At a public library, I stood in line to check out books not knowing I was about to face a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give.
In front of me in line, a young, slim girl lifted an unwieldy stack of children’s picture books up onto the high checkout desk. She smiled as she unzipped a small change purse, pulled out her library card, and handed it up to the librarian. The girl’s mother stood to the side, watched, and nodded approval.
The child self in me envied the girl’s large pile of books. When I was a child, the library I frequented limited the number of books a patron could borrow to five at a time. Probably the girl didn’t even realize her great fortune.
The adult self in me enjoyed the glimpse into the process put in place by a loving, diligent mom who endeavored to pass on a love of reading and libraries to her young daughter.
I knew the process. I have been that daughter. I have been that mother.
I noticed the girl’s pleasure in the books she’d selected—she handled them with care. We’d been in line a while. The desk attendant was new. I think it was her first week tending the desk. While waiting in line, the little girl had arranged the books in the order she intended to read them. She put her favorite on top.
Puffed with pleasure in her budding independence, she had stepped to the desk to have her books scanned.
I was catapulted—in my mind—to my trips to libraries as a young girl. I loved the library and visited weekly. Sometimes, I checked my favorite books out again and again: “Ghosts who went to school” and Nancy Drew and Danny Dunn and what was that series of books? In my mind, I can walk to the corner in the library where they were shelved. The stories were about four children heroes who once camped out behind a waterfall and from that strategic base dismantled an international spy ring. I wish I could remember the titles of those books. I’d track them down and read them this afternoon.
As I surfaced from my reminiscing, back in the library line, I noticed that ahead of me, the mom had moved from the sidelines into her daughter’s interaction with the librarian. They were talking softly but emphatically.
Truth be told: I never met a whispered conversation that I didn’t want to eavesdrop on. I stepped closer to hear what was going on.
“She has an unpaid fine, so she can’t checkout the books. Library rule. You must pay the fine.” The new checkout associate was a stickler.
“But we didn’t bring any money. Can we pay the fine next time? Please?” the mom asked.
The little girl looked concerned.
“Library policy. Patrons with unpaid fines can’t check out books.”
The mom turned to the little girl. “You’ll have to put your books back and we’ll get them next time we come.”
“Could you keep them for her on a shelf back there?”
“In this order?” The girl patted the top of the pile.
“I think they’ll be shelved. But she can, of course, look for them again.”
No kidding? It’s a public library. I wondered if the attendant had missed an important part of the training.
The thought of the little girl leaving the library without the books she had selected made me sad. The largest library fine I’ve ever paid about eight dollars. I had a twenty on me. I stepped right up to the “Gift of the Magi” moment. Except I wasn’t really about to sacrifice. That twenty wasn’t all my money.
“I’ll pay the fine.”
Scenes unfold in our brains with uncanny speed. I imagined the mom would decline my generous offer. I’d insist. Say it was nothing. She’d try to negotiate a repayment plan. I’d declare that paying me back was unnecessary. I’d consider the money my contribution to the public library. I steeled myself to insist, pleasantly, against her protests. I smiled at her.
Truth be told: I was also prepared to give myself a pat on the back—just a teeny-weeny one– for rushing in to save the day.
However, the mom turned to me and said immediately, “Would you?”
I gushed with pleasure.
“It’s a dime.” she said.
That’s what she said. A dime.
What a letdown. I was prepared to give a generous gift, but all that was required was ten cents.
Since, I have often thought that the gifts I am prepared to give are rarely so much more than what is needed.
Last Sunday, I was headed into church with a friend. I was visiting a city and the church was not the one I usually attend. As we approached the door, a young man stopped us and asked if he could tell us a story. His story was long and dismal and the ended with a request for money.
He needed so much more than I could give: medical care, food, clothing, education, a job.
On the spot, it seemed likely that any money I handed him would be spent on drugs or alcohol. In the unfamiliar city, I didn’t know of resources he could access, so I said, “Do you want to join us for church?”
“Nah, but thanks.” He was polite. “Say a prayer for me?”
“You got it.”
I felt that I was giving less than what he needed.
Like I said, I’ve often thought the gifts I’m able to give are so much less than what the world needs.
But that’s where I’ve been wrong.
Recently, at the reception, after my son’s July 1 wedding, I noticed one of his friends that I hadn’t seen for about twenty years. I didn’t say, long time, no see, but I thought it. “I’m Phillip’s mom.” I reminded the young man.
“I know. I remember you. You volunteered in my class when I was in first grade. You helped me write a book. I still have that book.”
That day, one of my sons was marrying a beautiful girl. Family and friends had joined for the celebration. I felt so happy already. I didn’t think amping up the happiness was possible.
But when I learned that a young man still treasured a small gift of time I didn’t remember giving? Especially the gift of a story?
Our gifts, even the small ones, given in love, last longer and carry more impact than we imagine.
Care to share? Tell us about a gift you’ve received or given that had great impact.