Nanette Walker was quite pleased. She had just found an entire Encyclopedia Britannica set on sale at Bernard’s Curiosity Corner for $14. She counted out her dollars and found that she had just enough to buy it and still get milk on the way home. Bernard’s surly teenage son Jasper was at the cash register doing his math homework. He had his textbook and a bunch of papers spread out all over the counter. He was in the middle of a complicated looking equation when she set her money down on the counter in front of him. He paused and picked up the money, blowing the blonde hair out of his eyes. He thumbed through the cash quickly then banged open the register and jammed the money in the tray.
“You’re all set,” he said, moving back to his algorithm. She looked back at the heavy set of Encyclopedias. There were three of them and they appeared quite heavy. She missed Josef most in moments like these.
“I hate to be a bother,” she said, “Could you help me get these to my car?” Jasper slammed his textbook shut and stuck his pencil behind his ear.
“Sure,” he said. He disappeared into the back room and she heard him rummaging around and muttering to himself. She walked back over to the books and ran her hands over them. The covers had once been dark brown leather, but had faded over time to a mottled tan. Their bindings were lined with gold plated lettering, designating the contents, A-H, I-R, S-Z. They were beautiful. They reminded her of the books her father had kept in his library when she was a child.
Finally, Jasper emerged with a box and began to roughly shove the books inside.
“Careful,” Nanette said, “They’re a present.”
The boy paused. “For who?” he asked incredulously.
“My granddaughter. For her birthday.”
Jasper scoffed. “No one needs an encyclopedia these days.” Nanette pulled her gloves out of her purse and put them on, not sure what to say. She walked out of the store and unlocked her car, guiding the boy to place the box in the back. He dropped them in the back and turned without so much as a “You’re welcome.” “Thank you,” she said anyway as he sloped back into the store. He gave a barely perceptible shrug of his shoulders before disappearing inside. Bernard has not raised him well, Nanette thought disapprovingly.
Jasper’s comment stuck with her though, as she stopped off at the grocery store and picked up her carton of milk, and then a packet of biscuits, because why not? She drove home and parked in the lot of the high-rise condo that Josef had left to her. She looked at the box of books and decided to leave them there until Milly’s birthday, instead of trying to get them upstairs.
Inside, she set the kettle on to boil and pulled a peppermint tea bag out of the shiny tin that she kept above the stove. The peppermint helped soothe her stomach, which wasn’t so good these days. She couldn’t remember when it was that she’d first started to notice that her body felt old, but here she was, with arthritis and constipation, just like everyone else her age.
Nanette switched on the television to PBS; the only channel she could stomach these days. Everything else was too loud; too aggressive. PBS was gentle, and it wasn’t trying to sell her soda or a car. The kettle shrieked and she poured the steaming water over the tea bag, watching as the water grew darker. She poured in a little milk, and then sat down in Josef’s large black leather recliner, pulling a blanket over her feet.
The recliner was from Josef’s first marriage, but Nanette didn’t mind it. She reached over and pulled open the drawer of the side table, and fished around until she found the invitation to Milly’s birthday. The card was light pink with elegant gold embossing announcing that guests were invited to arrive at 3:00. Alison and Craig, Milly’s parents, lived across town in the new development, where the houses were so big that no one could afford enough furniture to fill them. Nanette didn’t understand houses that size. How could three people use twelve rooms?
She was glad that Josef had favored a simple life. Her ex-husband, Foster, had always been chasing after the next big thing. She had found it exhausting. He wanted the fastest cars; the biggest house on the street; and eventually a younger, prettier wife. Josef, in contrast, had been happiest when they were sitting on a bench watching the sunset, holding hands.
“My girl,” he would say to her contentedly, tucking her arm under his. She would lean her head on his sturdy shoulder and they would watch the Atlantic roll in and out together. She wished that Alison was a bit more like her father. They might have gotten along better then.
