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A Child's Gift
By Ann Gray
Saturday, August 23, 2008
Rated "G" by the Author.
An elderly woman chooses to spend every day alone on the beach rather than at her nearby retirement village listening to others brag about their grandchildren of which she has none. One day, everything changes when a child playing alone gives her a gift.
Every afternoon for the past week Victoria had seen the little dark haired girl in the blue bathing suit playing alone on the beach. The child couldn’t have been more than five or six and it rather worried Victoria that there seemed never to be a parent in attendance to whom the child could run with her occasional trophies of small shells or ribbons of sea kelp which she gathered in her sand pail as they washed ashore with the tide.
From about noon until six daily, a few feet from Victoria’s umbrella, the berry brown child built sand castles in the wet sand at the water’s edge, chattering happily all the while to her imaginary companion.
At seventy-five, Victoria still carried fond memories of her own childhood trips to the seashore, but unlike this little one, there was always a parent nearby to run to when she discovered another of nature’s small miracles.
It was difficult for her to envision the modern family lifestyle of working parents, concerned with juggling schedules to meet the needs of growing children, the constant rise in living costs, and multiple work schedules. It must be a tremendous responsibility.
Victoria vowed she would not, at this point in her life, become the notoriously snoopy old lady asking questions of perfect strangers on the popular stretch of beach about a child whose name she didn’t even know. While, as a matter of fact, her concern grew every hour of every passing day.
After having recently lost her husband and being attuned to look for worry in practically everything lately,anyway, at her adult children’s insistence in an effort to end her rattling around in a memory filled home, two months ago Victoria had sold the big house in town where her own children had grown up and moved into a studio apartment at Sego Palms, a retirement village several miles from the ocean.
Of course, her children had always had her best interests at heart. They had checked out Sego Palms and, highly accredited, it had seemed the perfect solution to her loneliness. So she had taken up residence with a group of her peers. But after so short a time, now, Victoria wondered if she had made a decision that was truly right for her.
The reasons for her qualms were simple enough: There in Sego Palms she had spent her first eight weeks locked into a daily routine peopled by co-habitants possessed by — and only too willing to share stories and pictures of — their extraordinary grandchildren. Victoria, having none, felt it her duty to nod and smile and agree that they were all perfectly wonderful, while inside she stewed at her own children’s lack of conformity.
Her beloved husband, Charles had to her mind presented a good example of fatherhood but now Victoria often wondered if she had lacked in qualities of mothering, perhaps setting a poor example, herself.
Neither their son, James, a successful lawyer with a large clientele in another city, nor Margaret, their daughter, a dedicated pediatric nurse on the other coast had found time in their career driven lives for marriage and children.
Actually Victoria knew it was not the fault of the grandparents she encountered daily that posed her problem but the sad fact that she was not one of them.
Thus, among her peers, Victoria, was the misfit to be pitied. Such surroundings spawned feelings in Victoria of “not belonging” and to free herself from such dismal thoughts, she had sought refuge this past week by driving to the beach daily, bringing with her a good book, a cooler large enough to hold several chilled sodas, a small container of dip, and a zippered plastic bag of celery, broccoli, and carrot sticks.
What a wonderful respite it was from MahJongg, Bridge, Bingo, and those ever-present ideal grandchildren tales.
Victoria settled comfortably under her umbrella and, closed book by her side, leaned against her canvas beach chair, eyes closed, listening to the relaxing rhythm of the waves lapping on the shore. She decided to forget everything else and just enjoy — being!
“Are you asleep?” the sweet sounding small voice asked gently.
Victoria opened her eyes.
The child’s wide, inquiring black eyes were no more than six inches from her own.
“No, dear, I wasn’t asleep,” she said without moving. “I was listening to the ocean’s song. Do you ever do that?”
“Uh-huh.” The child sat beside Victoria on the edge of her beach towel, making sure to keep her sandy feet off. “Sometimes, though, the waves boom and the wind blows sand in my eyes. I like it better when they whisper, don’t you?”
“Much better,” Victoria smiled. “My name is Victoria. What’s yours?”
“Mary Anne.” Mary Anne held out a small spiral shell to Victoria. “I brought you this.”
“Oh, It’s perfectly beautiful! Thank you,” Victoria said, accepting the unoccupied, nacre-lined cone shell from Mary Anne’s chubby fingers. “Mary Anne, did your Mommy or Daddy come with you today?”
“Mommy is at work in town.” Smiling, Mary Anne bared a vacancy within a line of pearly white baby teeth, and looking up at the lifeguard sitting atop his high tower, she said, “That’s my Daddy up there. He brings me to the beach after lunch everyday and he’ll take me home at six o’clock. That’s because he works someplace else at night, too.”
Victoria didn’t know why she should disbelieve the child, but she wondered if the man atop the tower was truly Mary Anne’s father. It could be another fantasy of the child who played alone with an unseen companion.
Mary Anne cocked her head. “You always look so lonely. Are you lonely?”
Victoria examined her innermost feelings. She felt an unanticipated tenderness for the child, who appeared to be lonely, too.
“Yes, I suppose I am,” Victoria answered, honestly. “You see, I have no lovely little grandchildren, like you, to visit me.”
Restlessness crept into Mary Anne’s voice and she said, “I have to start my new sand castle, now. The ocean always washes them away but sometimes they last almost all day.”
Time after time during that afternoon, Mary Anne came running back to Victoria, bringing her more odd shells, a sand dollar, a stiff starfish, a seaweed ribbon.
