Holiday Issue: The Gift
Precious Jewels: Wil Haygood on a meaningful Christmas gift
There were two things I wanted desperately to give my mother for Christmas in 1962. I wanted to give her a jewelry box. And I also wanted to give her a clean, uninterrupted sentence. I stuttered, badly, and I could tell this pained my mother, even as it pains me to remember. Words got stuck in my throat, then stuck even harder on my tongue. I sometimes stamped my feet, pleading for the word to leave my body. She'd stare at me as if that relentless look would untie my tongue. Sometimes she'd just look away.
But first, the jewelry box.
Elvira Haygood, my mother, was transfixed by jewelry and silky clothing. She had imitation pearls that hung from her mirror; she had bracelets that matched her earrings, earrings that matched the colors of her outfits, outfits that she ordered by mail from Frederick's of Hollywood. I'd answer the door in our Columbus, Ohio, home, and there would be the mailman, standing there with a big box. "Momma!" I'd scream, and my mother would come upstairs from the basement from doing laundry. She had been a teenage mother, and she still squealed like a teen. My twin sister, Wonder, and I would gawk at the silky items my mother pulled from the box. We had little money, and I think these small luxuries made my mother feel more rich than poor. Eight people lived in our home: my maternal grandparents, my mother, myself and my four siblings.
It was late October when my sister and I went hunting for a jewelry box for our mother. We realized it was early for our official Christmas shopping to begin. We knew Momma needed another jewelry box because the one on her dresser was buried beneath the jewelry crawling out of it. We knew just where to find another one, and our child's minds were alert to bargains.
There was a kind of traveling arcade that passed through our neighborhood every October. The peddlers were a scruffy group of souls who set up their wares at Weinland Park Elementary School, which my sister and I attended. We had spotted the jewelry box a year before, when I was in first grade. Now we hoped it would be there this year. "It was a jewelry box with seashells as designs," my sister remembers. "And it had a red velvet lining."
The vendors must have had a hundred of the things, because right there beneath a tent was a stack of the boxes. I thought they were the prettiest jewelry boxes I'd ever seen. My sister and I had $2 apiece rolled up in our palms, and we pooled the money and skipped home with our prized gift in a bag. The first phase of my grand Christmas plan was complete.
Now, the second was even more personal: I wanted to give Momma something that might mean more to her than her imitation string of pearls. I wanted to stop stuttering.
I secretly enrolled myself in speech therapy class at school. Twice a week, I would leave the classroom and walk down into the school's basement, where there was a kind of speech lab set up. Some days, I would be the only person in there with an instructor. A metal device, a big unattractive contraption, was wrapped around my head and onto my ears, and I would hear a voice through the earphones and be instructed to repeat the words back, watching myself in a mirror as I did so. I was half ashamed -- schoolmates sometimes peered inside the room and snickered until shooed away by the teacher -- and half excited: Perhaps the stuttering would go away! I would be able to call out to my mother that the mailman was at the front door without slamming down on any of the words!
Coming home, as Christmas approached, walking through the snow, I dreamed I'd sound just like the voice that I heard through the earphones -- with its smooth and mellifluous words, lovely uninterrupted sentences. I knew I could imitate that voice. But I'd hit the door and be surrounded by familiar faces, and I'd get stuck all over again, as if there were a red stoplight in my mouth. Some days, I'd break down and cry, trying to dry my eyes before my sister, who knew about the class, saw them. I'd go check on the jewelry box, to make sure Momma hadn't found it in our hiding place.
On Christmas Day -- the house full of relatives and smelling of turkey and stuffing and sweet potatoes and macaroni and cheese -- we all seemed so happy together, our smiles and laughter as bright as the Christmas lights. I'd give a talk, as the children were asked to do, to tell about their gift-giving, to field some questions from the gathered adults. But I sensed no improvements from the speech class, and I tensed up. I often deferred to my sister when around company; she would take the lead, knowing of my woes. When the time came to open presents, I grabbed the gift to hand to my mother. "Now, where in the world did you get this?" Momma wanted to know. She lifted it up to show other relatives, and they ogled it, too. "I really needed a jewelry box!"
She looked at me and my sister, the twins. We hunched our shoulders. I wanted to explain how we had hatched our grand idea. Eyes were on me. But then the monster started running up and down my voice box, hijacking my words. The sentences wouldn't come. My sister knew they wouldn't come. She stepped in, a hero to me and my excruciating silence, and said, "We got it at the arcade!"
And I nodded, furiously.
Elvira loved her jewelry box, and soon the thing was piled high with rings and necklaces until the items overflowed onto her dresser top. She is in a nursing home these days, bejeweled from the baubles her children give her. Jewelry is all she ever asks for.
Time helped tame my stutter. I became an author. There were speaking invitations to do readings, and I did not want audience members to give me that long and quizzical look my mother had given me as a child. I did not want folks to stare at me for any reason other than to hear my mellifluous flow of words from each page. At the nursing home, I hug my mother upon seeing her, and I talk to her in smooth, uninterrupted sentences. It seems to delight her to no end.
Wil Haygood is a Washington Post staff writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.