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Christmas Gifts



Published December 26, 2012 at 10:49 a.m.

I snuck a glance at the person sitting beside me and concluded that Erica was aging well — a slender, cool customer, indeed. Her shoulder-length, strawberry-blond hair looked natural, or close to it, and her high cheekbones remained well defined, nicely setting off her clear, blue eyes. Erica’s fashion style appealed to me, as well — a mauve, form-fitting fleece jacket over relaxed black cotton pants and chunky, tan Ugg boots. If I were a woman, I thought to myself, this is how I’d dress.

We had just left the Burlington airport, Erica having departed from Memphis early that morning. The afternoon was crisp and sunny as we cruised south on the highway, en route to a school for yoga instructors outside Montpelier. “How’d you get into yoga teaching?” I asked.

“It’s been a gradual process,” Erica explained. “I’ve been studying and teaching yoga my whole adult life, basically. But, for work, I was an ER nurse. Then, two years ago, I had to take a month off from the hospital to tend to a family crisis. When it was over, I had what you might call an epiphany — I knew I had to devote my work life to yoga. And that’s just what I did — I quit the ER, and now I teach classes full time.”

“What a life-changing decision,” I said. “That had to have taken a lot of guts.”

“I suppose,” she said, “but I’m the type of person who lives by her guts.” She paused and chuckled. “I don’t know any other way. Seriously, it’s all I got.”

“I can dig it,” I said, chuckling as well. “So you flew up here from Tennessee. Is that where you grew up?”

“No, I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. And, yes, as a child in that town, I was right in the middle of the civil-rights era.”

“Where’d your folks, your family, come down on the issue?”

“Well, Dad died in a traffic accident when I was quite young, but my mother fancied herself a moderate, which really made no sense if you think about what was going on. I always knew, though, that her heart was in the right place. I do remember two great-aunts who were, like, total racists. But over time, even they changed, thank God.”

“Did you have much contact with black folks growing up?”

“Not in our segregated, all-white neighborhood, and not in school — well, until the high school was integrated, anyway. When Dad died, though, Mom had to work full time, so Rachel, a black woman, was hired to take care of us after school and whatnot. She was called a ‘domestic,’ whatever that means. One time, Mom had a weekend overnight date, so we actually stayed with Rachel at her home. Let me tell you, that was radical at the time. You just didn’t do such a thing. My aunts surely would have thrown a fit if they had known. Me and my kid brother and sister had a ball. Rachel lived in a rambling old house, and there were a lot of kids our age to play with.

“I’ll never forget — it would have been around the time of the church bombings — we found out Rachel’s sister was killed in some incident, probably racially motivated. I must have said something to her about it, something kidlike and naïve. She stopped what she was doing, looked right at me and said, ‘How would you feel if your sister was killed?’ You know how something sticks with you your whole life? That really changed me.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” I said. “I’ve had incidents, someone saying something to me that, like, wakes me out of some sleep or unconsciousness in which I’d been living. It can be quite stunning.”

Coming up on the Stowe exit, my mind drifted to the fast-approaching Christmas season, and I hoped for the snowfall that would brighten the prospects for Vermont’s many ski resorts and villages. That got me thinking about families of tourists, and of my own mom, who died quite young and unexpectedly exactly 30 years ago.

“So Erica,” I restarted our chat, “is your mom still around? Did she ever remarry?”

“No, she passed away quite recently, as a matter of fact. And she never did remarry, despite years of dating. I actually liked some of the guys, too.”

Erica took a deep breath. Maybe it was the reminiscing, or the holidays, or her mom’s recent departure, but it seemed I’d inadvertently struck a nerve.

“Yes, my mom,” she said with a sigh. “She never did know what to do with me, her eldest. I was a very, let’s say, expressive child, and it was as if we were from different planets. Our relationship was always contentious, to say the least.

“I’ll tell you one story,” Erica continued. “One Christmas she gave me money — I don’t know, maybe $15 — to go to the department store and buy two presents for my brother and sister. I came back empty-handed. ‘Where’s the toys?’ she asked. I told her the truth, which was that I had given the money to the Salvation Army man with the bell in front of the store.”

Erica’s throat caught, and I could see she was tearing up. I just stayed quiet, respecting the moment she was having.

“And here’s the thing,” she continued, “she didn’t yell at me, rebuke me for that or even say anything. And I remember thinking — I must have been maybe 11 or 12 — I was thinking, She probably thought that was a stupid thing to do, but she respects my judgment and that’s why she’s not punishing me. That was a gift my mother gave to me.”

Erica was full-on crying now. I reached over with one hand and patted her shoulder a few times. I said, “Gifts can come in all kinds of shrouded packages, can’t they? Especially, at times, gifts from our parents.”

“I’ve been thinking about her a lot when I do my yoga,” she said. With moist eyes but no longer crying, her face took on a composed and peaceful quality. “Wherever she is now, I have this strong intuition that we now understand each other much better. I don’t know how that’s even possible, but that’s what I feel.”

“I know what you mean,” I said, “and I believe it, whatever the explanation. Hey, I got it — why not just call it a Christmas miracle and leave it at that?”