P. S. Gifford
Copyright 2004 by P. S. Gifford
The Perfect Gift
With The holiday season upon us, it is the season of gift giving. I watch bewildered as my eleven year old son is continually bombarded with toys on television. With each advert that pops up, it seems another present is added to his “must have” list.
Isn’t it amazing all the toys they have these days? It seems that you need a computer engineering degree just to operate them. Hi-tech video games, transforming robots, digital contraptions. It is all simply overwhelming, particularly for this easily confused forty year old.
This entire present exchanging mayhem made me take a moment to myself and consider one of my favorite presents of all time… I too, was eleven, that magical age, whereas the body is starting to mature yet the imagination is still chock-a-block with wonderment and make-believe. At eleven years old anything is still possible. Your dad is still your hero, strong and all knowing. Your mom is still incontestably the most beautiful woman of all time. Yes, at that most perfect of ages miracles can still happen.
1976 is when I have my fondest memories of the season. My parents were divorced at the time, and I lived with my father. I got to see my mom , who had a small flat ,every other Sunday for a few hours. The time was always to short, we whiled away the time by playing in the park or by challenging each other to a good game of scrabble. At the holidays I was lucky enough to experience two Christmases, one on the actual day with my dad, and a second on Boxing Day with my lovely mom. (Boxing Day is a holiday in England that is on December 26th.)
I can’t really recall the present my father got me, although I am sure it was well thought out and considered. Perhaps a few clothes or a radio cassette player, I am not very sure, yet I shall never forget the gift my mom brought me.
My mother had made me wait till after dinner to open my gift. I quickly gulped down a complete turkey dinner, with all the traditional trimming, followed my Christmas pudding and mince pies (my favorite!). As I ate I remember continually ogling the brightly colored package that sat proudly under the artificial Christmas tree. Her home was a very modest small apartment, and the diminutive tree sat proudly with its decorations and lights.
“What can it be?” I kept considering frantically over and over in my young mind.
Eventually dinner was finished, plates had been cleared and we all went into the front room, and sat about the roaring fire, it was time to unwrap my gift. With the enthusiasm and energy that only a young boy can muster I hastily tore open the neatly wrapped box. My mom knew me really well, she was som
ehow in tune with me, always seeming able to determine my deepest thoughts. I just knew that this gift was going to be really special.
As I sat and stared at the box, I was nearly overwhelmed , with emotion. I remember my mothers beautiful smile shining jubilantly at me , she knew It was just what I had wanted ,an electric typewriter . As I stared at the turquoise blue gift I remember crying, tears of joy. It was the perfect present. My mom, still smiling then handed me a second gift, a ream of paper.
With my silly Christmas hat perched upon my head I can vividly recall sitting there typing, as my mom watched on glowing. Who else would have thought that an eleven year old would have wanted such a gift?
I spent the entire evening typing, typing and typing some more. I have no recollection as to what I wrote, yet from that humble beginning a light had been magically switched on, the light to my imagination.
Recently my family and I traveled from our home in California back to the place of my birth…Birmingham England…Although having lived here for twenty years…I still very much feel that England is my real home…The fact that my father, who moved with me, maintains a home there only feeds this notion…The house itself has not really changed in twenty years and is in many ways a museum of my childhood. In fact on the day of my arrival I had found some old worn photos of my childhood, a couple of the more sentimental ones I carefully placed within my wallet…
My lovely wife Sarah and my eleven year old son, Jonathan, have been sufficiently often enough that they feel that it is a second home…I am also blessed to have many friends and neighbors in the town where I was raised.
We used this as our England base, planning a couple of day trips, and one journey to nearby North Wales…We were going to spend two nights within the oldest bed and breakfast in Wales…Parts of it date back to the 15th century-’The Black Boy Inn”. This is situated in the town of Caernarfon, which in turn is surrounded by ancient castle walls..
We spent an awe inspiring couple of days there. Taking an early morning steam engine ride to the summit of Britain’s tallest mountain, Snowdon. Enjoying hearty hikes, exploring many a mystery and eagerly devouring the splendid local food, and indeed ale!
On our first morning we had decided to spend the morning in Portmeirion…Clough Williams-Ellis built Portmeirion in 1925 on his own private peninsula on the coast of Snowdonia in Wales. He wanted to show that 'the development of a naturally beautiful site need not lead to its defilement'. His lifelong concern was with Architecture, Landscape Design, the protection of Rural Wales and Conservation generally, and he strove at Portmeirion to give his ideas physical expression. He fought for Beauty - "that strange necessity". These days Portmeirion is owned by a Registered Charity called ‘The Second Portmeirion Foundation.’ All the quaint cottages contained in the village are let as part of the Portmeirion Hotel and the village also has several shops and restaurants and is surrounded by the Gwyllt sub-tropical gardens and woodlands and miles of sandy beaches. A magical tourist destination . All in all a place overfilling with enchantment and ambience…We were fortunate that the day we were to be there, was an unusual one for this part of the world, as it was sunny. In fact a cloudless blue sky was to be our back drop on this glorious of days.
