I am trying to write about gratitude, I tell my sister as we cross Broadway. "Describe a time when you expressed thanks in a non-material way," I suggest. My sister thinks about it but can't come up with anything.
I have posed this question to several friends and family members already. All have had similar responses: Although it seems as if the question should be easy to answer, examples don't leap to mind.
We decide to go into a music store to see if they have a CD my sister has been looking for. It is called "Dreams," she tells the salesclerk, who says that it is out of stock.
As we are leaving, my sister explains that she wants to buy the music for the restaurant she owns uptown. One of her regular customers, a woman in her 70s, had recently told my sister how much she liked that album. A few weeks later the woman passed away.
"I thought it would be a nice way to remember her," my sister explained.
Later, I pose the gratitude question to my mother. She can't think of anything either. As we leave her apartment, she hangs a plastic bag filled with deposit bottles on the iron railing outside. Rather than return the bottles or throw them away with the recyclable trash, she and many others in the city separate them out and leave them where homeless people can find them.
My mother is always pointing out little "offerings": old clothes, a jar of pasta sauce left on the sidewalk, a pack of gum left on a brick ledge. "There's gratitude in that, don't you think?" my mother says, "when people's goodness or abundance overflows?"
I'm not sure, but I think about it.
We return to the topic of my writing assignment. "Write something about Miranda and the ways she shows her thanks," my mother suggests. I immediately veto the idea. Children aren't big on expressing thanks directly. Sure, they crayon pictures that doting adults stick on the refrigerator and they're fairly easily trained to say, "Thank you." But their very beings defy formal displays. The beauty of their "uncivilized" innocence is, after all, the way they expect nothing and accept all.
Nonetheless, an image leaps to mind. On her birthday a few years back, Miranda, then four years old, received a present in the mail. She tore open the carton to find a layer of bubble wrap protecting a beautifully be-ribboned package. "Oh, look, poppy paper!" she exclaimed. She pinched the plastic bubbles between her fingers and listened to the pop-pop sounds they made.
"No," I quickly corrected. "That's just the packing materials, it's not the present." But I held my tongue. Who am I to say where the surprises are meant to begin?