The Best Gift Ever
I am, as I have mentioned before, Catholic. Yes, I’m about as fallen-away as a Catholic can get without actually renouncing the church, the doctrine and the existence of God, himself, but I am still Catholic at heart (According to Spell-Check, I cannot, however, SPELL catholic, go figure). So, if you know anything at all about the religion, it should come as no shock to you to learn that I attended catechism classes as a child.
For the most part, I do not remember much about those classes, but there is one year that stands out.
Mrs. Atencio was my CCD teacher when I was in the sixth grade. Every Wednesday I would walk from the school to her house along with six of my Catholic classmates. We would study our lessons, read scripture and each week Mrs. Atencio would make a Herculean effort to apply bible verse to our real lives, God love her.
One Wednesday, early in December, Mrs. Atencio announced that we would be taking a field trip to the local nursing home. At the nursing home, we would spend time with the residents making holiday decorations and singing carols while Mrs. Atencio played the piano.
Now, to our wee little brains, this sounded like a most excellent way to get out of reading verse and learning about the world according to the Catholic Church. It would be a blast.
Yeah, not so much. In reality, the nursing home, with its garish tinsel garlands, fake Christmas trees and putrid smell of disinfectant and, I don’t know, DEATH, gave us all the creeps.
Mrs. Atencio, however, was unfazed by our lack of enthusiasm. In fact, she viewed our lackluster attitudes as a challenge; she was determined to break through what she viewed as our selfishness. She pointed out that, unlike us, many of the residents were alone in the world without so much as a family member to visit them at Christmas. Most of the residents would receive no gifts nor would they leave the home to be surrounded by loved ones on the holiest of days, the day for love, family and fellowship.
As a remedy, Mrs. Atencio instructed us each to pick out and “adopt” a grandparent that day. We were to visit our “grandparent” each Wednesday before Christmas and on our final Wednesday, we would throw a party for all of the residents of the home.
I was totally squicked out by the plan, and I was not alone. After all, my friends and I all had grandparents already. What did we need a total stranger for? Being obedient little Catholics, however, we did as we were told without much complaint.
Plus, Mrs. Atencio was more than a little bit scary, but that is more of a Halloween story than a Christmas story, and I digress.
Anyway, as we were milling about the rec. room, I noticed a frail old woman in a wheelchair. She had a smile on her face that had not once wavered since we arrived. This made her seem far less scary than some of the other residents of the home and I quickly decided that she would be the beneficiary of my Christmas spirit. Her name was Evie and she had been in the home for only a few months. She had a son, several grown grandchildren and a great-grandchild but they lived in a different state and she rarely saw them. They would, she assured me however, call her on Christmas. How very generous of them.
I came to know Evie fairly well over the next couple of Wednesdays and, as Mrs. Atencio had envisioned all along, I came to like her a great deal (well played, Mrs. Atencio, well played).
On the day of the party, we were to bring our “grandparent” a gift. The gifts must be something from our homes that our parents no longer needed or used and we were not allowed to bring food because most of the residents were on restricted diets of some sort.
I wracked my brain looking for something to take to Evie. My mom offered up anything and everything that she owned but nothing seemed just right to me. Finally, I decided on a wallet that I had bought on a recent vacation to California. It was a cheap vinyl number with Cinderella’s castle and the word Disneyland spelled out in red lettering. My mother was appalled; she could not figure for the life of her why I would choose a blue vinyl wallet over say, a crystal candy dish, but my mind was set. I had purchased that wallet with my own money. It was the ONLY souvenir that I had from that vacation. It meant something to me and I wanted Evie to have it. The end.
In my mind’s eye, I still see Evie as she peeled the wrapping paper away from that damn wallet. Her fingers were gnarled by arthritis, her hands spotted with age. She cried when she opened it and the smile on that woman’s face was so genuine and loving, my heart swelled almost to bursting. Then she told me that it was the best gift that she had ever received.
The best gift, ever.
Evie passed away not long after that day. I am sure it was a matter of moments before she was granted wings in heaven because she sure was an angel on earth.
Christmas is a time for miracles and, I believe in miracles; I experienced one all those years ago when a spoiled rotten, selfish brat learned that a gift, when given from the heart, could affect another’s life. Because, while that wallet did not change Evie’s life, the gift that she gave me in return certainly changed mine; it was the gift of appreciation for my blessings.
In the end, that was the best gift I ever received.
The best gift, ever.