The high-pitched sound from the sculpting saw pierces my eardrums, even from inside the kitchen. I am dutifully kneading dough for pie while my little sister makes designs in the leftover flour with chubby fingers. I watch through the window as my step-grandfather grinds away at an enormous slab of marble in the backyard. Alec seems like a tough mountain man, with his large build and scruffy beard, but he has the soft, open heart of an artist. This particular day, my 7th birthday, he is sculpting marble into a huge cow skull with long, broad strokes, then with sudden nimble and precise cuts, which spews dust particles everywhere. He occasionally turns to wave at us and we giggle at the sight of him covered in white dust.
My grandma comes in from the garden with a basket of fresh greens for taco salad, my favorite, and announces that we can go pick flowers for the dining table. My sister and I wash up then run out into the sunshine to pick irises. We help set the table as usual, and then get ready for the evening party. Music begins to play all over the house and yard- Patsy Cline, Coltrane, Vivaldi. My grandma had speakers set up high in virtually every room, like Surround Sound before anyone had ever even heard of it.
Soon, my whole family is there and the house fills up with wonderful smells from the kitchen. The adults chat, the kids tease, the dog barks. After dinner and games, everyone must wait for dessert (peach pie was always my birthday choice) until I’ve opened presents. We all gather into the massive living room and I plop down on the Mexican tile in front of the coffee table. I’ve only just started to open one up when my cousins gasp, the parents say, “Oh, no…”, and then silence. Everyone goes to see what the matter is, but I stand guard of my birthday presents.
What I do see is Alec practically whimper and fall back into a chair. I know something is terribly wrong. It turns out my rambunctious little sister had been spinning a pedestal displaying a dainty piece of sculpture, it flew off, and broke into tiny pieces on the ground. Normally a sculpture would have been waxed and then bronzed, so duplicating one can be quite easy because there is a wax form. This one, however, was created around a piece of intricately twisted wood that Alec had found when he was just a child. This was also one of his first pieces of artwork and it had taken him years to perfect. But there would be no re-creating this cherished piece, and his face begins to crumple as this realization sets in. He buries his face in his hands and my grandma rushes over to put her arms around him, guiding him out of the chair. He and my grandmother retreat to their room with the door firmly shut, a sight that none of us were accustomed to seeing.
My mom goes into action with birthday pie and ice cream, feigning joy while the rest of us try to console my sister. They tentatively sing and we quietly eat, wondering what we can do to make it right. I am kind of wondering about my presents.
Time ticks by, and someone suggests that maybe we should go. That just doesn’t seem right, so we sit and wait. Finally, the door creaks open and Alec lumbers out, his eyes red and swollen. He slowly walks over to my four-year-old sister, who has also been crying, picks her up and sets her on his knee. He says to her softly and clearly, “Art is very important to me, but not nearly as important as you are. It’s just a piece of wood. Don’t worry, sweetheart, it’s okay.”
Everyone breathes a sigh of relief, there are hugs all around, and hot coffee is poured. My sister remains firmly on Alec’s lap. The party resumes and presents commence, but the best gift of all is the lesson of forgiveness, of unconditional love.
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