Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Wreath: A New York Christmas Story

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.


  1. Mary, what a pleasure meeting you last night! I will be in touch after the holidays so we can arrange our coffee date, but, in the meantime, merry Christmas and a very happy and healthy New Year! --Josey Miller, your newest Chicagoland friend (and the newest The Writer and the Wanderer blog subscriber)

  2. Josey, so nice meeting you as well! You Sandra Bullock look alike, you. Yes, after the holidays. Love to have coffee. Nice to share Chicago and nice of you to subscribe to my blog! Have wonderful holidays!

  3. Hi Mary, It is the day after Christmas and I am recovering from all the hub-bub. Just posting pictures and videos and having coffee. I finished The Mississippi Queen a couple of days ago and really enjoyed it. I am two years older than you and we both have a daughter. Mine was born in 1974. Not sure of yours. Although I know you were pregnant with her in Wall to Wall, my first of your books. Your writing speaks to me because of the internal dialogue you seem to have with yourself as you go through life. I think crazy things as well and have an eye for the beautiful and unusual like I think you do. My daughter has a Blog that I think you might enjoy. She and I both write although we are not "authors". We have done the "write a novel in a month" challenge that is online. It keeps you writing to a goal. I took my daughter, Kortney, to college and left her and it was so hard. I cried all the way back across the mountains to a resort where the rest of the family was waiting. I know the feeling of wanting to call her, but not wanting to interfere with her time and expanding life. I plan to read all of your books and stories and keep up with your Blog. I am a retired English teacher--wouldn't you know? I do not miss teaching, but love reading, gardening, photography and fussing over grandchildren. If you are ever in San Diego, email me ( and we will have coffee and take a walk on the beach.

    I appreciate you work. It is rare to find a good author these days. I discovered you in a Paul Therous book. Barbara Garrison

  4. Correction: Paul Theroux and I appreciate your work.
    Sincerely, Barbara

  5. Barbara, I am going to send you a longer email, but in which of his books did Paul Theroux mention me? Do you remember? Also what is the address of your daughter's blog? Is it the onedeepdrawer? Anyway I'll take a look. A longer email follows to your email account. MM

  6. So happy to hear from you, Mary. Just to let you know, I have never written in a blog before, (except chatting about Leonard Cohen's poetry years ago on a poetry chat or something) but I really like your writing and your artwork and ideas, so I wanted to express it. I have been looking for some of your poetry also, but not sure where to look.
    Kortney's URL is I will look forward to your email. The Theroux book was a collection of short articles about traveling in various places. I thought in one he was in Devonshire or somewhere in rural England and you crossed paths. I will try to remember the title, but it caused me to get Wall to Wall which I read on a trip to Kauai in Oct. I've done quite a bit of traveling for a working mother of 4 and grandmother of 3, but seldom alone. In reading Wall I was nervous when you got off the train out in the middle of somewhere (former Soviet Union?). I was worried that you would go too close to Chernobyl, too. Have you ever been back to find those relatives and places? That feeling of waiting to hear from your lover who was off to--? (Sweden or somewhere)was familiar. And your connection, and reverence really, to your father reminds me of how I feel about my father (1912-1996). I heard an interview online and you were talking about teaching writing. Of course, I could relate to that, although I taught middle schoolers and only two semesters of a college course. The interviewer missed the point of an assignment with a vegetable in it didn't he? It was a starting point to build something around. I have a poet friend, Steve Kowit, (do you know his work? a great writer and person who a couple of my kids had for a college teacher). He gave writing workshops and did things like have participants bring photographs or objects of significance to start them writing. Very effective, like trying to fit in a vegetable. I have more to say, but will put it in an email. (I think the Theroux book was To The Ends of the Earth, near the end of the book...but will try to check. It seems like you crossed paths at a railroad station???) It was about traveling in the 70s and 80s. Were you a travel writer then? I will try to verify. I apologize if I am wrong, but if a mistake lead me to your work, then I'm not really sorry. ;) Barb

  7. OK Mary--upon further review--it may have been Jan Morris, which is pretty funny if you read that chapter in Ends of the Earth...but like I said, whatever misunderstanding on my part led me to your work, was a happy mistake for me. I have lots to read in the future.