The Book and Other Gifts
The small rectangular gift sat on the top of a pyramid of Christmas gifts on the top of the pool table in Aunt Helen’s basement. The table held about fifteen piles of gifts, all of the mounds higher than my six-year-old head. The extended Large family was a large family, and each of the cousins received gifts from each aunt and uncle. Stores such as John’s Bargain and Harry’s Discount made Christmas shopping easy and affordable for growing families in 1960, and the boxes seemed to follow a somewhat predictable pattern. For example, the boys under age ten all had a big gift wrapped in a snowman motif at the bottom of their piles. I knew those gifts held plastic World War II style rifles, because I was with my parents when they bought them on sale at the toy store.
The cousins were allowed to open only one gift at the party. I had to choose carefully. I was such an Oh So Very Clever Girl because I had a gift-opening plan: if I waited until a few of the female cousins in my age range opened their gifts, I would have an educated guess as to each package’s contents. One year, almost all the girls received stuffed Lassie dogs from Uncle Phil; another, Mr. Potato Head from Aunt Marie.
Aunt Dot’s gifts were often unusual. Aunt Dot was different from the other married aunts. She did not have children. Aunt Dot was a businesswoman who owned a bar, the Grill in Camden, with my Uncle Rich. They lived above the bar, where Aunt Dot had her own office in which she “kept the books,” which were full, not of words, but of columns and columns of numbers. Her apartment had a roof deck, which she allowed my brother Jimmy and me to visit from time to time, if we were well-behaved. From the roof, we could see the Camden City Hall, probably the tallest building in the world after the Empire State Building. Aunt Dot had a Hummel figurine collection, which I was not allowed to touch, no way, no how, and I never did. Her kitchen had what she called a “dumb waiter,” which was a contraption that sent food and plates down to the bar and up again. She also employed a housekeeper who kept the apartment spotless.
These unusual Aunt Dot-isms meant that the gift on the pinnacle of the pile was either a gem or a dud. I was fixated on that small package. Was it worth the risk? If a dud, I would be stuck with it while the other cousins played with their new toys.
I stood on tippy-toes and picked the small rectangle. It had a solid heft in my hand, which was unusual. I hesitated for a moment, then tore off the wrapping paper.
A book. The gift was a book. More specifically, the gift was the novel Heidi by Johanna Spyri.
I didn’t know whether to be pleased or disappointed. I was in first grade and had just begun to learn to read that fall. I had only read school books and primers about John and Mary (the parochial school version of the Dick and Jane series). I had certainly not read any book so thick and with no pictures. I thought awhile, then decided that the book was special. I felt grown up just owning it. I would read it and become just as smart as all my older cousins plus all the adults in the room. I would know the secrets known only by those who could read.
One day that January, after the excitement of the holidays wore off, I sat down with Heidi. I was not prepared for the effect that reading a novel would have on my mind. My small world expanded to include foreign lands and new emotions. My brain swelled with new ideas and possibilities, and my heart burst with love and hope and miracles. While I was reading Heidi, I was not in South Jersey, but in the Swiss alps with Grandfather and Peter, and the blind grandmother. I wanted goat’s milk and cheese for lunch, even though I hated milk and didn’t like cheese without bologna.
I held my breath as Clara took her first steps without her wheelchair. The nuns had taught us about God, but Heidi introduced me to Mother Nature. In a world of plastics and disposables, I learned that the environment could cure ills both physical and emotional.
The book from Aunt Dot was just one gift that expanded my thinking. My aunt showed me that that women could run businesses and have offices. A woman could live in an apartment in the city and collect delicate figurines. A woman could stand on her own roof at night and gaze upon a world that I could only see through books. Eventually, those books would lead me to explore that world on my own.
My first house? Yes, in the city with a roof deck and a library.
…And, that’s what Deb said.