THE dining table blossoms with colorful if wrinkled paper recycled from previous birthdays and Christmas, too. Kittens entangle the ribbons, Scotch tape tangles itself in a loose, sticky ball, scissors keep losing me. I am wrapping presents. Orneriest is the thermos. Today is Sara's birthday. Birthdays remind me of birth days. In a fortnight Sara will give birth to a child. Technically, that makes me a candidate for grandmother, a role I don't feel mature enough to assume. Weird enough hearing myself referred to as a mother-in-law. Nor am I the grandmotherly type. I'd rather go snorkeling or break (brake?) dancing. Having some kid call me Grandmother would really shoot my image. Even now, I should be relating this under a pseudonym. So I've warned them: Don't count on me for babysitting, etc.
Or at best, on the neighborhood playground where no one has seen me for 20 years, I'll pass it off as my own baby, hope someone believes me.
Nonetheless, I realize that if it hadn't been for my own grandmothers, one from Kansas City, Mo., and one from St. Petersburg, Russia, I might never have grown up. Or at least, not properly. More omnipresent than my parents, Grandmama and Babushka taught me, their only grandchild, to read, write, memorize poems, and pray in English and Russian, respectively, by age 4. They taught me to knit and crochet, cross-stitch and featherstitch, play croquet and badminton, taught me about God and life and the world.
A couple of decades later, I kept expecting my own children's grandmothers to teach them similar things, including manners, conveniently letting me off the hook.
Despite everyone's intentions, it never quite happened. And I was refas-tening popped buttons and diapers in between trying to write/translate/teach, i.e., too busy to teach featherstitching, if I remembered how. Fortunately Babushka was still near enough to teach them to read, in English.
Suddenly if not unexpectedly, here I am in a position hard to avoid, with a chance hard to refuse: to pay my eternal debt of gratitude to Grandmama and Babushka for all their lavished love and upbringing.
Too soon to worry about assuming that difficult legacy. The birth is days away. Today is only Sara's birthday and I am trying to wrap this thermos. A rather dull, practical gift. To balance it, I've also bought perfume, a necklace, sweater, red belt for when she regains her figure, and a Chinese cup to go with the thermos, all from the Vietnamese emporium where I went to replenish my supply of dried octopus.
I hadn't thought of giving a thermos. But spotting it flashed me back to chilly nights following the birth of my youngest.
Alexander was born on the island of Cyprus on Dec. 6, just as the 1963 war between Greek and Turkish communities was breaking out. Dynamite, mortars, and rifles were soon blasting all the time and all around us. Driving the hour along empty roads between our house in Nicosia in the island's center and the hospital in Pendaiya on the western shore was eerie but transpired without trouble, though a few weeks later when I drove Alexander back for a checkup, we were captured by the Turks. But that is another story.
Meanwhile, what a lovely surprise it was, newly home from the hospital, when at the first 11 p.m. wail, then again at 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., my husband carried upstairs a tray with a cup and a thermos of hot milk for me to sip while I changed and nursed Alexander. My husband stayed awake to keep me company, at least until the novelty wore off, rather quickly. After that, in those dark hours while gunfire competed with crickets and lizards and infant sounds, I read ``War and Peace.''
By daylight, walking the perambulator between lemon and olive groves en route to see Babushka, then 88 and also in Cyprus, frequently brought me face to face with a homemade tank or a wild-eyed 15-year-old brandishing a subma-chine gun. But those December days, like every other day on Cyprus, were sunny and, at midday, relatively warm.
December nights were cold. Or at least they seemed freezing, after a summer of temperatures that exceeded 100 degrees. Cypriot houses were not built for winter, and we had neither furnace nor fireplace. The kerosene heater heated only somewhat and smelled. We had to keep the shutters drawn and not show too many lights, which might seem an irresistible target for some trigger-happy irregular. So getting up several times a night to tend a baby was, like everything else that year, an adventure.
But each night, when I sprang from bed to respond to that avid cry of hunger and discomfort, next to Tolstoy I'd find the thermos of hot milk or cocoa to warm me, and, indirectly, Alexander.
Although during the upheavals when we were evacuated from war-torn Cyprus to the then safe haven of Lebanon, the thermos disappeared or broke, I still think with love and gratitude of my husband's midnight offerings. He may also have placed a salmon-pink hibiscus on the tray.
So this evening I am wrapping an Oriental cup and thermos for my daughter-in-law's birthday. I hope her husband, my eldest son, will fill them with hot milk or cocoa for their forthcoming midnight revelries with my new grandchild.