A Modern Day Magi

I had a nice little post just about ready to go for today, and you would have liked it, I think – it was informative, with a dash of personal context, and it was about cooking (which, who doesn’t like that) – (okay, I might be overselling it here…it was fine, and you’ll get it next week) – but then something happened which slammed me upside the head, in a wonderful way, so I’m going to tell you about that, instead.

Last Saturday, after a movie date with my oldest boy (using gift cards), we met my husband and baby boy at the mall (for cheap hamburgers.) Then, since we were right there, I casually suggested we stop in at Borders bookstore.

Actually, it wasn’t so much a suggestion as it was my husband saying, “Well, what do you want to do now?” and me standing on the damp sidewalk and vaguely looking around as though I was considering the question; then mumbling and waving my hand towards the left; then him heading to Borders without further ado, because we’ve been married for 21 years now and he is a kind and patient man.

Once inside the store I abandoned him and the rampaging little guys – I really can’t tell you where they went, probably to ride the escalators a dozen times. I was transfixed by the tables and racks near the entrance. All those new releases, those beautiful, colorful covers. There was the new Jonathan Franzen novel that my brother had been pestering me to get. There was a new title by Julia Glass (one of my ten “Chicks Who Can Write”)! And there, my goodness – Edmund Morris had finally finished his spectacular Teddy Roosevelt trilogy – there was Colonel Roosevelt!

I walked around and around the tables, dreaming. More memoirs, more fiction, more history. There was a day, truly, when I would have already owned a great many of the titles I was looking at.

My husband came back, draped with discarded jackets and spilled peppermint milkshake and tugging boys, and said, “I’m done,” in a voice that meant business.

“I found three more books I really want,” I said half-heartedly as I followed him out.

Normally, budget be damned, my husband would’ve said “Just get one, then.” But not this time. This year, our finances had been stretched to the breaking point. This year, I could only afford one Christmas book. And I already had it, and I’d already read (and blogged about) it.

When we got home I updated my Facebook status to say that I really, really needed to stay out of bookstores, that somebody needed to fit me with a dog collar that would zap me when I tried to enter one. I was trying to be funny, not complain-y.


I guess I should give you a little background.

Long before my husband and I started trying to have a baby, we’d decided that I would quit my career and stay home with our children, until they were through school – which meant our household income would be cut exactly in half.

We’d always had plenty of money – not only for what we needed, but for whatever we wanted. If my husband wanted a membership to a golf course, he got it. If I wanted to drop four figures on a single shopping trip to Nordstrom, I did it. (Okay, I only did that once; it wasn’t my finest moment. But I’m not gonna lie, it was kind of fun.)

Since we had plenty of extra money, we figured we could actually live on much less. Still, we prepared: we socked away money in savings, six months worth of expenses, and we paid off our vehicles. When I was seven months pregnant with our first baby, we moved from our lovely place in the country to a smaller house, just a few miles from Dan’s work and our church. We knew we’d have to tighten our belts, but we were ready.

Or so we thought.

But it turned out that our new house had old, metal windows which were so decrepit, a few of them wouldn’t even lock, and the sliding glass door in back could actually be lifted off its track – from the outside. So we had to purchase new windows for the entire house. Then, a few weeks after the baby was born, we had a streak of 100-degree days; and after a few nights spent sleeping on the floor in the “basement,” with a newborn, we caved. There went another huge chunk of money, for air conditioning.

When our son was 10 months old, he had surgery on his skull, an ordeal that was so frightening, I barely noticed the checks I was writing for the hospital, the surgeon, the anesthesiologist.

Then we had another baby, and there were more medical bills, and more diapers to buy. Our little nest egg was coming apart at the seams.

And then the economy really tanked, and my husband’s income plunged, and suddenly, after nearly two decades of marriage during which money was no object, we found ourselves struggling to pay the bills each month.

And while we hadn’t really minded giving up vacations, and eating out, and new books (for me), and golf (for him), and movie dates, and new clothes, and virtually every other “extra” we’d ever known; well, I had a BIG problem with not having enough money to pay the most basic bills.

We have grappled with questions, this year: Why, after seventeen solid years of giving away almost as much as we spent (not just in tithes but in gifts, resources, time – literally thousands of dollars, thousands of hours), to churches and people; why are we struggling so mightily? What about the whole “you reap what you sow” business?

