The Gift

The Gift

"There are nothing but gifts on this poor, poor earth."

—Czelaw Milosz

"The gift is to the giver, and comes back most to him — it cannot fail."

—Walt Whitman

“Did I put enough sugar in your tea?”

“Actually, it’s good,” she nodded, then took another sip.

The young woman sitting next to me in the Denver airport gripped the grande cup of hot Earl Grey I had just purchased for her. Her name was Marta. She was seventeen, an exchange student from the Ukraine on her way back to Eugene, Oregon, for a few days of debriefing before heading home. She had spent the last year of high school with a host family in Minneapolis where I’d just attended a conference. Her wide brown eyes and long, thin legs gave her the look of a fawn — a frightened, waif-like creature. She also had a nasty cold that I did not want to catch. 

I had been watching her the last half hour or so. She walked with a listing gait, toes turned inward, nose dribbling, with seemingly nothing to wipe away the snot but her sleeve. I scrounged my purse for the odd collection of napkins I usually stuff in there and handed her as many as I could find. She mumbled something, then blew her nose furiously, about five inches from my face. I pulled my head back and looked the other way as she proceeded to cough. 

“Do you know what I like best about America?”

“No, what?”

“The Twilight series and Christian rock music. Do you listen to Christian rock?” She named some groups I’d never heard of before.

“Um, no . . . not really. What else do you like? Do you like American people?”

“Yes.” She smiled shyly, snorted again, then blew her nose loudly into a napkin.

She was traveling with several other students, all part of the FLEX program, in their bright turquoise T-shirts, which had certainly caught my eye. FLEX sends smart, high-achieving but low-income students from former Soviet bloc countries to America through a partnership with the U.S. State Department. For 70 years the republic of Ukraine lay within the borders of the former U.S.S.R., and it still feels the effects of that governance. A girl from Ukraine had lived with us for a year under this same program, so I felt sure it was no coincidence that my seat number was 10B and Marta’s was 10A. Yet as much as I wanted to converse with her about Ukraine and her year in Minnesota, I dreaded a three-hour plane ride next to her worsening cold.

But I had a plan. As soon as we were settled in our seats, I’d ask the attendant for some antiseptic hand wipes for both of us and plunge into my new book. Marta should really sleep anyway. She looked exhausted and had many days of travel ahead. Unlike my husband who relishes lengthy conversations with people on planes, my normal pattern is to grab a window seat and read or doze during the entire flight. I had picked up an interesting title at an arts and healthcare conference, Lewis Hyde’s groundbreaking treatise The Gift — Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, the 25th Anniversary edition.

“What is that?” Marta stared at the little foil-wrapped packets on my tray table. 

“They’re for cleaning your hands. To kill the germs.” I hesitated. “I’m trying not to get your cold. Here, you keep some, too.”

I couldn’t tell if she was grateful, embarrassed, offended, or just too tired to care, but Marta seemed to withdraw, not wanting to bother me anymore. The napkins I’d given her earlier were soggy and spent, while her nose flowed like the Volga. It grew chilly in the plane the higher we rose, and her thin cotton jacket was inadequate at best. Thirty years of mothering set me on high alert — I wished I could wrap her in blankets and dose her with Theraflu. 

“That art that matters to us — which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience — that work is received by us as a gift is received. Even if we have paid a fee at the door of the museum or concert hall, when we are touched by a work of art something comes to us which has nothing to do with the price . . . ”

—From Lewis Hyde's introduction to The Gift

Mary Van DenendOn a nondescript neighborhood street corner in south Minneapolis sits a perfect jewel of a small museum — The Museum of Russian Art — the only one of its kind in the country. Like the famous black and red lacquered boxes displayed in one of its galleries, it beckons the visitor to come in, open the lid, and look deeper. There are beautiful provincial costumes from every region of the former Soviet empire — from Belarus to Uzbekistan — a profusion of flowered headscarves, tunics, and striped skirts with bold embroidery. The farther east one goes, the more exotic the look. My budget did not allow for the sweet peasant dress from the gift shop for my three-year-old granddaughter. Or the tea samovar or the necklace of Baltic amber and silver. But a handful of $3 bookmarks from their permanent collection? This I could do.  

The high point for me was “The Road North,” an exhibit of Stalinist and post-Stalin era paintings from artists who fled to the northern hinterlands to remote villages, away from his vengeful eye, where they could be left to paint in relative peace. There’s no vibrant Impressionism here, no dappled picnics along the Seine, no pastel dancers in gorgeous tulle, no ever-changing water lilies. Yet these were wonderful artists I had never heard of, reverent landscapes of simple village life: houses, fields, churches, boats along the river, hard-working people in a bleak palette of grays and browns, with perhaps a tiny splash of red, orange, or yellow in one corner — a scrap of laundry, a woman’s sash, a solitary flower.

One favorite portrait at the museum was that of a young woman bundled against the cold in a snowy scene, carrying heavy pails of milk. The look on her face was one of resignation and boredom, the tedium of domestic chores the world over, but her cheeks flushed pink. I remembered this as I glanced over at Marta, her congested head drooping forward as she attempted rest. It’s doubtful a young girl like Marta would have survived Stalin’s far-reaching purview. Her obvious physical limitations would have marked her as an unfit financial burden, useless as a worker for the State. Thankfully, she was not born into that Ukraine, that political landscape.

Yet Marta could have been a cousin, perhaps a younger sister of Vika, the Ukrainian beauty who had spent her junior year of high school with my family. Vika had the looks of a supermodel and the confidence of a drill sergeant. She was beautiful, brainy, opinionated, and charming. Among her considerable talents, she could draw and paint quite well. Now she’s a business major at the University in Kiev, Ukraine's ancient, elegant capital. I mused what the future held for childlike Marta, how this year in America would shape her fragile young life.

”I went to see a landscape painter’s works, and that evening, walking among pine trees near my home, I could see the shapes and colors I had not seen the day before. The spirit of an artist’s gifts can wake our own.” —Lewis Hyde, The Gift

We were nearing Eugene, the flight almost over. From the window seat I took in the familiar spires of dark firs, the broad lush valley, and of course, the clouds.

“Is someone going to be there waiting for you? Someone from FLEX?”

“Yes, I think so . . . but . . . I’m worried about my suitcase.” She seemed agitated and wouldn’t look me in the eye.

“Don’t worry. I’ll help you find it. The baggage claim area is small in Eugene.”

“It’s not good to travel alone.” She offered me that shy smile again.

The minute we departed the plane and headed down the long connecting corridor, with its photographic murals of smiling travelers flying through the air, Marta held my right hand in a vice grip, taking me by surprise. Her strange side-to-side walk was far more precarious than I first realized. She would not let me go until we reached baggage claim, where indeed, volunteers waited to gather the four FLEX students. I wondered how she could have navigated the stairs, or heaven forbid, the escalator, without someone’s arm to cling to. I didn’t care anymore about the millions of cold germs that must be festering there on her hands, her jacket, her backpack, and everything she touched. I served as her crutches, her angel of the day. I was her gift and even more, she was mine.

The Need for Beauty

Stories and Songs