The Gift

Sheila Sandapen

© Copyright 2020 by Sheila Sandapen

Photo of a full moon (c) Richard Loller.

I did not live a childhood full of wonder and magical moments.  I was not encouraged to believe in fairies, elves or to even consider the very real nature of magic. My parents were too practical to entertain encouraging such notions in their house. Their days were filled with strife, work, and a general sense of discontent with their lot.

On my fatherís part, he was consumed by a constant longing to be home with his parents and siblings in their far home on the island of Mauritius.  As a child, the only things I understood about his homeland was that a) it was the home of the dodo, the same mythical creature that appears in Alice in Wonderland and b) since it was on the other side of the world, summer came in December.

My mother on the other hand, was more of an enigma. She didnít speak much about anything of import and never about her past, only about the future. It was common knowledge in our household that one day we would emigrate to America to be near her family who had left Mauritius and settled in the U.S. before I was born. It was this journey that had been instrumental in my mother and father meeting. My twenty-year-old mother and her father served as the advance guard to the family -- 7 other children and my grandmother remained behind -- and were on the way to stay with my motherís oldest sister who had married an American merchant marine and settled in Philadelphia. Once they arrived in London, my grandfather and mother stayed with her another sister, my grandfatherís second oldest living child, who as consolation for not having found a husband at 23, had been sent to complete a nursing course. In the way of all immigrants, the Mauritians had formed an ex-pat community where they could speak their language together, shake hands with a fellow countryman and reminisce over food that was flavored to their liking.

Within a week of arriving in London, my mother was introduced to my father and by the end of the month he asked for her hand in marriage. The wedding itself was quickly arranged so my grandfather could complete his passage to the U.S. as scheduled; I was born ten months later. Many years later my mother asserted her father directed her to marry my dad and she decided it wasnít a bad choice:  her new husband would speak her language as her English was nonexistent then and she did not think it likely an American man would take her.

Practical people have no time for magic. I read about magical beings and occurrences in my storybooks but I implicitly understood magic was for other people and usually to be found in fiction.

No, my life was a bit Dickensian. I went to school, I came home and did homework, and watched TV (BBC and ITV in the days before cable and satellite TV) and went to bed. The next day was a repeat. On Fridays, I went to the laundrette with my mother and brother; while we waited, she bought us cakes or sausage rolls at the bakery next door. Once we had washed and dried the weekís dirt I was charged with ironing all the shirts: my fatherís, my brotherís and because I went to Catholic school that required a uniform, my own.  For some reason my family did not own an ironing table so I would go to my room, spread out a bed sheet on the floor and iron while on my knees. One time I burned my wrist on the iron and thinking to soothe the hurt, I rubbed it with Vaseline. The skin blistered, scarred, and left a dark elliptical shaped mark.

The house of my childhood was a brick row home. One room wide, but deep. On the first floor was the sitting room featuring a bay window that looked out on our fenced graveled front garden and the street. This room was furnished with a three-piece suite and was not in general use except when we had company or if I went there to read. It was closed off from the rest of the house by glass doors.  When we had moved in my mother stopped the deliveries of coal and installed central heating and put in wall-to-wall carpeting to make the place updated. Later she had the fireplaces ripped out so the rooms would be bigger.

Our front room kept for ďbestĒ was also the place we kept our Christmas tree and record player. Each December I would sit there looking at the treeís multicolored lights, listening to Perry Como, Bing Crosby and because my mother was a fan, Elvis Presley, on LPS singing Christmas carols.

When I was eight I received a Kermit puppet. The card was made out to ďShielaĒ instead of ďS-h-e-i-l-a.Ē Looking at the card I knew that Father Christmas aka Santa aka the big guy in red didnít exist because if he did, he would not have misspelled my name or have handwriting that looked like my motherís.  I donít remember feeling particularly disillusioned  -- after all he wasnít a presence in our home -- but deep down Iíd hoped.

I shrugged it off, took the puppet, and soldiered on.

The next year was more of the same. But the year after everything changed. Since there was no need to wait on the big guy or worry about the naughty or nice list, I came down in the middle of the night to look under the tree.  There was an unfamiliar present -- by then I had sussed out my motherís hiding place and already intimately knew all the toys that were coming my way. It was a plain square with no label.  I carefully peeled back the tape holding the colored wrapping paper and inside was a broad book with a pink cover.  I remember how cold the room was in the dead of the night and how quiet everything was. I wondered who this gift was intended for. I put the book back and went to bed.

The next morning the package was given to me. The book was filled with tales I had not heard, not fairy tales but stories of imps and fiends who committed larceny and murder but then were severely punished. It had black and white illustrations and a hot pink cover. The stories were dark, but funny. I treasured this gift. I hadnít asked for it -- not that it would have mattered if I had. I tended to get gifts that didnít have any correlation to my secret desires -- but this BOOK. I hadnít asked for it. It was just what I wanted. I loved it.

It seemed so unlikely that my parents would get this for me. Who could have brought it for me? A wave of happiness engulfed me. It was simply wondrous that I should have this gift in my hand, a gift I didnít know I wanted but was immediately precious. It was moment filled with wonder.


Sheila Sandapen writes fiction, essays, and blogs in her spare timeShe is also part of a long standing memoir group. She teaches English and Writing in the Philadelphia area. 

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