The hours were lazily consumed exploring charming architect, taking strolls along the ocean front, and with general relaxation….Sarah’s hand was contently cupped within mine as we shared an idyllic morning.
We decided that a cup of tea and a fresh baked scone with clotted cream was in order. ( a local specialty!) As we sat there eating greedily and blissfully admiring the stunning view, I noticed with interest an old wishing-well, slightly away from the center of the town, entangled within some seemingly primordial vines on a patch of overgrown grass…It looked curiously out of place. Upon finishing my tea I had decided that a closer look was in order, and Jonathan and I eagerly approached it. In fact it was so unusual that I decided to take a photo of it…Posing Jonathan comically in front of it. As we were walking away , I casually tossed a penny over my right shoulder, I heard a splash of acknowledgement from the old well, as if it was saying thank-you. I closed my eyes tight and made a wish.
The afternoon was starting to fade away, we only had another hour or so left to explore this magnificent village. Jonathan had eagerly wanted to descend an old stone path leading to an isolated private beach all day. I looked at the broken steps and how quickly they descended. I was unsure as to if I wanted to risk it. Yet the sparkle of adventure contained within my sons blue eyes could not be denied. As Sarah sat contentedly at the top, admiring the view, safely perched on a well worn bench, we began to climb downward…
I have to admit that I found it both draining and exhilarating as we crept down to the beach below. When we at length arrived upon the soft golden sands, in complete solitude, I felt that it had been a small victory. Alas, there is only one drawback to having climbed down so many steps - at some point we had to climb up again!!!
In about twenty more minutes my son and I emerged panting; yet smiling from the path, I sat next to my wife and gave her a kiss on her cheek as I gradually caught my breath.
I asked her if she had been all right whilst I was gone. She replied joyfully that a strange thing had happened during my absence. That not one minute more than we had left she had gotten some company. A sweet middle aged lady, with the face of an angel came and sat long with her. She added that she presumed that she was lonely and here by herself, and that they comfortably fell into a deep conversation. It was strange she explained, she began to chat with this woman as if she had known her for years. Asking prying questions into her, her marriage and her life in general.
My son interrupted the conversation, asking for a ‘couple of quid’ to buy us all ice creams. My wallet was secure within my wife’s hand bag, as she reached in to retrieve the money something made her suddenly gasp. One of the photos I had put into my wallet had fallen out. She was looking upon a picture of my mother, a lady who had died many years before I had met my wife. I shall never forget the words she was about to say….
“That was the woman I was chatting too!”
My mind raced. Since finding those photographs, I had become preoccupied with the fact that my wife and mother had never met. I had been envisaging how well they would have gotten on. In fact I had been dreaming about it so much, that when I made that wish earlier in the day was that the two of them would have met….Maybe, just maybe it wasn’t a stranger remarkably resembling my mother, perhaps my yearning really did come true.
Memories At 78 RPM
I always find it odd when an old deep forgotten memory surfaces unexpected. I had a remarkable experience with that last night. In fact the impact is still being felt today.
Last weekend while out dutifully Christmas shopping I spied it in our local discount store. At first glance I simply knew that I must have it, despite it costing $100.00 - a modern record player, CD player combo. Styled as if it was designed in the fifties. Now, the trick was to convince my wife that I was deserving of an early Christmas present. Somehow fate was on my side. She was happy, well, she was shopping, and that always brings my wife happiness. She gave in; I proudly put it in the cart. We could have spent the next twelve hours shopping now, I had my prize.
That night I eagerly brought it into the house and set it up in our bedroom. I then raced downstairs into the garage. Where hidden in storage containers under the Christmas decoration lays my old record collection.
Clearing off the cobwebs I collected several records from the late 1970’s and raced enthusiastically back upstairs to play them. It’s a funny thing, despite all of the new technology and enhanced sound reproduction, there is something magical about a record.
As I played, danced and smiled, I noticed that my eleven year old son was looking curiously at the “contraption”. Then it occurred to me he had never seen a record player before. He hasn’t even seen a cassette tape. He looked at amazement as I delicately removed the twelve inch black disc from its sleeve and placed it onto the turntable, then shook his head in disbelief as I proceed to make it spin, and put the needle onto it. As my records have been well played over the years they crackled and snackled until the music began.
Over the last week, I have been dutifully cleaning and playing a wide range of records, each one conjuring up its own memory. A lot of these songs I had not heard in fifteen or twenty years.
It was yesterday, that investigating further into our storage facility known as the garage I stumbled upon a smaller storage container. I pulled it into the center of the garage, and with my dog Chester cautiously sniffing at it, pulled the lid of. My eyes opened wide in amazement at what I saw. The records I had owned as a child. I examined each record cover with loving eyes. I was the youngest of the three of us, my brother is ten years my senior, and my sister arrived three years after he did. As a result there were lots of children’s records from the fifties, which I sort of inherited. Now, these records were mainly 78’s.Now, I have not had a player that I could play these on in twenty five years. In fact the last time these were played was in the 70’s, an old radiogram, which was one of those massive, hi-tech pieces of equipment, fashionable at that time.
