Blessed to Receive
A friend suggested that I should give you a list of my “Top Ten” – but he left it to me to choose a category. I think he had in mind something like movies or songs. But I’ve decided to tell you about the Ten Best Gifts I ever received. In each case the gift had a big effect on my future life. Here they are, in no particular order:
#1. My First Ball-Point Pen
It was a birthday gift from my parents. Ball-points were then so new and special that each pen came elaborately mounted in a cylindrical transparent box. And yet, for some time, we weren’t even allowed to use them at school! Another example of how often what’s new and different is viewed with alarm and suspicion. But what’s really remarkable to me is that, apart from a few improvements like retractable points, we’re still, so many years later, using that same basic writing instrument.
#2. A Puppy
It was a gift from a school-mate in London, who had several to dispose of. I had to go to his house, and I brought the furry little thing home on the bus, tucked inside my jacket. We were never sure of the breed – probably a Cockapoo – a mixture of Cocker Spaniel and Poodle. My mother called him a “Schmoodle.” I named him Happy, because that’s how he made me feel. I’d never before owned any animal larger than a turtle. I loved him more than I loved anything or anybody else. But I somehow outgrew that love – at least to the extent of being willing to leave him as my parents’ responsibility when I emigrated to California. When they too came over, they gave him to some people I didn’t know. Years later, when back on a visit, I cared enough to go and see those people – but they simply told me he had died.
#3. My First Bicycle
Another gift from my parents, it was a red and white “Rollfast,” a typical American kid’s bike, big and heavy, with back-pedal brakes and balloon tires. I was very attached to it – but in many ways, it was a big mistake. We bought it while we were still living in Washington, D.C., but shortly before we returned to England, after the war. My father’s position as a British official gave us a generous baggage allowance, and so, when we came back, after seven years away, I was able to import the whole bicycle (along with my large collection of comic books).
I’d been told that the English bicycles were much different – and so they were – lighter, with thinner tires and hand-brakes. But instead of considering getting one, for years I stubbornly stuck with my “Rollfast,” enduring all kinds of problems, such as the difficulty of getting spare parts, and even of getting the tires pumped up. I took some kind of perverse pleasure in being the only kid with an American bike.
#4. A Rhyming Dictionary
It was given to me by a fellow student at the University of London, whom I had invited to my 21st birthday celebration. I’m not sure if I even knew then that such books existed. But, as a budding poet in an era when rhymed verse was still not considered unfashionable, I found this work, by Langford Reed, published in 1947, very helpful. And, although I hardly ever saw that girl again, I still have the book, and am somehow moved by her inscription:
with best wishes for a very happy and successful future.
#5. Ear Plugs
Until I was well into my twenties, one of my worst problems was a sensitivity to noise, especially when trying to sleep. It was particularly oppressive when I was traveling, and began to encounter situations in which inconsiderate people with whom I had to share close quarters at night felt quite free to talk loudly, despite my pathetic pleas for quiet.
It was Allen Carrico, a friend with whom I’m still in touch, who was managing a house in San Jose, California, in which I was one of several residents, who introduced me to what then seemed the godsend of ear plugs. In those days two came in a little blue box. They were scented, pink, waxy, and cylindrical, and softened with warmth to the shape of your ear – and they worked!
Tune in next week for the other five of my Top Ten Gifts.