The Gift

The afternoon, although graying quickly, was still sweet with warmth, an early spring day. Days like this wouldn't come again for at least a month. A reward, it seemed, for surviving another dank and joyless February in New York City, winter almost passed. My birthday was in March, and even at my age, I still looked forward to the day with a childlike sense of hope, as though anything were possible. I had learned, though, to plan my own celebrations. Growing up, happy occasions -- a holiday gathering, or the once-a-year trip to Boston -- could wither like tired roses from the supermarket, never fully blossoming into the radiant displays of my imagination.

Benjamin and I were both skipping along as we came to the apartment door. I was tired, but giddy, too, eased by the velvety breeze that ruffled the air, not so bone cold and weary. Benjamin jumped from crack to crack in the sidewalk, so I left the door ajar for him, and stepped inside to check the mailbox. A large package was propped on the radiator that steamed and hissed, despite the mild spell. The address on the brown paper wrapping was blurred a bit, dampened and then dried, but I could see my name. "Hey, Benj, look, a package," I called out the door. My curly-haired boy rushed up the steps, flushed and breathless. "Is it for me?" he asked, and barely paused his headlong rush up the stairs, when I said, "No, honey, it's for me."

What a funny kid. Just didn't matter to him -- he didn't have that need, that want I had, that I'd always had. I didn't even know what it was I wanted, but I knew I didn't have it. He never wanted anything, the silly boy.

We got upstairs and I set the package aside, moving through the motions of coming home, settling in for the evening, sipping from the cold morning coffee, planning the tasks for dinner. Benjamin was chattering away in his room as he unpacked his backpack, sharing his day with Teddy and Ike and the other stuffed animals.

Soon, though, I had my pot of soup simmering away, and the bread warming in the oven. I picked up the brown-papered box and ran my fingernail against the clear plastic tape tucked around the side. I loosened the other side, and pulled the wrapping off. The large white box had the name of a store scrawled in gold lettering across the lid, followed by the words, Beverly Hills, California. Wow, I thought, as I opened it. Who do I know in California?

Folds of crisp white tissue hid the contents of the box, but I did not hesitate long before lifting the thin paper to see what lay beneath. The terrycloth was like none I'd touched before, thick and soft, the palest pink. I pulled the robe out of the box, and held it against myself. It was full and long, all the way to my ankles, but graceful and feminine, not shapeless and bulky like other terrycloth bathrobes I'd seen. A square, ivory envelope fluttered to the floor; the letter B was embossed in old-fashioned script just above the sealed flap.

The pale creamy card inside said: Susie, I wish I could be with you on this special day! Love, Mama.

I had gone through a phase when I was gangly and tongue-tied, when I wanted to be a Sue not a Susan, and people had called me that. In small-town Massachusetts, they like to shorten girls' names; everyone was a Deb, or a Pat, a Sue, or a Jen. There was a girl in junior high glee club whose real name was Susan, but she was called Su-su, and people said she did things with boys. I was thrilled with the knowledge, but could not imagine myself as Su-su. No one, ever, had called me Susie. What a fun, carefree name, for someone not at all like me.

I don't know what I called my mother. All the words I might have used stick together in my throat. How could they spill out now? I probably called her Mom, or Mother. Something like that. But not Mama. That was a name for a mother who held you in her arms, who smelled of yeast and sugar and whose soft hands dried your tears, whose kind face stood between you and the world.

Benjamin asked me about the package, is that a present from Grandma? I guess so, I said, isn't it beautiful? He said, "Is it your birthday, Mummy?" No, I said, not for four more weeks, a long time away still. But he was hungry, and the soup was steaming in his bowl, and his eyes were full of cheese and bread and his thoughts did not linger on my surprising good fortune. I'd learned a long time ago that what my mother did or said could not bother him. He wore his own childhood tucked snugly around him.

After supper, I put our dishes in the sink and picked up the paper wrapping from the package. I looked at it more carefully now, and saw what I had quickly overlooked before. The name was like mine, but the last two letters were different. It read, Susan Landau. The address was very close, she lived at 7 Bleecker Street, I lived at 1 Bleecker.

As though the answer were being spelled out for me by a gypsy with a Ouija board, the pieces slid together. The swirling B on the delicate envelope was from her mother, Barbara Bain -- she played the elegant Cinnamon on the TV show Mission: Impossible, opposite Martin Landau, Susie's father. I'd seen the gossipy note in the New York Post: Their daughter had come east to study film at NYU.

I hung the pink robe in the bathroom, and slipped into it each morning after I took my bath. How could a fabric feel so fine, like a caress, like a whisper of spring? The man from UPS came to my apartment door one night while we were having supper, and asked me if I had seen a package that he'd left in the stairwell of my building. I assured him I'd seen no packages, and he and I shook our heads in rueful agreement when he said what a bad neighborhood this was, so many junkies now on every corner. I wore the bathrobe for years and years, wrapped myself in Mama's love until the terrycloth got thin as gauze. Benjamin would notice from time to time, and say, isn't that the bathrobe you stole, Mums?

About the author:

Susan T. Landry is the managing editor of the literary magazine, Lifeboat: A Journal of Memoir, and a manuscript editor at the New England Journal of Medicine. Her autobiographical writing has been published in Brevity, Word Riot, Full Circle, and previously in Pindeldyboz. She lived in NYC for 20 years and now lives in a small town south of Boston; she can't remember why she left New York.