We still don’t have answers to our questions, or a resolution to our saga; we are still in the middle of this particular chapter. But I’ve got a great second part to my Borders story.


The day after my Facebook post, I got a note from an old high school friend, a single, working mother whom I haven’t seen in 22 years. We had reconnected on Facebook, but hadn’t chatted much. I knew she’d been reading my blog. I knew she had two kids to put through college.

“Check your e-mail,” she said. “You’ve got a Christmas gift coming.”

Probably one of those Elf-Yourself singing cards, I thought. This’ll be fun! She hadn’t posted any recent pictures of herself – maybe I’d get to see what she looks like now.

On Monday morning, the e-mail came, sans singing elves. It said “Merry Christmas.” It contained a Borders gift card, for $100.00.

Five years ago, I could have dropped a hundred dollar bill on the sidewalk and never missed it. Yesterday, when I got her email, I started crying and couldn’t stop. I sent my friend a message, asking her to please explain herself. And then I kept crying while I heated up milk and fixed a pancake for my oldest child, cried while I drank my coffee, cried (discreetly) while I snuggled with my boy on the couch.

When my friend finally replied to my question, she said simply that she loved my blog, and she wanted me to have the books I’d wanted the other night, at the store.

When my husband came home for lunch, I tried to read her note to him, but I started blubbering so hard he couldn’t make out my words.

To understand my reaction, you might have to go back a few years, to the girl who had plenty of disposable income and who often walked out of a bookstore carrying a plastic bag whose handles were straining under the weight of all the books inside. Or the girl whose husband, one Christmas, bought her every title on her wish list – all ten of them. The girl who had to buy more and more bookshelves, as the years went on, to hold all the titles she couldn’t bear to part with. The girl who, every vacation, stuffed more books into her suitcases than she’d possibly have time to read – and then found room for one or two more.

The girl who now feels a bit like Charlie Bucket, with his single annual candy bar.

But, actually, you need to go back farther than that – all the way back to the unfathomably shy little girl who did not merely read but absolutely drank in books all through her childhood, who carried them around with her to different corners of the house, who spent hours just looking at the covers. The awkward little loner with the gappy teeth and spectacles, who would often finish a book, turn back to the first page, and start again. The girl for whom the highlight of the year was the annual book fair at school, where she was allowed to pick one new book each time (and what a delightful, drawn-out agony the choosing was!) The girl whose silent books were, very often, more kind to her than the people in her home.

Books have been sustenance to me, for as far back as I can remember. It would not be a stretch to say that they have been life.

So, yesterday morning I sat at my kitchen table looking at a gift card that did not just say, “You can go get several gorgeous new books.” It also said, “Someone cares about this deepest, most personal part of you – cares enough to sacrifice in order to nourish you.” (As my fellow Mama undoubtedly knew, had that money come in any other form, I would not have spent it on books.)

So thank you, dear friend. Thank you for reading all the words and ideas that spill onto these pages. Thank you for giving, out of what I suspect is not an overabundance. Thank you for seeing inside me, and for caring.

You are my modern day Magi, bearing gifts. Merry Christmas.


23 thoughts on “A Modern Day Magi

  1. I absolutely love this story, Cathy! Perhaps you are in a season now where you’ll be reaping all of the seeds you have sewed from the past. I understand where you’re coming from and how that can be so frustrating when you don’t see the benefits of your labor…what an absolute serendipity for your friend to bless you with that gift card…and like you said, it was more than just that. 🙂

  2. Cathy, my eyes seriously watered up reading this (not an exaggeration). Oh, this resonates so deeply with me. I’m finding it hard to find the words to express myself. Thank you Cathy’s friend. Your example is beautiful. Thank you Cathy for paying it forward through your words. I am encouraged and provoked.

  3. You’re killing me softly with your song.

    I miss having that hunger to read. I remember it, but I don’t know where it went.

    This post whispered back to me what it’s like. I want it back.

    • Maybe it went away with the kidlets? 🙂 They have a way of interrupting…it’s kinda in their job description.