At exactly 3:00, Nanette pulled her little car around Alison’s enormous driveway. She had found a giant bow in her closet and affixed it to the top of the box that contained the Encyclopedia. She cut the engine and sat in the car for a minute, breathing deeply. She was never sure what she would get with Alison.
Milly ran out of the front door and pulled the passenger door of Nanette’s Toyota Camry open.
“Grandma Nanette!” She shrieked. Nanette winced. Alison wouldn’t allow her to be just Grandma; one of many reminders that she didn’t completely belong. She smiled at Milly. “Hello darling.”
“Mum’s bought me an Xbox!” Milly continued. Nanette wasn’t sure what that meant. “Did you bring me a present?” Milly demanded, craning around to see if there was anything in the back. She saw the giant cardboard box with the blue bow on top. “Oh wow, is that for me?”
“It is,” Nanette said, “But I’m going to need your father to help me carry it.” Milly took off back into the house, calling for Craig to come out. Alison appeared at the door, and seeing that it was Nanette, gave her a cool wave. Nanette waved back. It would seem that today she was getting indifference.
By 4:00, there was a multitude of young girls running around the backyard of the house, where a bounce house had been set up, and pony rides were being offered. Milly’s eyes were gleaming and her cheeks were flushed with excitement. Nanette sat in a corner, a plate of fried chicken and potato salad balanced on her lap. Alison came over and pulled up the lawn chair next to her.
“Did you bring that big box?” she asked gesturing to the giant pile of presents that had grown on the corner of the deck. Nanette nodded.
“I’m not sure what an 8 year old is going to do with a set of Encyclopedias,” Alison said. She adjusted the chair so that she could lean back further. Nanette shrugged, helplessly. She had gotten it wrong again. She would always get it wrong with them.
“We couldn’t afford many books when I was a girl,” she said finally. “My dad saved up for a set like that for a year. I read from it every day when I was her age.” She stopped, giving up. Alison lay next to her, her hands folded across her stomach and her eyes closed. Nanette put her plate down and stood. “I should go,” she said, wiping her hands on her skirt. Alison stood too.
“Let me show you something first,” she said, to Nanette’s surprise. She led the way into the house and up the stairs to her bedroom. The bedroom, like the rest of the house was impeccable. A giant bed with an ornate brass headboard sat in the middle of the room. On one side of the room was an enormous vanity. A huge flat screen television was hung prominently above the fireplace.
Alison walked into her closet. Nanette sat on a settee in the corner of the room; the stairs had given her more trouble than she had expected, she needed to start exercising again.
Alison came out of the closet pushing a large box, almost identical to the one Nanette had brought.
“Give her this,” Alison said, placing the box next to Nanette.
“What is it?” asked Nanette, gently opening the flaps.
“It’s a doll house. Dad made it for me when I was little, and Milly’s been asking for it for years.” Nanette vaguely recalled seeing photos of Alison playing with an elegant doll house. She opened the box and looked at the miniature house. It was perfect down to every detail, with linoleum tile on the tiny kitchen floor, and even little shingles lining the roof. Each bedroom was wall-papered with a different beautiful pattern, and the floors were all carpeted. Her Josef had built this. She ran her hand over it lovingly. “Dad would want you to be the one to give it to her,” Alison said, sitting down next to Nanette.
“Are you sure?” Nanette said. She wanted to take Alison’s hand, but she was afraid that the moment would pass.
“Of course,” Alison said, wiping roughly at her eyes. She gave Nanette a small smile. The curve of her lips was just like Josef’s, and for a moment, Nanette missed him so much she couldn’t breathe. To her surprise, Alison reached out and squeezed Nanette’s hand, then stood.
“I’ll get Craig to carry it down,” she said, walking to the door, then paused.
“I don’t know if you know. Dad had a set of Encyclopedias just like the ones you brought. You should keep them.” Nanette shook her head. “I didn’t,” she said.
“You made him really happy you know.” Alison said. “Thank you for that.” She turned and left the room.
Nanette turned and looked at the little house again. A much better gift for an 8 year old girl. A gift from her and Josef.