The family was gathering for Thanksgiving, oh so many years ago, when my beloved elderly aunt called from Florida. Her long-planned flight to join us was cancelled in deference to a storm and she didn’t see the sense in trying to reschedule; she’d stay safely home raise a glass to us on the day.
My little niece L. burst out “But what about her turkey?” She didn’t mean a plate overflowing with meat and gravy and stuffing. She meant a piece of paper on which L. had traced out her hand, then lavishly illustrated it in marker, adding feet and feathers and a landscape of spiky green grass and, incongruously, a wide-brimmed cockel hat with shiny buckle jauntily posed on the turkey’s head. She’d drawn one for each of the diners expected on Thursday and written their names on each picture.
“We’ll mail it to her,” the grown-ups assured her. And on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, my father (L.’s grandfather) and I went out to do a last errand and took L. with us. We stopped at a mailbox and held L.’s hand as she strained up to drop the stamped envelope into the box.
“Aunt P. will love getting this, L.,” I murmured.
“Yeah?” she asked.
“Oh, yeah. It was sweet of you to draw it for her, and to send it to her. It will be such a good surprise!”
“Oh, yeah! Imagine her opening her mailbox to find that envelope in it, and opening it to see your picture! She’ll be so touched you thought of her.”
L. screwed up her face in serious thought, picturing Aunt P. at some imagined mailbox. Then her eyes lit up. “Will she CRY?!?”
Over smothered laughter (and not-so-smothered laughter from my father, ahead of us), I said “… I think she might, a little bit.”
I’ve been telling this story, now and again, for a dozen years – because L.’s question gets to the heart of what we are often asking ourselves about gestures of kindness and consideration. Is this a big gesture? Is this a small gesture? Will it make a mark in the heart of the beloved? How can we know what word or gesture makes a difference until it does – or it doesn’t?
Aunt P. is gone. L. is a high-spirited, talented young woman at a college halfway across the country from her family. And I am a writer who just finished a film essay about Mother’s Day – a film essay that made me tear up a bit when I wrote it, and again when I proof-read it.
And I understand L.’s question better than ever. Because when I wiped away the trickle of tears, I thought with great satisfaction “Will this make them CRY?” and “Yeah, I think it will.”