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  • The Most Treasured Gifts Come Without Ribbons or Bows
    Italian Memories

    by Cookie Curci

    When I was a little girl, Christmas Eve was a time of family storytelling. One of my favorite childhood stories was one that Grandma told every Christmas Eve. "Sometimes the best gifts come without ribbons or bows," she would say to her family before beginning this favorite story.

    It was 1918, and Grandpa had gone to work paving the roadways and laying railroad tracks in the city while Grandma was working part-time in the canneries.

    When Papa came home from work, he'd eat a hurried supper and then rush off to night school to get his education. After Grandpa graduated and attained his American citizenship, he went to work full-time on the cannery lines and part-time in a shoe-repair shop. He labored on the night shift so that his days would be free to take care of the children, thereby allowing Grandma to attend school and receive an education.

    Grandma anticipated her first day of school in America. The day of her first class was a very important moment in her young life. She knew that she needed an education to become a good citizen of her new country.

    On the morning of her first class, Grandma excitedly rushed to dress for school. Though she didn't have much of a wardrobe, what she did own was clean and well-pressed. As she slipped her feet into her best pair of long black stockings, Grandma's happy mood dissolved into somber sadness as she discovered her only pair of black stockings were riddled with gaping holes.

    "Forget about your socks, Mama; you haven't time to mend them now," urged Grandpa. "You'll be late for class. And, anyway, I have a surprise for you!"

    A moment later, Grandpa handed Grandma her old high-button shoes. Only now she hardly recognized her timeworn old shoes--they had been transformed. They gleamed with brand-new leather soles and shiny black laces. She could see her reflection in their brilliant shine. While she had slept that night, Grandpa had secretly worked until the wee hours to repair Grandma's old high-button shoes.

    Grandma's eyes welled with tears of gratitude as she placed a kiss on her husband's cheek. "I will look like a fine lady in these wonderful shoes, Papa," she said. "Hurry now, Mama, hurry. Slip your feet inside these beautiful shoes and no one will ever suspect you have holey stockings. It will be our little secret," Grandpa promised.

    Grandma had no time now to mend her tattered stockings. So, she did as her husband had suggested and slipped her stocking feet into her high-button shoes.

    She quickly laced them up and rushed out the doorway, pausing only a moment for Grandpa to kiss her goodbye and to hand her two $1 bills for her classroom tuition.

    Arriving at school that morning, Grandma felt uneasy in a classroom filled with strangers. Standing at the head of the class was a stern-looking teacher by the name of Mrs. Peabody. In her hand she held a long, ominous-looking pointer stick, which she used both for pointing and intimidation.

    That morning, Mrs. Peabody passed a large empty bowl around the classroom and instructed each student to drop the tuition fees into the container. Every student complied. One of the more affluent students paid his fee with a bright $2 gold piece.

    After collecting all the money, the teacher placed the bowl on her desk. Later that afternoon, when Mrs. Peabody tallied up the tuition money, she discovered the gold coin was missing. Convinced that one of her students had taken the gold piece, she demanded that everyone in the classroom empty their pockets on her desk. The students promptly obeyed, but no gold coin appeared.

    Angry and frustrated, the teacher took her search one step farther and demanded that everyone in the classroom remove his or her shoes. A small gold coin could be easily hidden in the rim of a high-button shoe. One by one, the students removed their shoes. Everyone, that is, except Grandma. She sat there frozen with embarrassment; hoping and praying the missing coin would be found before she had to slip off her shoes. But a few minutes later when the coin failed to turn up, Mrs. Peabody pointed her stick directly at Grandma's shoes and demanded she remove them. For what seemed like an eternity, the entire classroom stared down at Grandma's feet. Grandma, who had been so proud of her elegant shoes, just couldn't remove them now in front of her peers and expose her holey stockings. To do so would be a great disgrace.

    Grandma's reluctance to remove her shoes convinced the teacher of her guilt. Mrs. Peabody marched Grandma off to the principal's office. Grandma, in tears, immediately telephoned Grandpa who rushed down to the school. Grandpa explained to the principal why his wife was reluctant to remove her shoes. The understanding principal then allowed Grandma to remove her shoes in the privacy of his office. He soon discovered the only thing Grandma was hiding was a pair of unsightly, tattered stockings. Grandma returned to her classroom, but all that day a shadow of suspicion hung over her. Late that afternoon, just before the dismissal bell, Grandma was completely exonerated of any wrongdoing. When Mrs. Peabody raised her right arm to write the class assignment on the blackboard, the missing coin fell from the cuff of her sleeve and rolled across the room in plain view of the entire classroom.

    Earlier that day, as she counted up the money, the stiffly starched cuff of her dress had accidentally scooped up the small coin.

    That afternoon, when Grandma returned home from school, Papa was waiting for her on the front porch swing. Exhausted from his night job, he was quietly napping. Cradled in his hardworking hands was Grandma's darning basket. Inside the basket were all of Grandma's old stockings that Grandpa had carefully and lovingly mended. In later years, Grandpa would become a successful businessman. He took special pride in giving his wife stockings made from the finest silks and woolens.

    Though Grandma appreciated these fine gifts, she often said they were never so dear to her, or so well-loved, as those old tattered stockings, so lovingly mended by her husband's callused, hardworking hands.

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