by Carol Ann Ham

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    Mom’s birthday would be unforgettable, with the best presents money could buy. But what could Carrie give?

    I can’t take it any more!” Mindy said in desperation. Her 11-year-old sister Carrie looked up at her. Carrie stopped playing the guitar.

    “I’m not a bad sister,” Mindy continued. “I don’t tell on you when you leave the bathroom messy. I help you with spelling. Carrie, I can’t take that racket any more. Have some mercy.”

    Carrie didn’t have to say anything. It was always the same. She got up, carrying her guitar. Fifteen-year-old Mindy heaved a sigh of relief as soon as Carrie had left.

    “Hey Carrie,” her 16-year-old brother Mark said, as they passed in the hall. “Off to the basement again?”

    Carrie moved by quickly. None of her brothers and sisters could put up with her guitar playing. She was still learning and a very slow learner at that. She always ended up in the basement where no one could hear her.

    “Taken a sudden interest in food storage?” her mother asked when she saw Carrie open the door to the basement.

    “No,” she said glumly, “I’m going to practice.”

    “In the basement?”

    Carrie sighed. “Mindy kicked me out of our room. I drive her nuts. Same with Mark, Sarah, and Paul.”

    “Come into the kitchen and practice there. I’d love to hear you.”

    “I sound horrible.”

    “No you don’t. Come on. I’d welcome the company.”

    Carrie followed her mother to the kitchen and settled herself on a chair.

    “Protect your ears,” Carrie warned.

    “I love all music, Carrie,” her mother said.

    “This isn’t even music. I play the same stuff over and over again,” Carrie complained. “How come you like music so much?”

    “When I was eight I had scarlet fever. I almost died. I couldn’t do anything except lie in bed. I was really scared. Mom would sing hymns while she did the housework. It was her way of letting me know she was there.” She paused long enough to turn the oven on. “Dad bought me a music box. It played ‘Star Dust.’ I played it so much the music box finally broke. I remember not feeling so scared when the music was playing.”

    “That’s why you sing so much?”

    “And why I want you to play the guitar. Don’t get discouraged. You might be a little slower than your brothers and sisters, but you’ll catch on. The guitar isn’t that easy,” her mother smiled.

    “I hate being the baby. Everyone is better than me.”

    “They’ve had more time.”

    “It ain’t fair!”

    Isn’t fair,” her mother corrected.

    “That too,” Carrie huffed. Her mother kissed her forehead.

    Later that evening Mindy, Sarah, Mark, and Paul met in the room shared by Mark and Paul. Paul was 17. Sarah was 19, a freshman in college.

    “So what’s the deal?” Mindy asked. She then blew a bubble with the gum she was chewing. Mark tried to pop it, but Mindy dodged his finger.

    “Mom’s birthday is coming up,” Sarah said.

    “It’s over two months away,” Mindy said.

    “I thought this should be a really special birthday.”

    Carrie came in and sat down on the bed next to Paul. “What’s up?” she asked.

    “I think we should give Mom the best birthday ever. I work at the bookstore, Paul at the grocery, Mark as a handyman, and Mindy does a lot of babysitting. I think our presents should be really special. She wants a crock pot.”

    “We are talking money here,” Mark said, raising his eyebrows.

    “Why not?” Sarah asked.

    “What about me?” Carrie chimed in.

    “You really don’t make that much from weeding Mr. Duran’s garden,” Sarah said slowly. “Mom will like anything you get her. Don’t worry.” She turned her attention back to the others. “Anyway, what do you say?”

    “The best presents money can buy?” Mark said hesitantly.

    “Sure,” Mindy piped up. “A birthday she’ll never forget.”

    “I’ll just keep telling myself, ‘Honor thy mother and father.’” Paul said.

    “It won’t take much of your savings,” Sarah said.

    “No,” Mark said, “Mom will see how much she means to us. It might help me budget my finances a little better.”

    “Exactly! Now you’re getting the spirit.”

    “How about if Mark and I go together on one?” Mindy said. “I bet Mom would like a set of gold leaf scriptures. That is way too steep for my babysitting money.”

    “Hey yeah!” Mark said. “I could give her the Bible, and you could give her a triple combination.”

    “Sounds good,” Sarah said. “I’m going to try a stab at the crock pot. I need to learn to budget my money too,” she said, echoing Mark’s statement.

    “Guess that leaves me,” Paul said. “Any suggestions?”

    “I have a few,” Mindy answered, “but not for presents.”

    “Mom wants to finish her four-generation sheet,” Carrie said.

    “Not that kind of present. Something you can buy,” Sarah expounded.

    “Oh,” Carrie mumbled.

