The Best Present I Never Even Saw

ginny 75 six

Last weekend, my mother turned seventy-five years old and in July my dad will be seventy-seven. For me, they were always young compared to everyone else’s parents.  After all, they were teenagers when they had me.

Ginny, my mom, was seventeen and my daddy, Harold was nineteen.  When I was young, there seemed to be a huge chasm in our ages but now that I’m older, that chasm has narrowed quite a bit.  When I look at my parents now I can’t help but see myself seventeen or eighteen years from now.  That’s not too far out in the future.  My growing older has made me more tender-hearted toward them in their golden years.  I hope people will be the same with me as I battle the problems of aging.

I look at them now, the years settling in their faces like the rings in a tree trunk, telling the age and the hardships endured throughout the years.  Yet, I see smile lines too, showing that good and bad times have created an interesting face and therefore, a rich, full life. ginny 75 four I’m so glad they didn’t erase their lines and wrinkles for to do so would be akin to bleaching the rings out of a tree trunk or ruining a beautiful, old patina on a cherished family heirloom by polishing it to make it look new and shiny.  Some things are better when aged without interruption.

I remember my momma when her brow was smooth and she moved with the grace and agility of a young athlete. It was her twenty-second birthday and it’s one of my earliest remembrances.  I was five years old, sitting with my brother, Scot on the back porch steps.  We lived in Mt. Holly, North Carolina in a wood frame, brown and tan shingled house on North Main Street.  My Aunt Ruby and Uncle Brady lived in a nice, brick home with a sun porch on one side of us and My Aunt Ethel lived in a white, framed house on the other. Aunt Ethel’s kitchen always had some kind of luscious dessert in a covered cake plate on the counter and often, Scot and I could be found sitting at her table, our mouths filled with sweet goodness.

Next to Aunt Ethel’s was Aunt Pauline’s house.  What I remember the most about her house was her big bathroom.  It had a free standing vanity with a pretty skirt around it and a dainty, little chair in front of it.  There was powder and perfume on it but no cosmetics.  Momma said Aunt Pauline’s family was Pentecostal Holiness and didn’t believe in wearing any make-up or jewelry except for wedding rings.  Even as a five year old I wondered how a place you were supposed to sit at and make yourself beautiful was wasted on just body powder. You didn’t need to sit down to put that on.

Once, when Aunt Pauline’s son, Donald,  a Pentecostal Holiness evangelist was visiting from Tennessee, his daughter, Donna and I got into my mom’s make-up.  I put rouge and lipstick all over her face and wrapped costume jewelry all around her neck.  I took her into the living room and said, “Look, everybody, isn’t Donna pretty?  I put make-up on her face.”  For some reason that made Momma mad and she went out and got a hickory stick from the back yard and chased me around the yard until she caught me and burned my legs up with that switch.  With clown like make-up and tears smeared all over my face, I couldn’t for the life of me understand why God said Baptist could wear makeup and Pentecostals couldn’t.  I would have to wait until I got to heaven to ask Him about that but I developed a hefty respect for His Pentecostal Holiness people after that episode.

Our Great Grandma, Emma Painter lived in the detached garage apartment behind Aunt Pauline’s house.  She was in her eighties and was a saint and a diabetic.  She would buy cookies for Scot and me for when we visited.  They were the flat, shiny type with raison filling in them.  “They’re not too sweet,” she’d say when her daughters complained about her buying sweets.  “Anyway, they are for Donna and Scot.”  From what we were told when we were older, Grandma Painter loved us so much that she’d walk the fields behind her house every day and pray for Scot and me to live for Jesus and to be ministers of the Gospel.  God answered her prayers and heard her loud and clear.  Scot became a minister and I married one.

As I recall, there were stepping stones that led up to our back porch steps from the driveway.  We were waiting for Daddy to come home so that we could have a birthday dinner for Momma.  Of course, Momma cooked her own celebration dinner and made her own birthday cake and we could smell it wafting out on the spring breeze, signaling it was time to eat.  I can’t remember what we had that night for dinner but it was probably country style steak and mashed potatoes because that was everyone’s favorite dinner. Of course, no one even thought of eating out at a restaurant for dinner.  The only time we did that was when it was Mother’s Day and we went to Shoney’s after church.  Daddy would let us get a Big Boy hamburger and fries and even a dessert, a hot fudge Sunday.  I remember also going to Gastonia to McDonald’s on Tuesday nights.  Hamburgers were thirteen cents apiece. As children, we thought we were rich but only our parents knew how far a Duke Power Plant salary would stretch!

Scot and I waited for Daddy.  It was time to eat and although I was only about five years old, I knew the value of a party.  There would be presents and cake and that warm feeling you would get when everyone was happy.  Children learn quickly those combined elements of a party and they take that equation around with them the rest of their lives.  That happy feeling was the measuring rod for every party I’ve been to since.  Anticipation, plus Food, plus Presents = Happiness.

Daddy pulled up in the driveway and jumped out of the car, whistling.  He opened the back door and took out a big box that was wrapped in pretty paper with a bow.  He hoisted the gift up on his shoulder and followed the stepping stones up to the porch.  “Daddy, is that Momma’s present?  It’s in such a big box!  What is it?”  We were so excited it was like we were getting the present.  “You’ll have to wait until after supper to find out.  We’ll let your momma open it then.”

