An­drea’s Gift

Against all odds, my daugh­ter found a way to re­mind me of the true mean­ing of the hol­i­days

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Contents - EL­IZ­A­BETH STARR HILL FROM READER’S DI­GEST, DE­CEM­BER 1966

How my daugh­ter re­minded me of the true mean­ing of the hol­i­days.

Snow had fallen in the night. My hus­band, Russ, our daugh­ter, son and I stood at the big win­dow and looked out in pleased sur­prise. Sud­denly our town was dressed for the hol­i­days. Houses wore peaked and furry hoods, and crys­tal coats en­cased the trees.

“Just one week from now, we’ll be on our way to the carol ser­vice,” Brad said. Al­most 13, he em­braced fam­ily tra­di­tions. This was a favourite one: the walk to church early on Christ­mas morn­ing, meet­ing neigh­bours, rel­a­tives and friends along the way.

“And we’ll have sausage cakes for break­fast,” Russ said.

“And tan­ger­ines,” Brad added.

“We have to put out suet for the birds,” An­drea said softly. “The snow is al­ways hard on them.”

At 15, An­drea was a lovely, ex­as­per­at­ing blend of traits. She could be sen­si­tively sweet one mo­ment, wildly bois­ter­ous the next and stone-wall stub­born through­out. Care­less as a hail­storm, she scat­tered shoes and books, as well as bits of ten­der­ness that were all the more touch­ing be­cause they could not be pre­dicted.

“Yes, suet,” I agreed, mak­ing a men­tal note; one more thing to re­mem­ber in days al­ready crammed with er­rands. I sighed. “We shouldn’t be just stand­ing here; this is a busy day.”

AS I PRE­PARED break­fast, hol­i­day plans whirled through my mind. Only when the eggs and cof­fee were ready did I re­al­ize that An­drea was still stand­ing by the win­dow in her blue robe, twist­ing a long strand of hair be­tween her fin­gers.

She jumped a lit­tle, as though my voice had re­called her from a dream. “I was just won­der­ing what to wear for the Christ­mas con­cert,” she said. “I can’t de­cide be­tween my red wool and the green taffeta.”

An­drea plays the flute in the school or­ches­tra. “Ei­ther dress should be fine,” I said, wish­ing she would eat so we could clear the table.

She sat and be­gan to pick at her food. My nerves tight­ened: I had to wrap pack­ages, get to the post of­fice. Masses of sil­very pa­per and bright rib­bon awaited me, tags say­ing “from” and “to.”

When the last pack­age was ready for mail­ing, I ran up­stairs to get my coat. Pass­ing An­drea’s room, I stopped. Although she was no paragon of neat­ness, she hadn’t left her room in such a mess in a long time. Her bed was un­made, her bureau clut­tered, her closet door ajar. I glanced in, then turned away as I saw a few un­wrapped presents on the shelf. But even that quick peek was enough to tell me that only a frac­tion of her shop­ping had been ac­com­plished. And where in the world was she now?

I sent Brad to find her. In a minute she ap­peared, car­ry­ing her flute.

“I was just prac­tis­ing in the garage,” she said. She looked around her room vaguely. “Gosh, it needs straight­en­ing, doesn’t it?”

“That was my feel­ing,” I replied. “And, if I may ven­ture a guess, a few presents need to be bought.”

My child grinned. “Are you hint­ing for a gift, Mom?” Teas­ing, she as­sured me, “You shall not be for­got­ten, never fear. Night and day I am plan­ning, plan­ning, brim­ming with yule­tide spirit.”

AS THE WEEK PRO­GRESSED, I felt in­creas­ingly har­ried. Ads tolled the count­down: six more, five more, four more shop­ping days. It was im­pos­si­ble that I would ever get the last gift bought, the last meal cooked.

Russ’s sense of doom equalled mine. Even Brad be­gan to look stressed as he moved through myr­iad fes­tiv­i­ties. Of us all, only An­drea re­mained buoy­ant. Un­sur­pris­ing, I thought, since re­spon­si­bil­ity rested so lightly on her.

