816 Diversions

Emily Parnell: The joy of humble gifts

The Kansas City Star

“I love your reindeer, Grandma,” I remember saying. I was young, maybe 9 or 10.

“You do?” she asked, sounding interested and warm. She was always interested and warm. She probably thought that I was hinting that she could give me the necklace. You know, if she wanted to get rid of it or something.

“It’s not a reindeer,” she informed me. “It’s an oryx — kind of like an antelope — from Africa.”

“I think it’s a reindeer,” I said.

“Call it what you want,” she shrugged, “it’s an oryx. And its antler is bent. Anyway, it’s not good gold.”

My grandpa was an airplane mechanic for TWA. I learned later that he did not enjoy the boring work; it was much less satisfying than the machine shop he’d once owned where he developed prototypes of new inventions. But he kept the job because, as a TWA employee, he and Grandma could hop on any flight, standby. The job was their ticket to explore the far corners of the earth.

Another perk to the job was the gold. Precious metals are used in airplane engines, and some of the mechanics collected flakes from engines they worked on. I remember him mentioning that all the mechanics’ tool boxes were full of gold.

“But,” he added, “it’s not good gold.” Impurities tainted the scrap metal, diluting its content. “It might be 2 karats,” he’d tell me.

Grandpa saved his gold flakes for a coworker, another mechanic, who then turned it into jewelry. The reindeer — OK, OK, the oryx — was a gift for my Grandma made of these scraps that otherwise would have been destined for the trash. And she loved it.

I was always drawn to the pendant, admiring the elegant beast, frozen mid-leap, its long neck arched, muscular haunches flexed. It’s large — which Grandma pointed out wouldn’t be financially feasible if it had actually been made of good gold. Its antlers are long and slender, although the tips are bent. I forget the explanation for how they got bent, but I do remember Grandma pointing out that they could be fixed — if only it were made of good gold.

Years later, when I was probably in my 20s, she gave it to me. “Are you sure, Grandma?” I asked.

She was, of course. She was always giving me things, along with caveats and disclaimers. She’d first explain that she wanted to give it to me herself before she died to make sure it ended up where it was supposed to. Then she’d add instructions.

About a cut glass bowl: “This dish is so beautiful with homemade cranberry sauce. Be sure to put oranges in it.” About a set of delicate china dessert plates: “There’s a chip in one of these. Don’t save them for good, that occasion never comes. Just enjoy them, and if you break them, don’t cry. Every dish has it’s day.” About an antique doll: “If you ever need money, you should sell this.”

And about the necklace, simply: “It’s not good gold.”

The necklace is striking, and I especially like to wear it at Christmas. It catches the eye of many. Kids and adults alike compliment it, calling it a reindeer as I did, until I point out its long, non-reindeer antlers. Often, before I can catch myself, I blurt, “it’s not good gold.”

I’m not devaluing the necklace when I say that. It’s an excuse to share that the necklace is a story — it’s a string of memories of my grandparents and their affection for each other. The necklace is my long-time curiosity about a man who made beautiful jewelry out of airplane waste, as well as where the non-reindeer flew and who it carried, back when it was part of an airplane engine. And I feel my grandparents’ love for me — the decision they made to pass it to me — so they’d know for sure that it would hang around my neck, close to my heart.

In this season of giving, I appreciate the reminder that some gifts are just things, but others are so much more. They’re stories. They’re pieces of those who love us.

The best gifts can come from humble places. Scraps squirreled away in a mechanic’s toolbox, a child’s art table, or a baby born in a manger in Bethlehem. Without a doubt, gifts of love are infinitely better than good gold.

Overland Park mom and freelancer Emily Parnell writes weekly.