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Mary Zahran, November 2021



The gifts that keep on giving


The most enduring and meaningful gifts I have ever received have not been wrapped in beautiful paper or delivered to my front door. They have been given to me over the course of my lifetime, sometimes without my even knowing that I had been the recipient of something unique and precious. Only in hindsight have I been able to see their true worth.

One of the earliest of these gifts came from my mother, who instilled in me a love of books that remains with me to this very day. Although our literary tastes diverged as I grew older, I will always be grateful to her for teaching me to read when I was very young and for encouraging me to continue reading. Her present to me has lasted a lifetime and given me countless hours of joy.

Another of these gifts was bestowed on me by my father, and it was parceled out over the course of many years. By observing my father’s devotion to his family and his determination to protect us and provide for us, I learned the importance of persistence and courage in the face of adversity. We endured many problems when I was growing up – some financial, some medical and some personal – but my father always managed to summon the strength to deal with each crisis as it arose. I have never known a stronger or more resilient man.

My mother-in-law’s gift came to me with a generous serving of marinara sauce. In keeping with her kind and nurturing spirit, her gift also came with an abundance of love and a considerable amount of sympathy for a young bride who had absolutely no idea how to cook. I spent many hours by her side, watching her prepare one meal after another. Mostly, she taught me how to prepare Italian and Lebanese dishes, but she also taught me that cooking was really a labor of love. I try to remember the “labor of love” philosophy whenever I am running around the kitchen frantically trying to put together something for dinner.

My seventh-grade science teacher, Mr. Proctor, also gave me a gift that has endured. Strict, demanding, quick-tempered and unyielding in his expectations of his students, Mr. Proctor scared me out of my wits sometimes, but he was one of the best instructors I ever had. He taught me the value of academic rigor and the importance of living up to and even surpassing my potential. Mr. Proctor was a stickler for good grammar and spelling and stressed the need for clarity of thought in my written work. He probably taught me more about effective writing than any English teacher ever did. I can never look at the periodic table of elements without thinking of him.

Is it possible for someone you never met to give you an enduring gift? I think so. When I was 12, I discovered Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” my all-time favorite book. I have a copy that I borrowed from the public library in my hometown and never bothered to return. Decades later, it is falling apart, held together with lots of book tape and a great deal of optimism on my part. I have probably read it dozens of times, and it never grows old. Like any classic work of literature, it offers me new insights every time I reread it. If I bump into Betty Smith in the next life, I plan to tell her how much this book has meant to me. However, I won’t tell her I stole a copy from the library and kept it.

I have saved the best gifts for last. Simply put, my daughters have given me the gift of seeing all things through new eyes. Since they were little girls, I have never looked at a rainbow, a sunset or a snowfall in quite the same way as I did before they were born. From the very beginning of their lives, they have instilled in me a sense of wonder about life.

Finally, I would like to thank fate, destiny, divine providence or whatever force brought my husband into my life. We have been on this crazy merry-go-round called marriage for 43 years and counting, and in all that time, we have never run out of things to talk about. He is my best friend, my touchstone and my occasional adversary.

The beauty of these gifts is that they do not break, get misplaced or fall out of fashion. If anything, they only improve with age. And I am a most grateful recipient.

Mary Zahran, who hopes the Overdue Book Police do not read this essay, can be reached at maryzahran@gmail.com.