a tree covered with tinsel and gaudy paper chains graced one corner. in another rested a manger scene produced from cardboard and poster paints by chubby, and sometimes grubby, hands. someone had brought a doll and placed it on the straw in the cardboard box that served as the manger. it didn't matter that you could pull a string and hear the blue-eyed, golden-haired dolly say, "my name is susie." "but jesus was a boy baby!" one of the boys proclaimed. nonetheless, susie stayed.
each day the children produced some new wonder -- strings of popcorn, hand-made trinkets, and german bells made from wallpaper samples, which we hung from the ceiling. through it all she remained aloof, watching from afar, seemingly miles away. i wondered what would happen to this quiet child, once so happy, now so suddenly withdrawn. i hoped the festivities would appeal to her. but nothing did. we made cards and gifts for mothers and dads, for sisters and brothers, for grandparents, and for each other. at home the students made the popular fried marbles and vied with one another to bring in the prettiest ones. " you put them in a hot frying pan, teacher. and you let them get real hot, and then you watch what happens inside. but you don't fry them too long or they break."so, as my gift to them, i made each of my students a little pouch for carrying their fried marbles. and i knew they had each made something for me: bookmarks carefully cut, colored, and sometimes pasted together; cards and special drawings; liquid embroidery doilies, hand-fringed, of course.
the day of gift-giving finally came. we oohed and aahed over our handiwork as the presents were exchanged. through it all, she sat quietly watching. i had made a special pouch for her, red and green with white lace. i wanted very much to see her smile. she opened the package so slowly and carefully. i waited but she turned away. i had not penetrated the wall of isolation she had built around herself.
after school the children left in little groups, chattering about the great day yet to come when long-hoped-for two-wheelers and bright sleds would appear beside their trees at home. she lingered, watching them bundle up and go out the door. i sat down in a child-sized chair to catch my breath, hardly aware of what was happening, when she came to me with outstretched hands, bearing a small white box, unwrapped and slightly soiled, as though it had been held many times by unwashed, childish hands. she said nothing. "for me?" i asked with a weak smile. she said not a word, but nodded her head. i took the box and gingerly opened it. there inside, glistening green, a fried marble hung from a golden chain. then i looked into that elderly eight-year-old face and saw the question in her dark brown eyes. in a flash i knew -- she had made it for her mother, a mother she would never see again, a mother who would never hold her or brush her hair or share a funny story, a mother who would never again hear her childish joys or sorrows. a mother who had taken her own life just three weeks before.
i held out the chain. she took it in both her hands, reached forward, and secured the simple clasp at the back of my neck. she stepped back then as if to see that all was well. i looked down at the shiny piece of glass and the tarnished golden chain, then back at the giver. i meant it when i whispered," oh, maria, it is so beautiful. she would have loved it."neither of us could stop the tears. she stumbled into my arms and we wept together. and for that brief moment i became her mother, for she had given me the greatest gift of all: herself.