Megan Ritchie Jooste
is a freelance writer in Philadelphia
When I was 19 years old, I memorized "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver" by Edna St. Vincent Millay for my mother as a gift. She had memorized it for her own mother years ago, also as a gift. I had her sit on the oversize armchair next to the piano in our living room. I began:
"Son," said my mother,
When I was knee-high,
"You've need of clothes to cover you,
And not a rag have I."
The story unfolded: the mother rubbing her little boy's legs to keep him warm while he slept, the pair of them, impoverished, shivering in the cold of their small, stark apartment, everything that could have been broken up and burned long ago tossed into the stove. All that was left, the boy recounts, was "a harp with a woman's head nobody will buy."
In the end, the boy's mother sacrificed herself for her son, weaving her last breath through those harp strings. All of her wants and wishes for her child magically transformed into yards upon yards of shining fabric fashioned into trousers, hats, and gloves to clothe her freezing child.
When I finished reciting, I gave my mother a hug and excused myself to lounge in front of the TV. She was wiping away tears as I left. "You'll understand when you're older," they say. The trope may be tired, but it is true. I didn't understand - couldn't understand - even a fraction of the range of emotions my mother experienced as I recited that poem. I believe that now I do.
One autumn evening in 2012 I told my husband we were expecting a child. That very next day, unable to contain his excitement, he brought home one of those vibrating seats into which you could supposedly fasten your fussy newborn for immediately silencing results. A few days later, he brought home a knitted cap that said something to the effect of "2 Cute 4 Words" embroidered along the front. It came with matching booties.
I think we used that vibrating seat all of seven times. (Isn't that the way it goes?) And that little matching set was too cute, indeed, to even dare tear from its packaging. But the gifts for the baby kept coming throughout my pregnancy - from my husband, from our friends and family, and from me. By the time our daughter was born, our second bedroom - now nursery - was stuffed to the gills with everything and anything that little girl could possibly need or want. And more.
We had an early miscarriage a few months ago. In the short span of time between the plus sign and that long evening spent in the ER, I would sit up in bed late into the evenings poring over the new IKEA catalog, imagining a lace curtain to partition a space for the crib in our bedroom, the matching changing table I would actually spring for this time around, the fairy lights, a mobile to help lull the baby to sleep.
I signed up for the same newsletter as when I was pregnant the first time, one that sends you an e-mail each week detailing your fetus' development, comparing her size to that of a sesame seed, an olive, a kumquat. At only the size of a pomegranate seed, I had already begun lavishing gifts - both real and imagined - on my second child. This included a lot of hand-me-downs. There would have to be.
It's impossible to convey the extent a parent would give of him or herself for a child. You dig from the depths of your being to comfort them late at night, when you, yourself, depleted, exhausted, have so little to give; yet you do. You dig to the depths of your wallet to purchase anything and everything. You'd sell your hair to be able to do so. You'd pawn your watch: An heirloom, perhaps. Precious. Irreplaceable. No matter.
Last week, my daughter picked up a toy at my mother's that had belonged to my niece. It was a little Fisher Price radio with several buttons and a few requisite blinking lights. I watched as my offspring, just shy of knee high, bopped her tiny legs to the beat of whatever 15-second ditty was playing at the moment, and I was struck with a now-familiar gut-wrenching desire: to not only buy this toy for my daughter, but to buy all the toys. To purchase her music lessons, dancing lessons, books on Mozart, a guitar. To buy her cleats and soccer balls and dolls with eyes that close when you lay them down. To shower her with bubble bath and bangle bracelets, bundle her in bath towels with hoods, watch as she unwraps trucks, a Lego set, a sticker book, and a thing that tells time.
'Tis the season for giving - it swirls in the air around us. 'Tis the season of expectation, of surprise, of joy. Of scissors, tape, wrapping paper, and expedited shipping. But my husband and I planned a modest Christmas for our daughter this year: a new bath toy, a cradle for her baby doll, and a pale yellow blanket I knitted for that same doll. It's all she needs, and all our financial and spatial constraints allow, at least for now.
I often wonder what legacy I will leave for my daughter. I wonder what I will give her that will stay with her forever, just like the swirl of the "M" in my mother's signature that I now emulate in my own. What gifts will she cherish? What curiosities and quirks will she carry on? My stamp collection? The porcelain doll with the chipped hand? Perhaps. My lust for travel. The tears that come embarrassingly quick.
In the end, I suppose I would want her to take stock; to gather up, like so many yards of shimmering fabric, all the things I will have given her in my lifetime - all those things both tangible and not - and declare, "Look at that. She gave me everything."