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A Christmas Corsage

The Gesture of Small Gifts


In the days of my childhood in Brooklyn, women often wore corsages pinned to their coats during the holiday season. These might consist of a cluster of ribbon and sprig of pine with a fake poinsettia, miniature foil-wrapped presents, or perhaps a plastic candy cane at the center, and lots of glitter and sparkle.

I remember admiring the choices in a store window one gray December day, just as I would admire, come February, the heart-shaped boxes of chocolate on display for Valentine’s Day, burgundy velvet or adorned with red roses. I had a weakness for this stuff. I was a skinny kid with bruises on her knees, but I had girly sensibilities.

I lingered at the storefront peering through the glass, imagining what a pleasure it would be to sport a corsage on the lapel of my winter coat, wondering which one I would choose if I had the means for such a luxury. My mother was with me, but this was only a looking game, and I never would have asked or expected her to buy one. I have no idea what such a corsage would have cost back then in the 1950s, but even a dollar would have been too extravagant.

Suddenly the proprietor of the shop stepped out onto the street with two corsages in his hand. He was an older man, balding perhaps, and I cannot recall his face, just his kindly demeanor. He handed me a corsage and said, “Little girls should have corsages for the holiday.” Then, turning to give one to my mother, he said, “And pretty ladies, too.” He wished us a good day and a Merry Christmas, gave a courtly sort of bow, and retreated back into the shop. I spent the rest of the day feeling giddy, staring down at my corsage, touching its ribbons and tiny plastic charms, knowing I was now a part of the city’s festive pageantry.

That man achieved a kind of immortality that day. I never knew his name, barely even managed to sputter out a thank-you, but here I am more than 50 years later, thinking of him. His impulse of gallantry helped the child that was me to perceive the world as a place that could be gentle and unexpectedly indulgent, and the aging me still tries to do the same for others. I have learned that there’s a glint of grace in spontaneous little givings, in the ice cream things, essential and ephemeral, in the kindness for no reason. I know, too, that there’s a flash of spirit in smiles returned or offered first, and a sense of peace in patience mustered, pettiness quelled, a poem shared.

It’s the holiday season, and the troubles of the world loom large, but I intend to pin a Christmas corsage on at least one bleak lapel.

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