Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Power of a Dollar and a Mouse; How the Smallest Gestures Often Make the Biggest Waves

Rebecca, 1982
September 1st, 1982; It was my 6th Birthday. I was starting Kindergarten that morning, and I was scared and nervous, and also excited to be getting out of the house like my big brother. We lived with our biological mother; it wasn't a good life; amid abuse and neglect, the prospect of going to school was a relief.
Mom was particularly difficult in the days leading up to the first day of school and my Birthday. Two days earlier, in response to a poor job cleaning the dishes, she had 'taken away' my Birthday.  I was used to her behaving that way, the Christmas before, she had taken that away too; the tree had been up, the house decorated, and she just... took it away; the gifts were removed from under the tree and put in a big basket, and there they sat for many months before we somehow, miraculously 'earned' them back.  I don't remember what we did to lose Christmas, or to earn back the presents, but I remember opening them on the cold living room in the late Winter, feeling sick to my stomach about the whole thing, but pressured to act overly thankful at Mother's kindness. When she took away my 6th Birthday, I just told myself that Kindergarten and freedom were way more Birthday than any old cake or present could be.
I went to school that day, riding the bus with my brother, sitting in the back of the bus together, eating the wheat bread, butter, and sugar sandwiches he had snuck out of the house after a breakfast-less morning of up-before-the-sun chores.

"In case you don't get to have cake for real, pretend it's cake,"  my brother told me as I savored the sweet treat; butter and granules of sugar coating upper lip, and crumbs dropping on my lap with every bump of the school bus.

We finally arrived at school, and I fell immediately in love with every part of it; from the blue doors on the fronts of the classrooms; mine was blue #4, to the way my shoes squeaked on the shiny, tiled hallways, and the way the halls smelled like pencils and books and... freedom!. My brother walked me to my classroom before heading on to his 6th-grade class, assuring me that I would 'love Mrs. Mac'. the same teacher he had had in Kindergarten.
When I walked into the room, I was suddenly shy when I saw everyone on their new clothes and spotless shoes, neither of which I had. I spotted the teacher, and right away knew I would love her; she wore purple corduroy pants and a colorful necklace hung playfully from the neck of her green, turtleneck sweater. She ushered all of us to the front of the room where there were carpet squares laid out in a circle facing a chair; on two of the carpet squares there was a teeny, wrapped present, and a card reading, "Happy Birthday" on the front (I already knew how to read). I had an inner tinge of sour in the back of my throat as I was reminded of my Birthday having been taken away.
"Rebecca and Annie, these are your seats, because you both have Birthdays today!" Mrs. Mac said.
I felt my face blush red as the other children looked at the two of us, Annie with her pleated skirt and Peter Pan collared blouse and tight, blond curls and freckles, and me with my long, brown braids and faded, Superman overalls. Both of us were too shy to open the little gifts in front of everyone, and were equally relieved when Mrs. Mac said we could put the presents away in our backpacks if we chose to.
I secreted away my little gift with the miniature pink bow, and the powder-blue card in the front pocket of my backpack; I couldn't wait to get it home and open it, and yet, somehow, through the excitement of the day filled with stories and recess and a tour of the school library (where I was just SURE I could devour each and every one of those precious books!) I forgot about the little gift in my bag.
That afternoon when I got home, mother was wrapped up in bed reading a book; she didn't even look up when I passed her room on the way to mine.
"Wash the dishes, sweep the kitchen, and get your room cleaned; it's a pigsty" she grumbled, never taking her eyes off her book.
"Yes Ma'am" I said, dropping my backpack in my room before heading to the kitchen to wash the dishes. By the time I finished my chores, my brother came home from school, and the day ended with more chores and cooking, and finally we went to our rooms, my brother to read out of his school library book, and me to pretend I didn't care that it was my Birthday, and there was no special supper... no cake... and no candle to blow out.
There was my backpack where I had dropped it earlier, and when I touched the strap, I remembered my day at school, and suddenly remembered the tiny present waiting to be opened! I turned on the little lamp at my desk and pulled out the perfectly-wrapped square box that was so light I was sure it may be an empty, mean joke. I opened the card first; isn't that what we are always taught? The front had an elephant holding a flag in his trunk that said, "You're 6! Happy Birthday!" I opened the card and a crisp dollar fell out! I was excited, and of course, I smelled it! I knew right away what I wanted; the ice cream truck still made it's rounds for a while longer before Autumn began to nip at ears and noses, and I wanted to buy my brother and me a popsicle each, Banana for me, Root Beer for my brother.
I folded the dollar back into the card (I don't think I read the message inside!) and picked up the little present. So light, I thought, how could there be a gift inside? I peeled the tape, slowly and carefully, not wanting to mar the wrapping paper, white with rainbow-colored polka dots. Carefully I unbent each fold and revealed a tiny white box with a flap-lid. My heart quickened, and I had the urge to sing myself the 'happy Birthday song', so in my mind I said the words as I quietly hummed the tune. When I had finished, I rubbed my hands together fast with a little burst of energy, and flipped open the lid!
Inside the teeny, nearly weightless box with a mouse! A small, plastic mouse that was mostly white, but had little brown ears, a pink nose, and the tiniest black-dot eyes. There was a little knob on the side, and when I pulled him out of the box, I immediately twisted the knob and set him away from me on the desk, put my chin on the desk, and let the little wind-up mouse run softly into my nose. Nose to nose with this tiny new friend, I quietly whispered, "happy Birthday to me!"
I don't remember if I ever bought the popsicles, or even what ever happened to that little mouse. But I have never forgotten that one, small gift, the only reminder that I even had a 6th Birthday, and how I felt to have been, even in that ever-so-small way, given back the Birthday that was taken away.

Dear Mrs. Mac; how I wish I could thank you now. I wish I could thank her for the ripple that turned out to be such a beautiful wave of Gratitude that has washed over and over me throughout my life; giving me the gift of being thankful, especially in the tiny ripples, recognizing them for the crashing, cleansing waves that they actually are.

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