Friday, July 24, 2015

The Perfect Gift

Strategic gift-giving is not the specialty of a child. Even children who are not preoccupied with gift-getting are not particularly tuned in to gift-giving. Kids are not like well-trained husbands and perceptive girlfriends who know that your best colors are aqua and black, that you prefer silver accessories, and that your favorite store is Dress Barn. Kids can bring you to tears with a well-timed bunch of dandelions or a strand of red yarn strung with Cheerios given for no special reason. But kids are not likely to hand you a beribboned box containing candlesticks and placemats that match each other and the exact shade of peach in your dining room wallpaper.

My young nieces and nephews had an advantage choosing gifts for me though. They knew that any gift relating to the beach would elicit squeals of glee from Aunt Jane. My apartment reflected my love of the ocean. When they visited, the kids loved to paw through starfish, sand dollars, and snails displayed in a large dish. They fingered the smooth gray back of a carved wooden shorebird. They gingerly touched scratchy edges of a white coral centerpiece. They peered at a stunning array of beach detritus inside the base of my table lamp.

“Aunt Jane, how did all those shells get inside that lamp?”

“I turned the hollow glass upside down and placed every shell in there myself. And everything in there, I picked up in North Carolina. There might be thousands of shells in there.”

I added the exaggerated number for my nephew Jonathan, who even as a tiny tot had a fascination for very large numbers. He liked any numbers, as evidenced by the Christmas he toddled around begging all the adults to let him balance their checkbooks. But he adored humongous, unimaginable numbers, as in, “How many is a zillion?” And, “Did you know there’s no such number as a gazillion?” And, “I can multiply a jillion by a jillion! Wanna know how many zeroes it has?”

To reduce the odds of his challenging my exaggeration, I continued, “See, I included other things I picked up on the beach too. Here’s a 6-inch pine needle. Here’s a crab shell. And a pine cone. A fisherman’s cork bobber. Look at all the barnacles on the back of this clam. See how the waves wore these pink stones smooth.”

In the midst of pointing out razor clams and scallops in the lamp base, I must have filled the kids’ impressionable ears with fun-on-the-beach stories. Splashed into the ocean stories were my awed responses to God’s creative genius and power. The science of the tides, the intricacies of the ocean-creature food chain, the pinks and purples of a thousand (this time I’m not exaggerating) pulsing Portuguese man-of-wars stranded at the high-tide line, the sideways skittering of ghost crabs at dusk, the slinking suction of starfish. All these beach wonders thunder in unison with the foaming breakers: We have an awe-inspiring God whose ocean offers but a glimpse of infinity. Who can count the gazillion grains of sand slipping between our toes? Who knows the distance to the watery horizon … or the depth of God’s love in sacrificing His son? Who can count the jillions of crystal droplets in the sea spray? Except to God, zillions are unimaginable.

It was my birthday, 1987. Jonathan was five. His parents walked into my apartment, careful to step over the lighthouse welcome mat they knew would emit foghorn sounds if they stepped on it. His mom handed me a navy box with a wide white satin ribbon and bow. Opening it, I held up my new mug to admire it. It was pearly gray with ten blue-gray squares wrapped from one side of the ear to the other. Embossed in each square were gray, brown, and white whelks, chambered nautiluses, scallops, sand dollars, and oyster drills. Predictably, I loved the mug. Jonathan’s parents gushed about how the kids had picked it out when they were vacationing in the Pacific Northwest.

“Oh, and Jonathan wanted to give you this too,” they added.

I bent down to connect with my cherub’s chubby little outstretched hand. Tears welled in my eyes. His gift, not much bigger than a postage stamp, was a plastic stand-up frame enclosing the famous artist’s rendering of Jesus standing at the door of our hearts and knocking.

Unimaginable. A little child had captured infinity, not to mention his aunt’s heart, in the palm of his hand.

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