By Karen Taylor
Wrinkles of confusion rippled across Holly's forehead as she unwrapped the gift from her best friend, Susan.
"I...I thought you could use it for something." Susan's stammered explanation did nothing to help us understand why a twelve-by-eighteen-inch dark blue carpet remnant was being presented as a birthday gift.
My heart went out to our daughter. Starting out at a new school during her freshman year had been a difficult adjustment. Until she met Susan, Holly had experienced little success making new friends.
The murmured "thanks" was barely audible as Holly tried valiantly not to allow her disappointment to show. She laid the piece of carpet on the kitchen counter, and the two girls headed outside to play with the family dogs.
The extent of Holly's disappointment over the incident didn't become evident until the following evening when she came downstairs to say good night. "Well, I guess we know how much my best friend thinks of me, huh, Mom?" Her attempt at a breezy tone failed miserably.
Still bewildered by the situation myself, I didn't have much to offer in the way of enlightenment. "I'm so sorry, honey," was all I could manage to say.
The next morning, I carried a bulging kitchen sack outside. My heart wrenched as I lifted the lid of the trash can and saw Susan's carpet lying among the other discarded items. Hesitating only a moment, I reached in and plucked it from amid the debris. After giving it a light brushing, I brought it into the house and tucked it away in the hall closet. Overshadowed by the business of daily living, the carpet was soon forgotten.
Prior to Holly's birthday, Susan had been a regular visitor in our home. On several occasions, she rode the bus home with Holly and was one of the few friends ever permitted to stay over on a school night. The girls did their homework together and went to bed at a reasonable hour.
Now as I slid the evening meal into the oven, I realized it had been nearly three weeks since we'd even heard mention of Susan's name. I missed her warm smile and eager-to-please ways.
A rustle at the front door told me Holly had arrived home from school. "Susan invited me to come over to her house after school tomorrow," she announced as she plunked her books down on the kitchen table. Although her voice carried a so-what attitude, I sensed she was pleased by the invitation.
In spite of the number of times Susan had visited with us, our invitations were never returned. "She wants you to come, too, so you can meet her foster mom." The words "foster mom" dangled in the air like a spent birthday balloon. Susan never talked about her home life, and we didn't find it necessary to pry.
Arrangements were made, and the girls rode home together on the school bus the following day. As I negotiated the winding country road that led to her house, Susan babbled nervously about her foster mom and the seventeen cats she had taken in and cared for with Susan's help. Several of these foster kitties scattered as we pulled into the rutted gravel driveway.
A tall angular woman wearing a shapeless tan sweater over navy blue pants stood in the screened doorway to greet us as we approached the small farmhouse. "Excuse the mess," she apologized, holding the door open while we threaded our way through stuff that seemed to be everywhere. Knowing my reputation for neatness, Holly's eyes darted in my direction to quickly assess my reaction to such chaos. Susan's foster mom waved a hand toward the kitchen counter, which was barely visible through the assortment of cat medicines. "This is my medicine cabinet," she explained.
Susan ushered us through the house. It seemed to be alive with four-legged fur balls roaming underfoot and sprawling across the backs of the dingy sofa and chairs. She proudly showed us her room, which was sparsely but neatly decorated with used furnishings. A tarnished picture frame sitting on a crate beside the bed contained pictures of Susan's parents and siblings from whom, we later learned, she had long since been separated.
As the girls flopped down on the grayish-white bedspread to compare notes about the school day, I followed Susan's foster mom - who introduced herself as Glenda - into the kitchen. After clearing a small area, Glenda placed a couple of mugs on the table. Her hand trembled slightly as she poured us each a cup of steaming black coffee. The tightness of her features began to relax as we sipped our coffee and chatted about her cats.
A warm glow shone in her eyes as she revealed to me her fondness for Susan. But her expression turned pensive when she referred briefly to the girl's past. In a short time, I came to respect this generous-hearted woman who had opened her home to a young girl and attempted to make a difference in her life.
As daylight began to fade, we offered our thanks for the visit and said good-bye.
Holly sat quietly in the car on the way home. Stealing a glance, I noticed her back was ramrod-straight. Her head and shoulders were thrust forward as if willing the car to move faster. No sooner had we come to a stop in the driveway than she flung open the car door and walked purposefully toward the side gate. Curious, I shifted into park and followed. A lump caught in my throat as I observed my daughter standing next to the trash can peering inside. Her shoulders slumped as she replaced the lid and shuffled into the house.
After pulling the car into the garage, I went inside and headed for the hall closet. By this time, Holly was sitting at the kitchen table staring out the window.
"Is this what you were looking for?" I placed the piece of carpet on the table in front of her.
"Thanks, Mom." A tear or two slipped from her eye and splashed onto the dark blue remnant that, as if by magic, had become the most precious birthday present in the whole world.
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