Elephant sneezes, funny pictures and a black dress

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By Wendy Hodge

Countless people inhabit every person’s life; some merely brush past us, leaving no real mark or consequence; others weave in and out of our days, sending ripples down the years; and still others live lives so close to our own that they become part of the tapestry of our existence.
All of these people give us gifts, though we may not recognize them at the time. This morning, I stopped for gas, and an older man held the door open for me as I went in to pay. He wore a hat like my granddaddy used to wear, and he put his fingers on the brim and nodded at me. This simple gesture was a gift…. the gift of feeling, just for a moment, a rush of gratitude and even tenderness toward this stranger who was such a gentleman. The college-aged waiter who served me last night and called me ma’am gave me that same gift, though I admit I felt that familiar twinge of vanity at being reminded I’m a “ma’am” and no longer college-aged myself. Even the random good fortune of hearing the one song you most wanted to hear on the radio at just that right moment is a gift, if you only choose to accept it as such. Or how about the fact that this morning as I sat at my desk, open before me on my computer were conversation tabs with three people, all in different parts of the country….two old friends and one new friend… while my favorite music played from a second website, and pictures I treasure were uploading to yet another website to make a scrapbook for myself. The entire time I worked, I laughed (yes, out loud), because my friends are great conversationalists and because it is all so accessible… so HERE. How is that anything but a gift?
So, today, as my favorite song played, I drove to the monkey park (which is a hometown treasure all its own), and I thought of all the gifts I’ve been given in my life. Like the hymn I grew up singing says to do, I began to count my blessings, my gifts, and name them one by one. Diamonds and sapphires, gold and silver…. Hand print paintings and popsicle stick Christmas ornaments… road trips and family vacations… Mother’s Day cards and perfume… and books, lots and lots of books…. All treasured and appreciated, but there are some surprising gifts that come to mind as I sit here underneath the rustling pine trees and begin to count.
In a drawer, is a hand-knitted scarf made by my friend, Hope, who gave me her company on the best road trip ever, who continues to give me hopefulness when I need it most, and wisely offers the occasional reminder that I am worthy of a hero of my own.
In a box of photographs, there is a picture of a 7-year-old me in my blue jacket and boots being held in the air by my grown-up brother. We are at the zoo – one of my brother’s favorite places to be in those days – and I am nose to nose with an elephant who was so surprised to see my face at eye level that he sneezed… all over me. Trust me when I say that elephant sneezes are not a thing of beauty, but that memory is a gift… the gift of sheer delight to be spending time with the brother I adored that shining afternoon.
On a shelf, is a pair of red sneakers that someone who loves me very much gave to me after reading a story I’d written. His eyes shone when he handed me the box, and he said, “It’s time you had another pair.” The gift of someone seeing you and loving you – what more can you ask?
On my nightstand, there is a letter-sized wooden box, covered with black and white fabric and trimmed with a ribbon. On top of the box is affixed a piece of paper that says, “My mother is beautiful…. softened at the edges and tempered with a spine of steel. I want to grow up and be just like her.” A couple of years ago, my daughter, in her wise beyond her years way, made this for me. She said, “It’s an ‘Open When’ box.” At my lack of understanding, she lifted the lid and showed me a stack of envelopes labeled “(Open When)… You Need a Laugh”… “(Open When)… You’ve Had a Long Day At Work”… and more, a dozen in all. Each of these letters I’ve parceled out to myself slowly over time because that’s what you do with a treasure. Abbey is an extraordinary writer, and more than that, she wrote these letters with her heart wide open, and that is priceless.
In the parking lot at Sonic, there is a space where I sat in my friend, Gina’s, car on a muggy spring night. She handed me Kleenex while I not so quietly fell apart. She listened, she bought me a cherry limeade, and then she pulled out her phone and showed me how my name appears in her list of contacts. There it was – Wendy Hodge… my maiden name; my first name. She said, “That’s who you’ve always been. Now start acting like it.” That was a switch-flipping moment, and I can honestly say I haven’t looked back. Gina, in her unshakeable friendship, gave me back my name just when I needed it.
On my Facebook page, there are daily posts from Mr. Tucker, a dapper older gentleman whom I have never seen without a smile on his face. He is an encourager by nature, and he has shed light on dark days more than he knows. Don’t we all need the gift of a positive voice as often as possible?
On a shelf in my living room, is a set of DVDs – The Walking Dead – every single episode. The beauty of this is the hours they represent spent with my son. My son… my tall, handsome, big-hearted son, who has watched closely as my life has changed. He’s seen the tears and the anger, he’s witnessed me struggle and overcome, and he has never faltered in his fierce protection of my feelings. When there is even a hint of worry on my face, my son sees it and is quick to make sure all is well. He is the voice telling me to be careful driving in the rain, be sure to lock the door, and don’t give that person your address! While I don’t wish that burden on his young shoulders, he’s always been the one, from his youngest days, to sense my fear, my worry, or my sorrow, and to take my hand. Thomas gives me the gift of understanding and comfort. It’s a steadfast gift, and I am humbled by it.
On my phone, there are dozens of pictures taken at the same table with the same faces, all smiling and laughing. My friend, Sherie, and I have known each other for years, but only in the last few months have we realized how much we share – heartache, experience, and opinions. This newfound closeness came at just the right time. It has saved us both and is saving us still. So, when we can, we gather at “our” table downtown with a varying collection of other good friends, and we laugh our way through whatever the week has brought us. We take fuzzy, unflattering pictures, complaining all the while. But I wouldn’t take anything for those captured moments, that gift of a friend who holds steady and true no matter what.
In my closet, there hangs a black dress. It’s more than 20 years old, but I cannot bear to even store it away. My sister bought me this dress. It was a girls’ day out, shopping at the mall, lunching and laughing, enjoying our newfound closeness. She was older, and I’d finally achieved adulthood – at least enough to feel like we were peers at long last. I don’t recall the things we said or what was so funny, but I do recall the ease with which we shared that day. Our last stop was a more expensive boutique. I was surprised that my frugal sister ventured in, but she seemed to have a purpose. She led me to a rack of dresses and said, “Pick one. A black one.” At my look of surprise, she said, “You never know when you’ll need a black dress.” We sorted and sifted until the perfect one presented itself. I tried it on, decided it would do, and my sister bought it for me. I don’t remember how much it cost, but I do remember the look of satisfaction on her face, and that was priceless.
A few months later, I wore that dress to her funeral.
I’m sure I thanked her that day for buying me a gift. I’m also sure I didn’t thank her enough, for that or any other gift she ever gave me. So I sit here, under the pines in the park, and I offer up the deepest kind of thank you I know how to give… to my sister, my children, everyone I love and all who love me, the man at the gas station, the young waiter, Mr. Tucker, Hope, Gina, Sherie, and all my fierce and loyal friends who carried me when I couldn’t carry myself… to all of you, thank you. Let us all say it often and before it’s too late.

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