      I make time to read because it’s like breathing to me. So my house is not quite as picked up as it could be…

  4. Thanks, God. Thanks for hearing the cry of a heart sometimes, even when You know the child can live without it, and giving a gift anyway.

    For 20 years my family has lived on missionary support. My wife and I are both lawyers, but we went a different route. NOT SORRY in the least that we did that. But just to say, I so completely gel with everything you’ve said here. I know the hundreds of times we’ve been blessed by someone’s gift to us, whether it’s been a restaurant gift card, or even just paying for a cup of coffee, and a couple of times a condo somewhere when they couldn’t use their time-share allotment for the year.

    And you’re so, so right. If the money comes in a different form, it goes straight to some bill, or some piece of clothing or school expense for the kids.

    And I want to say, too… Bravo for hearing God asking if you’d stay home with your kids, and saying, “Yes, I will.” I don’t think every mom has to stay home, and I don’t think mom’s that work fail to love their kids… none of that… But what I do see here is that you and your husband felt like God was asking that, and you obeyed. And although it has cost you some things, I hear in your words that it has been worth it, a thousand times over.

    My good, kind Father… I pray that You say, again and again and again, to Cathy… I’m paying attention to the little, minute details, and I’ll meet You again and again and again, when you need it… and many times even when you don’t need it, just because I dig you and love you and think you’re incredible. And you fill my heart with pleasure.

    • Well…you just made me cry. Again. And contrary to the way things sound, I am SO not a crier.

      Thank you so much for the blessing of your friendship, and your rich words here. I hold them close!

      (Oh, also…law school was one of my dreams, years ago…until I found some new ones…)

  5. confession: I have read this post twice, and choked up both times. I do so relate to the love of books, dating back to childhood. I think I probably read more of the books in the high school library than anyone else, either before or after me. Anyway, this has been one of the best I’ve read. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Cathy, I love books and reading too. With my iPad, and apps like InstaPaper, I have rediscovered the joy of exploring the web & finding new reading material. Over the last few days, I have read essays beautifully crafted by talented writers, that I would never have comes across otherwise. But what I really wanted to share is paperbackswap.com. I have been a member for over a year now – I got rid of some books I didn’t have an attachment to, for a very modest price (postage), and in return have received some 40~ books currently vying for my attention with all the wonderful blogs, essays, and even e-books I’ve started carting around on my iPhone. Not to mention converting part of my wife’s Patterson collection to hardcover and completing it as well.

    • Thanks for reading, Bob!

      That website sounds like a great idea. Mostly, I cannot bear to give up my books (and am hoping to someday have a separate room in the house for them!), but there are probably a few pulp fiction-type titles I could part with.

      Thanks for coming by! (I love to meet other people who love to read.) 🙂

  7. I love this story, girl. Thank you for sharing it with us. I spent the afternoon at a Title 1 school. The school administrator said the need this year is the greatest he’s ever seen. I think a lot of people can relate to what it means to do without. Perhaps without years like these, we would never appreciate how much we need each other.

  8. Best comment “Your killing me softy with your song (words)” I am so proud of you, don’t ever give up on your dream. Keep writing, keep believing, keep praying, keep being YOU. dose anyone have a hankerchief.
    Your dad, who loves you

  9. I love this story. Thank you for writing so honestly about your trials and tribulations and your friend’s generosity. I understand the depth of your love of reading, since we share it. Reading has been the mainstay of my life, especially in the last few years. I, too have been walloped by the economy and am struggling. Two years ago I was hit with breast cancer and on the eve on my radical mastectomy, my mother passed away. But I survived and here I am.

    You are a wonderful writer and I so enjoy reading your posts. I look forward to doing more of that in the new year. I hope you and your family will have a wonderful Christmas (you’ve already got a headstart) and a happy New Year as well. God bless you.

    • Aw, thanks my dear friend. I can tell how much you love books by YOUR blog…one of the many reasons why I love reading your posts, too.

      Thanks for sharing some of your story with me. Have you written about some of that? I’d love to read it.

      Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! Wish I could give you a hug.

      • Thanks, Cathy. : )
        I don’t write much about my experience because I have a fear of people thinking I’m trying to embellish or grab some sympathy. I have a horror of that. But maybe one of these days I’ll get over it and write a bit more.

        Here’s to more reading and writing in the New Year!!

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