Gifts Ungiven


by Judith Downer Renteria, Childhelp Literacy Program Coordinator

It was a wet, cold and rainy day just a few weeks before Christmas when Momma took our hands and walked us across the downtown Los Angeles sidewalk, red and green crosswalk lights adding to the holiday aura. Store windows were full of decorations; trees, ornaments, piles of pure white plastic snow shavings and little houses and trees, dipped in “snow,” beneath a zooming Santa and his sleigh. Children in tiny coats and bright scarves raced on miniature sleds over carefully molded hills. You could almost hear their shouts of joy. Joy was what we had that day, as we walked together, just the three of us, Daddy being deployed. We would not see him ’til the spring, but we carried him in our hearts like hope as we walked together past the city’s stark alabaster stone buildings, which had been made truly lovely by the rain.

There was a magic in the air; the magic of the holidays, of an ancient promise made and kept, of thousands of years of love embodied in the homes of the people walking by during this special time of year. The magic spilled into the theaters, and Momma was taking us to see. Momma knew about magic. She brought the magic every year to our house. Lovely little stockings hung at the edge of the mantel where frothy cotton snow embraced 3 glass deer; a fragile forest family playing above the warm fire.

She saw that Santa had his cookies and milk, that our letters to him were posted, and that the tree stood decorated with the chrome and glittery glass ornaments popular in the ’50s. Momma was the one who, in the spring, saw that the eggs were dyed and discovered so we could add them to the basket of chocolate bunnies and strange green grass. Momma was the one who took us to shop for the costumes each year when we were very young trick-or-treaters, and encouraged us to create a haunted front yard each fall as teens. Momma brought the magic every year.

This year she had bought tickets for the first showing of Mary Poppins, which was also displayed in miniature in the windows beside the theater. We delighted in the music and magic of this wonderful tale not only that winter but for years afterwards; each time, the movie bringing us back to that rainy, wonderful, magical trip to the city, washed clean and covered with the wonder of the season. She bought the sheet music for the movie, and played it in our home. Standing beside the piano, we learned all the words and sang along, just the three of us, to Chim-chim-cheree, Feed the Birds, and Stay Awake. So much did I come to associate these songs with my mother, with comfort, with the magic of childhood, that when my own sons were very young these were the songs with which I sang them to sleep after bedtime stories. Many years later, when my youngest was in Iraq, I taped myself singing them again, and included it in a care package to him along with socks, candy bars and peanut butter.

Such are the gifts children get from those who love them. Not the things that come in a box, but the gifts of wonder and discovery, of magic and mystery. Not things purchased in a store, as much as special little times together, exploring, singing, delighting in the feelings of family. Not things that will break or get lost, but comfort within our lives, the joy of making memories, the hope for days yet to be. These are gifts that we give our children because our love for them, and our life experiences, make it as easy as breathing to us. Or to most of us. Sometimes these are gifts left ungiven.

Children who are abused and neglected come from a world where gifts are left ungiven.

Childhelp changes this.

© 2019 Judith Downer Renteria