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The Best Gift I’ve Ever Received.
A few months back I received a particularly inspiring writing prompt from Suleika Jaouad’s Isolation Journals.
The topic was the best gift that you’ve ever received.
My mom brain immediately chimed in and said, “Well your children, of course. Let’s not be selfish, but be a grateful mother.”
Well, yes. Of course my children are the best gift that I’ve ever received, but they aren’t mine. They don’t belong to me. They are humans in their own right that belong to themselves. And that’s not even the point here.
I tried with great difficulty to focus on the physical gifts that I’ve been given, all the while feeling like I was being ungrateful and selfish for not giving acknowledgement to a multitude of other people and things.
I sat with it for a bit longer and one thing kept popping up, but I tried repeatedly to push it back down and ignore it because I was angry with the person who gave it to me.
So I thought instead of the letter that my youngest wrote for me last year on Mother’s Day that made me burst into tears with all the emotions at once.
I thought of the mold of my children’s hands clasped together when they were younger. Tiny fingers that used to hold my own hand so tightly that now only exist in the suspended animation of gold painted clay.
So many things that my children have made for me and given to me that are always going to be at the top of the list. But that just wasn’t it.
I tried instead to think of things that I’ve been gifted from other people and while I know there are many, I just couldn’t think of them. Then I felt guilty for not remembering. *sigh*
But that one gift that I kept trying to ignore repeatedly ricocheted back to the forefront of my mind.
A handmade, recycled wood, Little Free Library.
It wasn’t a gift for me per se, but rather a gift for my community. But it’s still mine. I do call it my Little Free Library after all. And it was made especially for me.
And as so often happens when writing, this seemingly innocuous topic turned into something deeply emotional that I didn’t want to deal with.
So here’s the story:
My partner and I, while still legally married, have been separated for a year. Prior to that we had been together for 18 years and married for 16. We met in high school and had our first date 26 years ago on my 18th birthday.
We’ve obviously had our issues like every couple in any type of partnership does. And like most, those were exacerbated during pandemic stay-at-home orders, especially living in a 600 square foot proximity 24/7 for over a year. Privacy did not exist.
We have also had a lot of other things fighting against us, like my mental and physical health (and our eternal financial struggles because of them) as well as my complex trauma history.
But about him. He is an incredibly patient and brilliant man. He is an engineer, an electrician, a builder and fixer of all things (and ridiculously talented musician and trained EMT besides). He can build anything. I’ve seen him do it. In person, in pictures, even on TV (he had a stint on the short-lived home improvement show Monster House many years ago).
About 10 years ago, when we were living right next to a school in the middle of nowhere (quite literally, the school was our closest neighbor), I asked him to build me a Little Free Library for my birthday. I thought it would be fun for our kids to share their books and for the kids at the school to share as well since there was no actual library anywhere nearby.
He said he would. But then my birthday came and went and it didn’t happen. I brought it up again repeatedly over the years for my birthday, for Christmas, just because. Then I finally stopped because I felt like I was just guilting him into doing something that he obviously didn’t want to do.
However, at the beginning of last year, after my expressing my upset at that and a multitude of other promised things that had yet to be accomplished, he finally built me my Little Free Library.
It took him a while to complete and I’ll be honest, I didn’t actually think that he would finish it.
We live in an apartment with no garage or workspace of any kind, so he had to make do with my potting bench and an extension cord run from our apartment out to the garden. Winding the cord out of the way of the other tenants and checking in with all of them to make sure the noise wasn’t disturbing them. Cutting up old pallets and scrounging up old screws and hardware because we had no money for wood.
But he finished it. And it was beautiful. And it was perfect. And I was so grateful that I cried.
It took me a while to make him understand how much it meant to me. That it was important to me because it wasn’t just a wooden box to hold books as he had been seeing it. To me it was a little more symbolic, it was symbolic of his love for me, it made me feel like a priority to him.
I know that probably seems like a lot of pressure to put on a wooden box, but to me it felt like he had been ignoring something that was really important to me. No matter how many times I said I want this, it’s important to me, he didn’t do it.
But the library was concrete posted into the ground in February and while I was thrilled, I was still holding a lot of resentment because it had taken so long for him to complete.
In March we celebrated our second pandemic wedding anniversary with a sunrise morning picnic.
Then in July, just before my birthday, something happened that turned our world upside down overnight.
We separated shortly after that and have been struggling for a year, but working very hard to get our friendship back, because really that’s what matters most to me and to him as well because we’ve been best friends for nearly half of our lives.
What does any of this have to do with the best gift that I’ve ever received?
In October of 2020 he was diagnosed with ADHD and so many of the things that had been driving me crazy over the years made perfect sense. I felt like an idiot for not seeing it sooner, because I have mild ADHD too and so do both of our children. I should have seen it, but instead I was angry and irritated because he didn’t finish things, because he kept forgetting things, because he was disorganized and often left a trail of stuff behind him wherever he went. To me, for years, I had been reminding and organizing and cleaning up after him and it had felt like I was taking care of another child.
At some point after our separation though, the topic of the Little Free Library came up (after couples therapy actually). I was expressing how much it frustrated me that he forgot, waited until the last minute, did things that didn’t make any sense to me or just didn’t do anything at all when it came to things for me (my birthday, Christmas, our anniversary), it made me feel like he didn’t love me, like he didn’t care.
And with teary eyes he explained that it was because he loved me and cared so much that it happened like that. He wanted to give me everything and wanted it to be perfect, so while he was thinking about planning the perfect thing, time was quickly running out and then suddenly it was too late.
We talked for a long time about it and I finally saw it from his point of view and I think he saw it from mine as well.
So while this was and still is the best gift that I’ve ever received. It’s also way too complicated for a fucking wooden box.
Because every day when I go out to the curb to check on the library, rearranging books so they’ll fit and be seen better, occasionally removing garbage and sometimes even food, cleaning the door and area around it, I feel so many different emotions. Still.
But I smile at the cheerful beauty that lives at the end of an otherwise dismal street. I’m happy that it brings so much joy to so many people. It makes my heart happy when I see children stop there daily and get excited by something new that they’ve found. But mostly I smile because he made it just for me.
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