By Amber Kelly-Anderson
“You have such a sweet smile,” the elderly man told my toddler son. “You need this.” His hand extended a small carved wooden elephant with tiny wheels.
We were sitting in a restaurant enjoying a late lunch with my mother when the man approached us. Having someone come over to talk to Alex is nothing new: he’s a sweet guy with a charming smile that he spreads around indiscriminately. He flirts shamelessly with women of all ages and ethnicities and growls at men in a playful way that makes them want to fist-bump him. Someone once referred to him as a “ball of joy.”
However, as a mother I am suspicious of people giving things to my baby. When my oldest, Liliana, was nine months old, we traveled through China, where people gave her everything from an umbrella to a toy mouse to some sort of fruit I couldn’t identify by sight. Not wanting to offend anyone, we accepted the gifts graciously, keeping the objects and giving the fruit to my grandfather who was with us (mainly because Liliana had no teeth). I set aside my apprehensions in order to avoid being the typical rude American.
Back home in Texas, it is a different story. Blame it on too much SVU or too many people trying to hand me flyers for comedy, porn, or weight loss pills—I distrust the world. I’m suspicious of any stranger who gives things away. Everyone has an angle.
This man seemed well-intentioned—with his baggy sweater and worn but polished black loafers, he actually reminded me of my own grandfather. But my mind immediately went whirling through a list of reasons why we should reject the gift. Was it really a gift? Did he want money? Did this obligate us to spend time with this man? What was the catch?
As these thoughts flashed through my head in blinking neon warning signs, the man handed Alex the toy. The carving was rough, the outline of a trunk and tail at each end of a smoothed piece of wood about half the length of my index finger. Four wooden wheels made from a different type of wood allowed the figure to balance independently and roll when pushed, emitting a slight squeaking sound. The wood had been left untreated, the pale grain merely sanded to protect little fingers. Even if its simplicity hadn’t been strangely beautiful, Alex’s reaction was. His chubby fingers spun the wheels, giggles of glee bursting forth. I knew that whatever the cost, I would probably pay it.
But the man didn’t ask for anything or try to strike up a conversation. He just stood in silence for a moment, watching my son. With a pat on the little blond head, he smiled, and returned to his table.
“Thank you so much,” I finally managed. The man gave a back- wards wave over his shoulder.
Alex played happily with the toy, racing it around the table and along the sides of his high chair, alternating between growling and vrooming noises. Occasionally my eyes darted over to our elephant benefactor, puzzled.
A few minutes later the man approached another table with a little boy who appeared slightly older than Alex. “Would you mind if I give him this?” he asked the mother before offering the boy a carved wooden car.
Again the man returned to his seat and went back to eating his lunch alone. Before we left, we stopped to thank him once more.
“Did you make it yourself?” my mother asked him.
“Yes, ma’am. I find it helps me pass the evenings. I don’t have any little ones in my life, but I want someone to have them. Hope it makes him happy.”
He said this without sadness or self-pity. Instead, he smiled with delight and let my son’s tiny hand shake his finger. Alex blew him a kiss and then snuggled the elephant to his cheek.
So often I find myself wondering what kind of world I am borrowing from my children. In my classroom, in the news, in my daughter’s school—the world is thick with petty people and seemingly insurmountable heartbreak. As a culture, we appear to thrive on the big moments—the scandals, the tragedies, the violence. And while we like to celebrate the fantastic and the silly, accounting for the popularity of YouTube, experiencing those quiet moments of beauty in our everyday lives is a rare gift. Even rarer is the gift of being open to the reception of such gifts.
This culture has fostered cynicism that leaves me exhausted by suspicion. Although my mothering instinct will not allow me to completely let my guard down, this experience reminded me to open myself to sincerity. There are good people in the world who want nothing more than to bring happiness without a price. A simple gesture can be just that—the human heart exists in the pure state. My challenge, then, is to open myself to both the giving and receiving of such love.
I will never know this man’s name, but I am grateful to him. Alex loves the little elephant, so simple in its loving craftsmanship. When he is old enough to understand, I will explain the gift that was given to us both that day. Since that day, I have been able to go to bed each night just a bit more hopeful about the world, knowing that there is an old man in my town who is quite probably at that moment whittling little wooden wheeled toys to give to children in the hope that it will make them happy.
Author’s Note: Once Alex turned two and became convinced he is actually a dinosaur and/or shark, I had to rescue his little elephant from play rotation. For now I keep it in a box with things like his hospital bracelets and clipped curls as I view it as an important part of his childhood. I am eager for the day when I can return it to him so he can enjoy it as intended.
Amber Kelly-Anderson is a Texas-based mother of two, writer, and professor of literature and history at Howard College. Her most recent publications include: The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, Sprout, and Roots: Where Food Comes From & Where It Takes Us. She is also a 2013 blogger for Ploughshares Literary Magazine. Read more of her work at www.generationcake.com.
Illustration by Michael A. Lombardo