The Present

Fiction by L.V. Marinov

The house is bright. The house is modern. The cathedral ceiling in the living room is divine. And the windows… oh those windows, huge and rectangular, taking up entire walls. They frame the teals of the Gulf of Mexico like oversized paintings, shimmering with afternoon sun.

My granddaughter is turning five; her party is set for five o’clock. The house belongs to the in-laws. Tucked in a secluded dead-end by the beach, it’s the best Florida has to offer: a turquoise pool, endless sand across the road, the glory of tropical summer.

I’d brought her present all the way from Israel. We’re Sephardic, my husband and I. She’d stayed with Nonna and Nonno for over a month and had been happy in our town of Ashdod. I cooked. She slept soundly, laughed, played with kids on the dusty road outside our house. Nonno bought her favorite ice cream from a U.S.-style Mr. Softee that came round twice a week.

We flew back to JFK airport the best of friends, her chestnut hair spread on my lap as she snoozed through the flight. Airplanes excited her, crowds scared her. Her hand, moist in mine, gripped tight as we stood in the line of passengers waiting to clear immigration. I counted my blessings. This precious kid: so loving, so innocent. My pregnancy had come late, and had been risky. The obstetricians advised against a second child. I cried my eyes out when my son announced his firstborn was to be a little girl. Finally, a larger family, if one split by an ocean. A granddaughter that would one day carry forth the torch of love and tradition, the rituals that make us who we are: cake recipes and wedding dresses and family photos out of focus.

Her present was in my suitcase, a doll she’d spotted in Ashdod. In shekels, it was expensive. Nonno bought it surreptitiously; I wrapped it in my clothes to keep it a surprise.

As soon as she saw her mother at the JFK terminal, she ran up to her, showing off a new found confidence in the way kids do when they’ve mastered a new skill. She’d grown so much in a month, her mother said. Nonna was quickly put out of mind. Nonna was okay with that.

A week later we flew to Florida.


The guests arrive, friends of her parents’ and neighbors my age, some younger. My son stayed in New York for work. He was to fly in later that evening.

I place my gift on around table in the vestibule, competing for real estate with a pile of offerings: colorful packages from her aunts and uncles, her American grandparents, my son and daughter-in-law. There’s barely any room for the box from Ashdod, its wrapping thinner, less fanciful than its New World counterparts.

Blowing of candles. iPhone photography. Then the opening of gifts. She starts with the large stones, tearing the wrappings with savage joy. A castle craft kit, an inflatable unicorn, a sprinkle-art board. Her gaze, crazed with indulgence, skips from package to package. “Mommy, look, look!” she cries. “A slime box. A Nerf gun. And a Barbie!” I wonder how many presents she gets for the other holidays.

By the time she’s unwrapped what turns out to be her first Lego, she’s begun to lose interest. The sparkle in her eyes dims; her movements turn listless. A pink guitar emerges from a see-through plastic box. She doesn’t bother to take it out.

“Here, sweetie.” I hand her my present. “Would you like to see what Nonna and Nonno’s bought you?” The doll seemed adequate in Israel, yet here, amidst the debris of crinkled paper, it looks sallow, as though it has absorbed the dust and sorrow of the old country. It can’t hold a candle to Barbie’s tan.

She examines it without interest, then tosses it to the side and runs off in search of fresh entertainment. Her mother gazes dotingly at her. Someone begins to blow air in the inflatable unicorn.

“The profligacy will ruin her,” I blurt out in a half-whisper, addressing no one in particular. “She’ll expect everything, and value nothing.” We all admire grit, but we sometimes forget it comes from struggle. It can’t be ordered on Amazon.

The in-laws dart me looks of confusion. I stand by the table, wringing my hands and not breathing. Fluffy clouds are creeping in over the horizon. Or they might just have been there all day, I can’t tell.

“We forgot the tricycle,” someone says. Out comes a scooter-like contraption with heart-patterned grips and pink streamers. The adults resume talking about out-of-state taxes.

She’s a child, for goodness’s sake. The surfeit of generosity isn’t her choice. The looks around the room tell me I’ve painted myself the judgmental mother-in-law.

I bend down to collect a discarded gift wrapper and a burning sensation grips my eyes. Why am I so reactive? It’s not my first time here, and I ought not to be feeling like fish out of water. My Sephardic life— born in Bulgaria on the cusp of World War II; the country overrun by Communism; emigration to Israel, followed by another war— is incomprehensible to the other guests. My parades never wanted for rain. But today is her day. It isn’t about me.

I withdraw to the guest room. Tears come. I look out to the Gulf. Greens of seaweed and juniper flow into shades of graphite, and the sun sprays gold upon the surface of the sea, peering behind fluffy clouds.

Hibiscus and bougainvillea line one end of the lawn. A solitary palm casts shadows upon the thick blades of grass. Soon, sprinklers will douse the greenery in sulphuric well water. A man-made lawn, defying wilderness.

My granddaughter emerges with her new scooter, and as I watch her propel herself towards the beach road, I hope the world will be gentle to her. I hope her lawns will always stay green.

Published 7th February, 2023.

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