Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Most Important Gift - by Janet Halpin

I’ve mentioned before that I wanted to be a writer since I was old enough to pick up a pencil. As a kid, I wrote (and read) stories all the time. We lived in public housing, which gave me plenty to write about, both good and bad. I observed and recorded. I remembered. And what I observed, recorded and remembered about one Christmas was a particular gift. It wasn’t what I wanted, it wasn’t expensive or fancy. It wasn’t even the best gift I ever got.

But it was the most important.

It was 1971, I was 12 and it was one of the darkest times for our family. My oldest brother was still recovering from major spinal surgery that had him flat on his back for 6 months. My other brother, at 13, was growing out of his shoes and clothes every month. My father was slipping further into an alcoholic haze and we were slipping deeper into debt. Bill collectors called all the time and would badger anyone who answered, even my 8 year old sister.

Like a lot of the other girls in my class, what I wanted for Christmas that year was “Mystery Date,” a ridiculous game centered on getting enough points to open the door at the middle of the game board to see our “date.” Would we get the dreamboat, the skier, the bowling guy--or would we get the dud? Heady stuff for a romantic tween like me. However, with money tight, I knew the chances of me getting what was a relatively expensive present were slim, especially since 3 of the 4 of us Halpin kids had birthdays in the first week of December. I still hoped, though.

Christmas morning came and the gifts were opened. No Mystery Date. But when I opened my present I forgot my disappointment. You know how in writing fiction, the goal isn’t to give the character what they want, you give them what they need--and that’s just what I got that Christmas.

I tore the wrapping paper off a thick, spiral bound notebook and a package of pens. On the notebook’s red cover, Santa (aka my mother) had written in black magic marker: THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL. I was beyond delighted, and had many pages filled with my left-handed slant before the Christmas goose was served (well, really meatloaf, a family favorite).

I didn’t think much about the gift’s significance at the time, but over the years I came to realize just how important it was. The whole shebang, pens and paper, had probably cost my mother 79-cents at Woolworths, but to hit a cliché as hard as I can, the gift, to me, turned out to be priceless.

Because, though I loved to write back then, I’d always felt like a weirdo for doing it. Reading and writing weren't exactly "cool" in my neighborhood. I'll never forget the neighbor who visited our apartment, took one look at the bookcases overflowing with books and let out a horrified, "You read books?!?" I didn't talk about wanting to be a writer and hid my scribblings from the world.

But my mother had noticed. The notebook was encouragement and validation, her way of telling me not to hide and not to care what others thought. That I might be a kid from the project, but what I had to say mattered. That I could do anything I set my mind to.

I finally did get Mystery Date for Christmas, and probably was bored of it by New Year’s, but that notebook has stuck with me for always. Especially that time, a year before my mother died, as I was walking with her down the main hallway of her assisted living facility, and she called out to anyone who would listen as we passed, “This is my daughter, a published author.”

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Now, it’s been suggested we offer a giveaway to go along with this month’s theme, but I’m going to do something a little different. I’m going to make a small donation to the library/literacy program in the neighborhood where I grew up, hopefully reaching that project kid who’s scribbling under his/her bedcovers like I used to. I will tack on $1 for every comment my blog entry gets—so comment away (and please share!).

Here’s wishing you all a safe and healthy holiday season, filled with joy, family and many important gifts!

29 comments:

  1. This is wonderful and as a retired librarian I applaud your donating to the library where you grew up. My sister Kate Flora, also an author often talks about how her volunteering at the tiny Vose Library in Union where we grew up made a huge impact. Even though neither of us live in town any more, we still support the library every year.

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    1. Thanks so much and I totally agree, Berek! BTW, I had no idea you were related to Kate--I know her well through Sisters in Crime. She's been an inspiration for me and a lot of us "sisters." So happy to hear she's nominated for a Pushcart Prize!

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  2. I love this story, Janet. What a beautiful gift your mom gave you. Oh, and I had that Mystery Date game. Meh. You're right. I too played it for like, two seconds.

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    1. Thanks, and LOL on the "two seconds," Jody! I seem to remember I liked the Dud better than the Dreamboat or any of the other "dates" in that game. He was such a non-conformist.

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    1. I, and the cause, thank you, Jennifer!

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  4. Beautiful story, Janet, and what a wonderful way to give back!

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  5. You made me tear up, Janet! Why'd you do that? Oh, because you are a darn great writer! And to me, books are the best present ever and I have a tendency to give them to all the kids in my life. What a fabulous person you are for giving them to those in need.

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    1. Awww, thanks, Kari! And thanks for helping me to give just a little more with your comment (and your FB share) -- it means a lot.

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  6. What a touching story! Your mother was a smart woman. So happy she encouraged your writing and reading. What a great idea to give to your library. I remember the first time I got to bring home books from my library. It was like Christmas for me.

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    1. Thanks, Ruth! "Like Christmas," that's a great way of putting it, books are the best gift of all.

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  7. /Users/dcloutier/Desktop/W-Writing-Utensils.png

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  8. I LOVE this. So true. (And I wanted Mystery Date, too!) The gifts I remember most are the most personal and life-changing. My most influential gift came at the age of ten, when my uncle gave me a copy of Pride and Prejudice for my birthday. My life's never been the same.

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    1. Thanks, Fenley! Wow, you read P&P when you were 10? That's impressive! I avoided P&P until I was in college because the title made me think it was boring--especially when there were books called "Sweet Savage Love" and "Flame & the Flower" calling to me from our bookshelves!

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  9. What a beautiful story, and I applaud your gift. How wonderful that your mother saw what reading and writing meant to you and supported you in the best way she could.

    My cousins had Mystery Date and I remember it well. What fun we had, but how bizarre when you think back on it now.

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    1. Thanks, Maryanne! I did some Googling Mystery Date when writing this blog post and was surprised to see the game was reissued in 1999 & 2005. I'm sure millennials played it in a kitschy, ironic way (if at all)!

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  10. What a wonderful idea! And you must have gotten some of your creativity from your mom...

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    1. Perhaps I did, Courtney! I know she wanted to go to college to be a reporter (there's that writing bug), but sadly, wasn't able to because "girls didn't do things like that." Thanks for commenting!

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  11. Such a great post, Janet! Thanks so much for sharing. Treasure that moment with your mom. My own died two months before my debut novel was released. It haunts me that she never got that moment to brag. I'm so glad she provided that validation. You're right. It's a priceless gift.

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    1. Aww, Patty, that's too bad about your mom. I'm sure she was proud, and I'm sure she's at your shoulder, beaming, with every word you type!

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  12. Thanks for the beautiful gift of this post, Janet.

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    1. Aww, thanks, Ann! I'm so glad to see you commenting here (and adding to the cause). TTYL...

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  13. Janet choking up Janet? Whadda riot! I still think you have some serious comedy writing in there too. Great American Novel, soon to be Major Motion Picture with characters who speak in complete sentences!

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