    “Maybe an antique vase. I was waiting for Fred in his father’s antique store, and I noticed a lot of nice things. I’m sure Fred’s dad would hold something for me while I paid it off. I’m certain I could find something small.” Paul paused. “In size, not price.”

    “I can’t think of anything,” Carrie said.

    “Mom will like anything you get her, Carrie,” Mindy said. Carrie didn’t care for the way Mindy said anything. Carrie left.

    “She’s still at that age when anything is fine,” Paul remarked.

    “I’ll show them,” Carrie mumbled. “I’ll buy Mom the biggest, most expensive present.” She went to the bureau in the bedroom she shared with Mindy. She kept her money in the top drawer. She dumped the jar of money on her bed. There were quite a few coins to count. She came up with $4.87. She took some money out of her back pocket. Mr. Duran had paid her that day for the weeding she had done. She had $1.50. After removing the 15 cents for tithing, she added it to the rest. It didn’t seem like very much.

    She approached her father. “Is there anything I can do around the house to earn money,” she asked, “like cut the grass?”

    “That’s Mark’s job. Anyway you need a little more height for that job.”

    “Wash the car?”

    “You can do that,” he nodded. “Going into business for yourself?”

    “I just need a little extra money.”

    “May I ask why?”

    Carrie was uncomfortable with the question. “I’m saving for something for someone.”

    “Not blackmail,” her father said kidding.

    “No.” Carrie hadn’t realized it was a joke.

    Her father cracked a smile. “Well, as long as it isn’t blackmail, you can wash the car. Since I’m only paying for labor, two dollars. The soap and water are mine. Sound fair?”

    “Yeah, fine.” Carrie set to work. Not only did she wash it, but she vacuumed as well.

    “Well, well,” her father said, “If no unclean thing may enter into the kingdom of heaven this car will have no trouble. This is a three-dollar job. Nicely done, Carrie.”

    “Dad, what are you getting Mom for her birthday?”

    “So that’s what this sudden desire to become Midas is all about. To answer your question, I don’t know.”

    “Everyone has more money.”

    “It’s not the price of the gift but the thought and love that go into it. I could buy your mother perfume. She’d smile and thank me. On the other hand, I could get her a beat-up old Beethoven music book. That would mean more to her. I would be showing her that I know what she holds dear. So when you buy a gift, it should be with a lot of love.”

    “But everything costs money.”

    “True. I just don’t want you to try to outdo your brothers and sisters. They have jobs,” he counseled.

    “I know.”

    “Nice job on the car. Thank you.”

    Carrie smiled. She had listened to her father. She still wanted to get her mother a nice gift. She really wanted to show her brothers and sisters.

    Carrie began working. She did a lot of work around the house. She went around to the neighbors, and they gave her small jobs to do.

    The days passed. The money in the jar increased. Carrie sat on her bed, wondering what to buy her mother. The sound of Mindy playing the piano drifted her way. She heard her mother humming along as she put the laundry away. Carrie looked over at her guitar. She sighed. She and the guitar went to the basement.

    Sarah went to get the crock pot. Carrie tagged along to get some ideas for a gift. There was a month until her mother’s birthday. Carrie looked at hats, perfume, records, books, clocks, everything. She knew none of them were right.

    She began saying a silent prayer. “This might sound silly, Father, but I need some help. I want to find a nice gift for my mom. Could you help me find one? I know you know what she likes best. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”

    By the time Sarah found her, Carrie had found a gift for her mother. Sarah asked what it was, but Carrie would not tell her.

    Mindy baked a cake. Sarah and Carrie made a special birthday dinner. After dinner the presents were opened.

    “My word,” their mother said as she opened the gifts. “The cost.”

    “We wanted to get you something really special,” Mindy said.

    “But so expensive.”

    Their mother gingerly fingered the new set of scriptures. Carefully she turned the pages. Her eyes moved to the vase and crock pot. “I don’t know what to say.”

    “Where’s your gift, Carrie?” Paul asked.

    “We saw you hoarding all that money,” Mindy said.

    Carrie swallowed. “My gift only cost 58 cents, and it’s been used,” she said slowly. They all exchanged looks of puzzlement. Carrie brought out her guitar. She sat down and placed the music to “Star Dust” in front of her. She played carefully. It had been the only piece of music she had played for a month. She had practiced hours every day. With a lot of help and encouragement from her guitar teacher she had learned it pretty well.

    The music was yellowed with age. There were spots on the sheets where things had been spilled. No one knew Carrie could sing until then. Her voice was soft and clear. As Carrie sang, her mother mouthed the words. Tears welled up in her eyes. Everyone was watching Carrie.

    As the song ended, Carrie looked up doubtfully. She had expected criticism, but all she heard was her mother’s trembling voice saying, “Again, Carrie. Sing it once more.”

    Illustrated by Barbara Edwards