Holding hands, Mary Anne led Victoria to inspect her turreted sand castle and they waded and splashed in the shallow warm ocean, laughing over the antics of a fiddler crab Mary Anne captured in her sand pail until she released him and he disappeared into the wet sand.
Later, they showered at the bathhouse to wash away the gritty sand and shared sodas and 'veggies' from Victoria’s cooler.
Time flew past, and at six o’clock when the lifeguard climbed down from his station and placed the sign: NO LIFE GUARD ON DUTY against the tower before ascending the steps to the parking lot, Victoria realized she had not read a single word in her book that day.
Mary Anne started towards the steps to the parking lot but half way she paused to wave and shout to Victoria, “See you tomorrow.”
Victoria returned her wave. Well, she would learn no more of Mary Anne’s circumstances that day.
Next day, when Victoria arrived, by design, at her destination several hours earlier than usual, Mary Anne was nowhere to be seen, though two life guards were talking at the base of their tower. She was tempted to go to them and ask if one truly was Mary Anne’s father, but determined not to be a disbelieving snoop, she decided such inquiry would be inappropriate.
As she watched, one man walked away leaving the other to ascend the ladder to the tower. From there, he would have a perfect view of the water and the beach in all directions.
Victoria laid her book in her chair under the umbrella and waded into the softly lapping surf. The water was warm and inviting, so she dived beneath an incoming whitecap and began swimming out beyond the breakers. How long had it been since she’d felt so free and invigorated?
Letting the gentle rollers lift and cradle her with the motion of the water, she lay on her back and floated, listening to the whispering of the waves as Mary Anne had so accurately described it.
She barely heard the shrill whistle, but it was loud enough to cause her to turn her attention to the tower where the lifeguard on duty was beckoning for someone to swim closer to shore.
Victoria looked around. She was the only swimmer beyond the breakers; he was signaling to her. Immediately, she began attempting to swim for shore but made no progress. Too late she realized she had been caught up in an undertow - a rip current - and it was taking her farther and farther out.
What a foolish thing to have done - swimming out so far!
“Swim parallel to the shore!” she heard her own father advising her.
But she wasn’t a ten year old girl learning the rules of water safety, now. She was a seventy-five year old woman whose strength was ebbing. Lifting her arms to stroke was becoming too difficult and she feared she might not hold out long enough to outlast the tow of the insistent rip current.
In that moment, the lifeguard was beside her. “It's okay, I’ve got you!”
He pulled her onto his broad surfboard and she caught her breath.
“Thank you, young man!” Victoria gulped in life giving salt air. “I’m so sorry! I know better, I assure you.”
Grinning as he paddled her back to shore, he assured her across the surfboard. “This is what I get paid for, ma’am. I’m Brian Newman, Mary Anne’s dad. Sorry I don’t know how to address you, except to just repeat Mary Anne and say, 'Victoria.’ All I’ve heard on our way home these past two days has been, ‘Victoria said this — and Victoria and I did that —’ I want to thank you for giving my daughter so much of your attention, Mrs. — ?”
“Stanton. Victoria Stanton." She offered her sea-soaked hand as they had reached a point where she could stand and begin walking. "But please do continue to call me Victoria.”
She smiled. The man truly was Mary Anne’s father.
“She’ll be starting school next month,” he said, “and there will be playmates enough then, but with my wife, Denise, working full time in town, my regular night job, this part time duty here -- and we don’t want to put her into an unfamiliar daycare center -- well, I’m sure you understand why I bring her with me. She gets lots of sunshine and playtime even if it is alone.” Brian Newman laughed. “But I did watch her approach you. Was she a bother?”
"Never!" Victoria laughed, too.
Running from the bathhouse in her blue bathing suit, Mary Anne called, excitedly, “Look, Victoria, look at our pictures.”
Ignoring the adult’s conversation, Mary Anne scrutinized photo after photo from a drugstore photo envelope. “Look, Victoria, Daddy made copies of these pictures of us for you, too. Aren’t they good?”
“Why, they’re wonderful pictures!” Victoria had to agree. There were duplicate pictures of the two of them together in all their fun-filled activities. As a matter of fact, these were the best pictures she had seen of herself in years. There was a gleam in her eyes and a radiance in her face that hadn’t been reflected in her mirror for a very long time.
Brian climbed the ladder and returned with a black nylon case from which he produced a small camera, explaining to Victoria’s inquiring glance, “This new digital camera does everything but talk. It takes long shots, close ups, everything-in-between. I just aim and press the button.” Mary Anne’s father laughed. “As you can see from the photos, I’ve shared all your good times. I keep a pretty close eye on her when she’s here. Actually, she had mentioned the 'pretty grandmother,' all alone, the first day she saw you. I think she watched you carefully for several days before making her move.”
The 'pretty grandmother,' Victoria liked the sound of that.
Thinking of the myriad expressions of admiration she expected to hear from her peers when she showed them her photos, and fairly bursting with enthusiasm, Victoria said, “I live at Sego Palms Retirement Village. You know where that is, don’t you, Brian? I’d really like to talk to you and Denise about allowing Mary Anne to visit me there as well as sharing our time together here. I'm available as often as you feel you need a sitter until school starts. Please! You came to my rescue. Won’t you let me return the good turn? After that, well —” She winked at Mary Anne. “— who knows?”
— Published in Mature Years Magazine, Spring, 2003
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