My pigtails swung; not from any spring in my step as I made my way to the center aisle of the massive hall, but from a blast of furnace-fuelled air exhaled from a ceiling vent. With an initial apprehension of the unfamiliar surroundings, I moved with a giraffe’s timidity, even though I was plump and short with a diminutive neck.
The day my mother took me to Toronto to attend the yearly bazaar was an unexpected treat, and beneath my reticent exterior I was thrilled. Previous years had found me anxiously awaiting her return, able then to sort through her bags and admire the foraged bargains of jewelry, knickknacks and clothing.
I glanced at my Disney wristwatch – the hour hand rested beside the castle’s turret at eleven and the minute hand pointed to three, slicing across the bangs of Cinderella’s blonde hair. My mother had instructed me to meet her beneath the FOOD sign at precisely twelve o’clock, leaving me forty-five minutes to wander alone.
Enthused chatter noised above my head and throngs of middle-aged women shifted like migrating salmon along tables of rivers covered in a never ending array of lightly used items.
“Excuse me,” I offered politely time and time again after each bump even though I could barely be heard and there was no certainty of who impinged upon whom.
A dazzling flicker of gold caught my eye at a slight parting of tweed skirts and mohair sweaters. Purses secured by crooks of elbows pressed against my torso as I navigated my way through the opening toward the indistinguishable item. Scents of lavender, rose, and vague floral mixtures breezed up my nose.
On tiptoes, my sight intermittently hindered by shoulders, I reached the table that held the glint and gilt of the article, discernible now as a teacup and saucer. Shiny beyond belief with a golden surface as deep and rich as the hue reserved for the wealthy sovereigns of my storybooks, I knew immediately it held the promise of happy tears from my mother. Her birthday hovered just two days away.
A timeworn woman shifted back and forth behind the table, eager to solicit her wares of decorative plates, figurines, glassware and china. It was obvious she was the vendor, and the person who could help make my mother’s birthday the best one ever. Shorter than most, her arms flailed and twisted in the air as she spoke. Her graying hair, secured in a messy bun, let loose strands that fell squiggly over her ears. Her brow wrinkled above an uneasy expression. I would remember these features the rest of my life.
I stood and waited for what felt like the longest time. Patrons brushed against me and jostled the table, rattling the teacup against its saucer. I cradled it in both hands.
Finally, our eyes met. I smiled hungrily.
“Something you’re interested in?” she asked, keeping a watchful eye over her merchandise for wayward hands and shifty fingers.
“Yes, this.” I gestured with a gaze toward the cup and saucer, still wide-eyed at the wonder of its vibrancy.
“That’ll be two dollars,” she said. I reached into the side pocket of my pants and pulled out the lone two-dollar bill, neatly folded in half, given to me by my mother. “For you, my darling girl. Try to find something extra nice for yourself.”
Assured I had the required amount, the woman lowered her body and disappeared behind the table as if performing a magic trick just for me. Concerned she would pop up in a startling manner like a jack-in-the-box, I focused my attention solely on the safety of the teacup. The woman rose slowly, holding a square box, tightly closed and secured with tape.
A slight discomfort trifled with my gut, an unnerving sensation of something.
“Um, it’s this one I’d like,” I said, raising my voice above the prattle of the crowd. I pointed to the sparkling teacup and saucer.
“Same thing,” she said assuredly with a disconcerting smile.
I dismissed the subsequent sensation of something as a simple oddity. Everything was fine. My mother would be pleased in two days’ time.
After taking a last glance at her face, I unfolded the bill and handed the payment to the woman. She thrust the box toward me; I took hold of it gently.
Both hands of my watch were now aligned directly atop the castle’s spire. It was noon. Ignited by the anticipation of my mother opening her gift, I pictured the moment as flawless: her flooded eyes beneath green shadow and black mascara, her ear-to-ear smile, her hug.
The fingers of my mother’s gloves protruded from a side pocket of her fake leopard jacket she’d stuffed into a floral quilted carryall, along with my coat. In her other hand, a tote bag exploded with an array of shapes and colors − the morning’s stockpile.
“Find something?” She acknowledged the box with a nod.
“Uh-huh.” I squelched a divulging smile, hoping there would be no further enquiries. I wasn’t yet aware of my mother’s ability of knowing when to let things pass.
Soon after we arrived home, as my mother proudly showed off her gathering of doodads and whatnots to my father − “bought for a song” − I was in my room with the door securely closed. The box rested safely on my lap as I sat on the edge of my bed. I couldn’t wait for the fair skin of my face to be illuminated once again in the golden splendor of the teacup as if I were a daughter of the Nile with a gift worthy of the Queen.
Shards of tape lifted in impossibly miniscule increments, but going to the kitchen for a pair of scissors was out of the question; queries would ensue. I delicately opened the lid. Shredded bits of newspaper surrounded my fingers as I eased them into the box to raise the teacup. Fragments of sentences drifted upon my bedspread.
Most memories are like tattoos, their imprints fade over time. But some, as this one, remain vivid, needled with everlasting ink across one’s cortex.
A facsimile of the original teacup, clumsily spray-painted a cheap metallic gold, rested in my palms. Its dullness opposed equally the shine of the original − an undeniable deception.
A disappointment unlike any I had felt before passed through my heart as a caustic, elongated pang. Aware of the injustice, I felt only defiance. This was not the time for tears. I shed not one.
If I had written this story as fiction, you would read now the graciousness my mother feigned when receiving the fraudulent teacup and saucer at her birthday celebration. But this story is non-fiction, and the truth is that my mother never received the teacup and saucer on her birthday. She beheld instead, a bouquet of flowers my father purchased on my behalf. I kept to myself the burden of that experience.
My parents decided to downsize when I was forty-five, they were in their seventies. It fell to me to wrap their assortment of novelties, stored for decades within a basement wooden cabinet, in newspaper.
On hands and knees nearing the completion of my task, I reached to the furthest back corner of the lowest shelf. My fingers felt the pliable exterior of a box, softened over time. I pulled it toward me. After all those years, the box had remained right where I discarded it at the ripe age of ten. I held only the slightest memory of stashing it there.
My mother’s eyes welled when I told her the story of my purchase and how I’d hidden the teacup and saucer thirty-five years previous. I placed the flawed teacup into her misshapen arthritic hands.“Anything from you, my darling girl, wouldhave shone as bright as the real thing,” she said.
The truth is, she needn’t have said a word, for I was now a mother myself, and knew that an offering from a son or daughter transforms the least valuable baubles into the purest gems and priceless metals.
So, what did I learn from a cup and saucer?
Well, I didn’t just learn about the duality of people who, despite my noblest intentions will take advantage. I learned to heed the something in my gut and cultivate it as much as possible. I learned that my biggest regrets might come from not looking beneath the exterior of whatever it is I pursued. I learned that the value of a gift is not reflected by its monetary value, but by the giver’s reflection.
I learned that a child’s love is the most lustrous gift of all.