joy in both giving and receiving.

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