I was puz­zled, though, by an odd re­mote­ness about her, and she seemed eva­sive when I ques­tioned why she came home late from school or left un­usu­ally early in the morn­ing. Once, I heard her whis­per­ing on the phone and caught the words: “No, not an inkling. I’m sure of it.”

On one of those last morn­ings, I baked and dec­o­rated cook­ies. There were sev­eral in­ter­rup­tions, and I slipped fur­ther be­hind sched­ule. I set about tidy­ing the kitchen. I opened the dish­washer, but it was full al­ready, and not of clean dishes. An­drea had loaded the ma­chine after break­fast and for­got­ten to start it.

Sud­denly it all seemed too much: the dirty dishes, the too-tight sched­ule, An­drea’s neg­li­gence. The hol­i­day sea­son was over­whelm­ing. It didn’t seem worth it.

I rushed to do the dishes be­fore pick­ing up my daugh­ter at school to drive her to her flute les­son. I pulled up out­side at 3 p.m., still an­noyed. An­drea’s long-haired fig­ure de­tached it­self from a group of friends, and she ran to­ward me. I al­most weak­ened at the sight of the funny, half-skip­ping run. She tum­bled hap­pily into the car, bub­bling with some bit of high-school news. But as she saw my face, her gai­ety gave way to ap­pre­hen­sion.

“What’s wrong?”

I told her: she couldn’t re­mem­ber any­thing; she was un­tidy, in­con­sid­er­ate. “I don’t know what you’re think­ing, you go dream­ing along…”

We had nearly reached the mu­sic school be­fore I ran out of things to say. Be­side me, An­drea sat per­fectly quiet. I didn’t look at her, but I could imag­ine her fixed ex­pres­sion and wide eyes. When I stopped the car, she got out and walked word­lessly away.

Then I felt ashamed. I was labour­ing over ev­ery de­tail of the hol­i­day, try­ing to make sure noth­ing was for­got­ten. Yet some­thing was miss­ing.

THAT EVENING, we rushed through our din­ner. It was the night of the high­school Christ­mas con­cert. Along with other fam­i­lies, Russ, Brad and I took our seats in the au­di­to­rium. I saw An­drea, in her green dress, sit down at her mu­sic stand in the pit. Up on stage, the cho­rus formed in a dou­ble line.

As the con­cert started, my ten­sion be­gan to drain away. I lis­tened, re­laxed and moved by the spe­cial at­mos­phere that these young peo­ple cre­ated. Old and new songs about snow and rein­deer al­ter­nated with rev­er­ent Christ­mas mu­sic.

Even­tu­ally the mu­sic teacher an­nounced the fi­nal se­lec­tion: “Jesu, Joy of Man’s De­sir­ing.” He added, “For this last num­ber we have a soloist. Be­cause she wanted it to be a sur­prise for her fam­ily, her name is not listed on the pro­gram.” Smil­ing, he looked down into the or­ches­tra pit: “An­drea Hill.”

My tears blurred her im­age as An­drea rose and, to the ap­plause of that au­di­to­rium, took her po­si­tion on the stage. Just be­fore she raised the flute to her lips, she looked at her fa­ther, brother and me, and gave us a wide smile.

Did the mu­sic sound so beau­ti­ful be­cause our child’s in­stru­ment led it? I don’t think so. All the fresh young voices were beau­ti­ful. But loveli­est of all was the sense of won­der that filled me. I re­mem­bered my daugh­ter prac­tis­ing, out of hear­ing, in the garage; the ex­tra time spent at school; the de­tails ig­nored, the lit­tle things un­done— while she did this big thing. In­stinc­tively, An­drea had grasped a truth that had eluded me: that du­ti­ful­ness is less im­por­tant than love.

With her love, she had pre­sented me with the mu­sic and the mean­ing of the hol­i­days. That was An­drea’s gift.

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