A Jarful of Love
Hillary dropped her rumpled gift bag on the night stand as she unpacked her suitcase and stared at it, willing it to change. A velvet box housing a pair of diamond earrings would be nice. One of those pink and white packages full of fancy lingerie from a certain lingerie shop would certainly make her day. The present just sat there looking lifeless, a reminder that things rarely turned out the way you planned it.
She looked around the cheap motel room, feeling the jagged collision between old memories and her new life. The thin floral bedspread, rough cotton sheets, ragged towels. So different from before. She hung her inexpensive suits on the hangers in the corner and tucked the rest of her clothes into the rickety dresser, lost in her thoughts. Dreams. Where do they go? Gone was the house, the husband, all the things she’s worked so hard for. Now in their place were a room at her parent’s house and a job on the road. And bills. Lot’s of bills.
She glanced at her watch. Six p.m. If she were at home right now, they would all be sitting at the kitchen table, eating the hamburgers cooked especially for her. There would be corn on the cob, fresh off the grill. Maybe some potato salad, too. And for dessert, the girls would bring out her favorite fudge cake, slathered in chocolate frosting. Her father would light the candles while everyone sang "Happy Birthday". Hillary could hear the family chorus from where she sat: the soft alto of her mother, her father's off key base and the sweet soprano voices of her daughters.
Loneliness settled in, fuelling an ache deep in her soul. She stared at the bag. Brightly colored circus clowns ran up and down the paper with banners that announced various birthday wishes. She'd bought it last year for Alicia’s eighth birthday and her ever practical daughter had lovingly folded it away after opening her present. It made a second appearance when Mindy turned seven then appeared for an encore when her father hit sixty.
Now, it sat on the bedside table, edges frayed, clowns slightly creased and worn. Hillary bit her lip and blinked back the tears. Just like me. How fitting.
The ping of her cell phone interrupted her thoughts but she ignored it. She didn't feel like talking to anyone. Instead, she pulled the bag over to her, carefully removing the crumpled blue ribbon that held the handles together. Gently she lifted a thin cardboard box through wads of tissue paper and sat it on the bed. A hand made card with a drawing of a woman and three small girls was taped to the front. All four of them were holding hands: Hillary, standing taller than the others; Alicia, sporting her customary ponytail; Mindy in her new short haircut and five year old Sarah with her mother's dark curls. Hillary traced the outline of each girl with her finger then opened the card. The words HAPPY BIRTHDAY MOM were scrawled in red crayon and each of her daughters had signed their names. She kissed it and set it aside.
Next she turned her attention to the box. It rattled when she shook it, the contents banging against the sides with a dull thud. Intrigued, she opened the top and pulled out … Hillary wasn't sure.
It was a plastic container, about the size of a quart jar filled with folded pieces of colored paper. She turned it around several times then unscrewed the lid and plunged her hand in. Finding nothing solid inside, she pulled out a fistful of papers and let them flutter onto the bed like brightly colored butterflies. Several opened as they landed. Hillary picked them up and began to read.
"I love you because you always kiss me goodnight." Mindy had written the words carefully in pen and signed her name.
"I love you because you buy me red gummy worms. Sarah.” Hillary recognized her mother’s handwriting. She had acted as scribe for the five year old.
Alicia had used her squares as an opportunity to show off her cursive writing. "I love you because you let my friends stay over" she had written in loopy letters. Hillary remembered the event. The giggling finally stopped at midnight then started up again at six in the morning. Alicia had talked about nothing else for weeks.
Hillary dumped the rest of the papers into her lap, opening each one with great ceremony. She lingered over the words, savoring them as if they were rich food or fine wine. And when the last one was opened, she sat quietly for a long time, feeling satiated.
Her cell phone pinged again softly, interrupting her reverie. There, in the messages, was a picture of the girls holding a chocolate cake ablaze with candles. The phone rang again but before she could say hello, a loud chorus of "Happy Birthday" filled her ear. An onslaught of questions started the minute the serenade ended.
“Did you open your present?”
“Doesn’t my handwriting look good?”
"Did you get your picture?"
“Gramma helped us make your present. Didn’t she do a good job?”
Hillary laughed and hugged herself, feeling a warm glow spread throughout her body. What had she been thinking when she got to the motel? She had a wonderful family that loved her. The bills were getting paid although some months were tougher than others. And slowly, she and the girls were rebuilding their life. They had all that they really needed.
“Isn’t that the best ever birthday present, Mom?” asked Alicia. Hillary could hear the pride in the eight year old’s voice and smiled for the first time that evening. In simple things there are such great riches.
“You bet it is, baby. And this is the best birthday. Ever.”