Many years ago, three score and one, to be exact. End of summer. My grandmother’s house on Sherbrook St. Being sent outside to play in the backyard so the adults could set up a surprise birthday party for me. I wandered out the gate, as I had been wont to do, and discovered a small boy, my age, playing down the lane. He had a large, well-used metal toy dump truck of old. We ended up playing together immediately, having a great free time, putting dirt in and out of the truck, managing to dirty our clothes in the process, of course.
Something signalled it was time to go, likely my grandmother’s voice calling my name. I began to walk back, but he wanted to follow me with his truck. Every time I looked back, he was still behind me, carrying the truck, and we eventually entered the back door of the house.
Inside was noisy with unfamiliar kids (I had never seen before) in party clothes, a cake on the table, the usual birthday decorations–balloons and the like. There was visible, palpable awkwardness as my grandmother questioned who this other boy was, my new friend. She commented on his grubbiness–same as mine, I thought. It didn’t bother me. I was happy he was there, too, for the party. But it was pointed out that he needed a gift to attend the party, and so he handed me his truck. I suddenly had its hugeness on my lap, amazed and overwhelmed by what seemed like the best possible gift in the world.
Then my grandmother curtly told him that the truck was old, dirty, and not suitable or good enough for admission to the event. The ragamuffin child was abruptly, and ignominiously escorted out, taking his truck with him. I truly did not want to see him go or be treated in that inexplicably harsh way. I believe I cried as the party tried to resume and all the other presents–much less impressive than his–were offered as new and better gifts of compensation.
My first remembered birthday. The boy I met down the lane. The one who wasn’t good enough to come to my party.
The first remembered gift of self. Torn away from me. The truck which made my three-year-old heart momentarily leap up with joy. My “Rosebud”. And my first lesson about social class. Katherine Mansfield’s “The Doll’s House”, Winnipeg ’50s. A little boy who wasn’t good enough to play with me, to be my friend, and who freely gave me his favorite toy of all. His most precious gift of self.
Today I wonder if he is still alive and if he, too, remembers this moment. How the rest of his day and life went. Whether he remembers the fun we had, and the boy he once befriended and gifted. And what gifts of self he himself may have later gone on to receive.