Last night I sped up with much haste and played them. Some where just people reading nursery rhymes, others were silly ditties. Each one made me cry, as each one evoked memories. I was suddenly three years old lying on my mothers lap as she sang along to the melodies. Or I was five years old dancing in our living room on a sunny day as my mother worked the front garden. Yet, another I was four singing along as I helped my mother bake. I cannot fully express how jubilant I felt. Despite my mother being in heaven for over ten years, for those moments she was there again with me.
Those cracked old pieces of vinyl forty and fifty years old are now amongst me most treasured of possessions, In fact I think I shall bake some strawberry jam tarts and have a pot of tea, and play a few more…
My Old Friend
It was in the summer school holidays 1978 when I made my new friend. Yes, I remember it as distinctly as if it was yesterday. I would have been 13 years old then. Okay, you now know how old I am…
One particularly sunny morning I awoke and over my bowl of cereal I got an idea. I decided to go to the zoo. I had always liked zoos, never ending in the delights and beauty of all the creatures. Now living as I did in Birmingham ,England, we were most fortunate to have an excellent zoo, Dudley, a mere eight miles from the house.
I recall it was about nine when I set off on my trusted old bicycle. On my back hung my tattered back pack, which contained my favorite sandwich, cheese and onion , and a flask of hot tea. This was going to be an adventure!
About ninety minutes later, I dutifully arrived at my destination. Now the circumstances were , I did not have any money, I rarely did back then. However I had formulate a plan; I was after all a n exceedingly determined thirteen years old.
I rode to the back of the park, seeking an “alternate entrance.” I soon spied it, a climbable fence at the back, on top of a hill. I chained my bike to a fence, and climbed up the embankment, in a few moments I had scaled the eight foot railing, and jumped effectively to the other side. I had made it!
However my cheery disposition quickly vanished as I noted where I had actually entered .At the bottom of the pen were the llamas. A second problem was that between me, and the llamas and my entrance into the park laid a steep descent covered in stinging nettles.
Yet, I had persevered this far what was the odd llama and a few stings to stop me now. I began carefully climbing down the hill. It did not take me long and I slipped and fell. I suddenly regretted wearing short trousers and a t-shirt. I rolled and rolled through the bushes, ripping my skin and stinging me all over. About an hour later, well perhaps a minute, I landed at the bottom with a resounding thump.
As I opened my eyes, I felt a strange sensation; a llama was affectionately licking my cheek. Alarmed I quickly stood up, raced and leaped out of the pen.
I was in!!!
I eagerly started exploring the zoo. I soon felt a little hungry , and searched for a comfortable shaded spot to relax and eat in. I before long found the ideal place, a little wall surrounding a shallow body of water, where a giant tortoise lived. As I perched myself down and began my little feast, the tortoise, hurried away as quickly as he could. I watched on strangely fascinated, in fact I was so intrigued I spent the next five hours there. The sad thing I observed is that very few people actually gave this magnificent fellow much more than a quick glance. They were far to interested in the monkeys, the perennial favorite, or the Lions and tigers. Yet here was the oldest (and wisest perhaps?) animal in the entire place. I in fact discovered he was already almost a hundred years old, and still in his prime.
After I sat there reading, on the enclosing wall for about two hours, a peculiar thing happened. He walked on over to me. I was taken aback, and I might add, flattered. It appeared this fellow was enjoying my company as well. I cautiously and nervously scratched his head. My new friend seemed a little unsure at first, as he quickly sunk back deep into the safety of the shell. But, a few moments later, his head returned, and I went back into scratching mode. He seemed to stretch out his neck as far as he could. I had connected with the fellow!!
Eventually the park closed, and I was forced to leave. As I got up to go, the tortoise tried to follow me, I remember him trying to lift himself over his enclose. He could not make it, and seemed to be a little frustrated with himself.
On my ride home, I could not forget him. The next day found me at my local library discovering all I could about these creatures with prehistoric routes.
Over the next few weeks, I went back quite often; I soon discovered a much easier approach to sneaking in the zoo. I even got friendly with some of the zoo keepers. They obviously knew I wasn’t paying., yet seemed to turn a blind eye . I always found myself back at the magic place, it became my sanctuary. My old friend seemed in my imagination to be looking for me, eagerly anticipating my arrival.
As I walked up I would watch him plod over to me. I started to bring a few radishes or pieces of lettuce, he seemed to appreciate the gesture.
I can’t remember exactly why I stopped going, summer was over, and I was forced back to school. I was also turning into a mature teenager; I regret to say that I perhaps had over things on my mind than the friendship I had developed over the summer.
As I have gotten older, whenever I go to the zoo, I always check out if they have a giant tortoise, and whenever I see one, my mind and heart goes back to the summer of 1978.
I suspect he is still there, waiting and looking. The
next time I am back in England I think I shall go and see, only this
time I shall pay to enter!
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P. S. Gifford's Story List and Biography