Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Time I Felt Like the Magi

Sometimes a person knows a gift is wrong before it is even bought. Sometimes that realization comes a little later. Sometimes a gift is O.K., sometimes it seems pretty good. But only rarely does a person hit on a perfect gift. I did once.

In 1964 I left Los Angeles to return home to England for the summer. I had been a graduate student at Southern Cal for a year, which is what I had signed on for. My goal had been a kind of gap year before I got a job teaching, but I liked LA and my fellow graduate students. And I liked the chairman of my Ph.D. committee, which didn't seem as big a problem as it did in England at that time.  So I had the vague feeling that if I went back to California I was crossing a Rubicon which might mean the end of life as I had known it.

I'm not sure how I spent my days back in my childhood home, but some evenings I accompanied my father the The Gun and Magpie for a half or two of bitter. My dad introduced me to one of his fellow imbibers who had a son apprenticing in the bookbinding profession. (Remember books?) I saw some examples of his skill, the gilt edges of the books, the beautiful marbled endpapers and many other facets of the bookbinding profession. I talked with the son in person over a half pint or two. A few weeks passed and soon it was time for me to make a decision. Dear Reader, I returned to Los Angeles. Alea jacta est.

I was invited to Iowa for Christmas with my professor and his family. I wanted so badly to find him the perfect gift. A book was a suitable choice, Not just a book, but the book. In those days he talked of little else except Plato's Republic, but he had every edition on the face of the earth and a few from the moon. But what he didn't have was a hand bound copy with gilt edges and marbled end papers and his initials on the blue leather cover. So I embarked on a complicated transatlantic order which in those pre-computer days took for ever, but thanks to my dad was hurried along.

 The book in its cardboard cover arrived in California in time for me to wrap it in elegant dark green and gold paper with gold ribbon. I travelled with it to Iowa and was so proud to place it under the tree. The perfect gift. One I was so eager to give. No later gift required so much time, so much effort, so much imagination.

Even the Magi should have realized that gold, frankincense and myrrh were pretty second rate in comparison with my book.

To be continued  . . .

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