I’ve been thinking about Advent and the ways God breaks into our lives, usually at times and in places we least expect it. Sometimes we don’t recognize what happened until later. All this reminded me of an experience in my past, a gift of grace in a difficult time.
* * *
Wayne, Jeremy, and I were returning from Sarasota, Florida where we had just dropped off Geoffrey for his first year of college. We were all grieving, each in our own particular way. I hadn’t been prepared for how empty and drained I would feel after seeing my precious first-born turn and walk away from me into his new life.
We had rushed to get to Sarasota in time for the new student orientation. Now on the way home, we could make stops to explore. In Savannah, we took a long break. While Wayne and Jeremy visited a museum, I explored the little shops along the water front. I wandered from shop to shop with no particular purpose other than looking and being by myself. In one antique store, I looked at cases of antebellum silverware that had been buried during “the war,” the proprietor explained to me. Next to them another case was filled with antique jewelry. A cloisonné pendent about the size of a quarter caught my eye—royal blue with a delicate pink butterfly on it. Not intending to buy, I moved on but came back again and then again. Weren’t butterflies a symbol of resurrection? I was in need of some of that right now. I decided to buy it.
As I stood and watched the shop keeper wrapping it carefully in tissue paper, I felt as if she were carefully wrapping my numb heart—taking care of me. I expected her to pull out a small paper bag for this small purchase, but instead she produced a handmade cloth bag with a drawstring and slipped the tissue-wrapped pendent into it, making me feel doubly wrapped, doubly cared for. But she still wasn’t finished. She pulled out a full-sized brown shopping bag with a wreath of flowers painted on it and placed the tiny parcel in the commodious bag. The painting was hand-done as well—I could feel the roughness of the paint. I walked out of the store wrapped in this stranger’s caring attention.
I proceeded on down the street with a bit more spring in my step. In an artsy pottery, wood sculpture, and oil paintings shop I quickly noted that no price tag had less than three digits and many four. There would be no purchases here, but I browsed anyway. One of the clerks walked up to me and said, “Excuse me—can I ask a question? Where did you get that bag?”
“Down the street at an antique store,” I told her.
“Do you mind telling me how much you paid for it?
“Nothing,” I heard myself say. “They just gave it to me.” And only then did I recognize the true value of what I carried with me. The clerk turned to another clerk and muttered, half under her breath, with a tinge of bitterness, “That would never happen here.”
If I had been walking with more spring in my step already, I fairly floated out of this shop, no expensive purchase weighing me down, but with grace held lightly in my hand and my eyes cloudy with tears.
Grace, I believe, is another name for God and I had encountered Grace given freely, given so naturally the giver was not even aware of what she had done.
* * *
I wish I could include a picture of the pendant or the bag, but I no longer have either of them. I passed the pendant on to a very dear friend after she lost her eldest son, telling her the story of how I got it, and saying she needed it now more than I did. “Maybe some day you will have the opportunity to pass it on,” I suggested. And I’m sure she has.
I used the shopping bag to carry gifts to Geoffrey’s children in Brooklyn, leaving it there for them to use. I’d like to think that perhaps it carried a gift on to someone else, but it really doesn’t matter. It had already done its work.