“The perfect gift conveys an ember of hospitality. It glows to the recipient: you are home.”
— Stephen Taylor
For our next step forward and sideways I’d like to talk about the giving and receiving of gifts. But first: thank you for all of the wonderful letters about my first column “Into the Labrynth” (bit.ly/1REyYWG). I’ve learned so much from them, and made several new friends.
I would like now to introduce three women, in order of appearance.
My mother, Claudia Jeffrey Svara, has given me many things, starting with the obvious. She also gave me Music. And Silence. The town of Chapel Hill. Integrity.
Integrity is one of those gifts that is actually not so simple either to give or to receive. We can but offer it to our children and hope they will accept or, more likely, construct their own version of it. My mom offered me Integrity in two ways: by her own example, and by directing me to observe my dad, Jim. “Your father is a man of integrity” is one of the two declarations I best remember from childhood, and probably the truest.
I can’t remember my dad ever having much interest in music, but my mother loves it at a deep level. During my growing up years she had a clear, bell-like soprano, and quite possibly perfect pitch. A petulant and spiteful child, I would make her stop singing. Now Gus, nearly 10, does the same to me, but in a polite way. I find, lately, I want to spend as much time as possible with my son. Maybe because of the age he’s reached, a midway point in the arc of childhood, it feels important that we be together. I enjoy his company.
My mom has Parkinson’s Disease. She neither sings nor drives as much as once she did. I hope it didn’t bother her any more than it does me, now, to be asked not to sing. I would love to listen to you once more, if you’re willing, Mom. I’ll drive, OK? You call the tune.
Marjorie Lancaster, my junior English teacher at Chapel Hill High School, more than anyone before and nearly anyone since, gave me Literature.
We started with “The Great Gatsby.” Marjorie’s insistence that my classmates and I consider the importance of the green light on Gatsby’s boat dock broke something in me. Please, I said. Please let it be just a green light. But no. She wouldn’t have it. She marched me to the entrance of a lifelong rabbit-hole of Metaphor and pushed me in without a thread to follow back. Thanks a lot, Marge. A complete list of titles would be exhausting, but I remember reading Kate Chopin, MacCullers and O’Connor, Melville, Emerson Thoreau and Whitman, oh my! Hawthorne, Poe, Hemingway, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Sylvia Plath, and so many more.
Marjorie approached every single day as a teacher with a passion both for the material and for educating her flock. She taught with what our family calls bakhti, a phrase that began in the kitchen, but has spread throughout our lives. It means something like “devotion in the preparing.”
I’d love it if some of my Lancasterian classmates, each of whom I remember in a weird aura of clarity, would help me to re-assemble her master vocabulary list. We were given 10 words each week to define and use in a sentence on Monday mornings. I loved this exercise because I knew Marjorie would read my words, and I could try to make my friends laugh. There was a game we played with those sentences in class, and it had a name. Does anyone else recall?
Tis the gift to be ... My wife, H, is both the simplest and most complicated person I have ever known. She values simplicity and delights in complexity. (She also loves boats but not the ocean).
Tis the gift to be ... H’s mind is exquisitely free. She dreams of owls. Their noiseless-winged enormity, their gaze, their tools of harvest. Toward her own body, I’ve always felt H experiences a bondage she finds by turns bemusing and annoying. Tis the gift to come down where we ought to ..... H came down to Durham, right where she ought to be. She picked me up somewhere, our number increased, and now I am and she is and we are home.
H’s birthday is tomorrow. I have thought and thought about the perfect gift for her, but Stephen is right: the perfect gift is actually Home itself, and we already give that to one another daily. So, to the woman who wrote “The Solace of Leaving Early,” I offer two additional gifts. The first is Punctuality. From now on, I pledge to be on time. As H likes to remind me, Time is the one thing you can steal from another person and yet have no capacity to return. Happy early birthday, darling. I love you.
Oh, and the second gift is Silence.
John Svara lives in Durham. To see more of his work go to www.formandflaw.com