A long time ago our neighbor, Martha, offered to give my husband and me a few hours of relief on a Saturday morning. She invited our daughter, Kate, who was six at the time, to go with her to the farmer's market at Grand Army Plaza. Normally Kate and I went to market together. We liked to haggle with the maple sugar man or taste the hot cider. Often we brought home more than we could carry. In truth I'd wanted to go with her that morning, but Martha offered and we thought Kate might enjoy a little adventure. I gave her five dollars and a small shopping bag. I asked her to buy apples, something for herself, and a surprise for her dad and me.
An hour or so later she returned, rosy cheeked, and shivering. She had the bag of apples, but she was also laden down with a much larger bag. Reaching into the bag, she pulled out a beautiful Christmas wreath, made of fresh pine and pine cones, sprigs of holly and tied up in a red ribbon. The wreath filled the house with the scent of woodlands and distant, wintry places. "It's a wonderful surprise!" I told her, though I could not imagine how she could have afforded it. "How did you get this?"
"Tell her," Martha said to my daughter. "It's your
And Kate explained that after she bought the apples and had had some cider, she saw the woman selling wreaths. She couldn't explain this to me, but she had to have one. It was a cold, blustery morning and the woman was wrapped in a down coat with a scarf covering her face. Kate could not tell if she was young or old, pretty or ugly, fat or thin. In fact, she couldn't remember a thing about the woman, except that she was bundled up. Kate told the woman that she very much wanted a wreath, but she had hardly any money left. The woman asked to see what she did have and Kate emptied her pockets.
I know what she held in her outstretched palm because I have seen it many times myself. She had colored pebbles and bits of aluminum foil she found on the playground and quartz she'd picked up on trails in the park. She had a few shiny pennies, bottle caps. Maybe a marble or two. The kinds of things she gathered as she moved through the world.
The woman looked at what my daughter held out to her. "That should be enough," she said. And she took the treasure and gave my daughter a Christmas wreath.
That afternoon we felt uplifted and strangely blessed as we hung the wreath from our front door. We all agreed that we wanted to thank the woman. During the week, Kate worked on a drawing of a polar bear with a wreath around its neck. The following Saturday we set out with the drawing which had a child's "thank you" scrawled across it.
When we arrived, we saw a woman, selling the same wreath that hung from our door. But Kate said that she was not the right person. She was sure of it. We combed the farmer's market, but there was no one else selling wreaths so we returned to her. "We are looking for the woman who was here last week," I said. "She sold my daughter a wreath."
But the woman shook her head. "We weren't here last week. This is our first time this season." We asked if she knew of anyone who might have been selling wreaths the week before. We explained that we wanted to thank her. But the woman shook her head again.
Though we went up and down the rows of merchants, asking if anyone remembered the wreath seller, no one did. Strangely, Kate seemed neither disappointed nor surprised. We never found the woman who had accepted a child's treasure in exchange for a wreath. It was as if she'd never been there at all.