I distinctly remember that Daddy winked at us then.  I don’t recollect my Dad winking all that much at us as children but he did that day. I suppose he was as excited about the party and the gift as we were.  We followed him into the house about the same time Momma was setting her own birthday table.

I love it that Moms set the standard for birthdays for the family.  If moms make a big deal about a birthday, then chances are the kids will grow up to do the same thing. Since we grew to be a rather large family (five children,) our birthdays were celebrated with our favorite meals, birthday cake and ice cream with only a few gifts.  Christmas was the big gift giving time at our house and birthdays were a distant second.  I remember the year I turned seven, Momma went shopping in Belmont to buy me a gift.  Money was tight and she came home with a set of hair barrettes for me.  She told me, “I looked for something special for you Donna but just couldn’t seem to find you anything special enough.  I know you need some hair barrettes.  Your hair is getting longer.”

Now, for me, I didn’t have to have a translator to tell me that my birthday was two weeks after Christmas and there was no money left to buy birthday presents in January. Yet, we still had a birthday party!  My favorite meal and some birthday cake!

We celebrated my Momma that night.    We ate the food she prepared and Daddy lit the candles on the cake she made for herself.  She made that cake so that we could celebrate her properly because children need to celebrate their parents.  Now at the tender age of twenty-two, my mother probably didn’t know that.  But God did and He showed her what to do.  She was just doing in her heart what felt right. Looking back on it now, I can see that she was teaching us a valuable lesson.  As an adult, I also made birthday cakes for myself year after year so the children could learn the importance of celebrating me.  I still make my own cake each year.  German Chocolate Cake, my favorite and my children will always know that about me.

It was the moment we had all been waiting for.  The candles were burning down and the wax was mingling with the sweet icing.  Momma was making a wish and her green eyes were shining in the candlelight.  She was still young enough that she put all twenty-two candles on the cake.  ginny 75 fiveWe held our breath as she blew them out in one take.  Clapping and laughing, we saw her and Daddy smile at each other, maybe her secret wish his secret too.  “Momma, can you tell us what your wish was?”  “No, because it’s a secret,” she said.  “And if I tell, it won’t come true.”

I believed her and to this day I still believe that about birthday wishes.  They are sacred and they are secret, known only to the birthday person and God.  And somehow, as you wish it, the smoke from the candles rises up to the throne of God and He catches the wish and smiles and lets it come true at the appointed time.

“Daddy, get Momma’s present!”  We couldn’t wait and were squirming with anticipation.  Daddy went over to the counter and brought it over to Momma, setting it before her proudly.  Being a kid herself, she wasted no time in ripping the paper off.  By this time we had gathered around her chair waiting for the big reveal. For a few seconds, we stared at the box making sure we were seeing correctly.   Was that a picture of plates with cups and saucers?   The gift was a set of Melamine dishes that were white with yellow and orange flowers and green leaves trailing around the edges.  Momma had a new set of unbreakable dishes!

It was her only gift and Scot and I were begging, “Let me see.  Let me see what’s in there. Can we see the dishes?”  She looked at us and laughed. “You guys have got to be patient and let me open the box first.”  Daddy took out his pocket knife and slit the tape on the sides and she lifted the card board edge of the box back and that’s when the magic appeared.  Like a genie in a bottle, magic was released into the house like a billowing smoke we couldn’t see but we could feel.  It wrapped my Momma up its warm arms and squeezed her until her heart was pushed up into her throat.  The magic made tears appear in her eyes and they ran down her face as she thanked Daddy and got up to hug us.  We felt the magic but didn’t understand what it was.  Maybe, it was that warm, happy feeling you got when someone else’s happiness reached out to grab you.  Many years later, I think I figured it out.

Since Daddy gave Momma the dishes, any gift given to perpetuate further parties or make meal times more pleasant were to be more desired than gold, diamonds or pearls.  The ability to sit down together as a family and dine on favorite foods and sweets was important to the Painter family and gifts of that sort helped lay the foundation for the gift of hospitality that graced my parents’ home.  That’s why today, I’d rather give my children kitchenware and things that make giving parties easy and guests feel more comfortable. Hospitality is their heritage!

Looking back on it now, I realize that what Daddy really gave Momma that year was the gift of hospitality.  It came in on the dishes, working its magic in my parent’s hearts and through the years, made them want to open their home and feed their guests delicious foods seasoned with love, around their dining table. The practical, pretty plates stacked in the cabinet were not just for eating but their tickets for joy and happiness.  Who wanted pretty baubles and expensive perfumes when they could have plates and happy, satisfied guests?

I wished that we could celebrate Momma’s birthday by using the pretty plates that started it all; the pretty Melamine dishes that were graced with hospitality and came into our lives riding on my daddy’s shoulder all those years ago. Over the years the plates wore out and were replaced but the hospitality that was unleashed upon us all when that box was opened will be here with us for generations to come.  I’m so glad Daddy gave Momma such a practical gift!  It is the gift that’s been feeding and entertaining so many people for over fifty years (and counting!)

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Here a song for you….enjoy!









2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Phil
    Apr 15, 2014 @ 03:21:11

    Donna, What a wonderful story. We grew up in an enchanted family. Looking back its so easy to see. Thanks for capturing it so well. Love you sis!


    • themuseinme
      Apr 15, 2014 @ 11:46:42

      It makes me happy to write about it, Phil. I want my children and grandchildren to have these stories to read to their children one day. It’s a way to record our history. I loved seeing you and your sweet family this weekend! We need to get together more often!


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