It’s been a long day. Waiting tables is never easy unless business has been slow. Otherwise, it’s a very physical job, taxing on both the body and one’s patience. Just 10 minutes before the end of my shift, as I am trying to finish my duties, ready to hand off the dining room to the next server, an older couple walks in and says, “There’s a bunch of us.” I hope by “bunch” they mean no more than 8. Maybe 10. But they mean 24. I feel my face twitch a little. I breathe deeply and sigh in the weakest parts of my sick body. “OK!” I say, hoping my dread doesn’t come across in my one-word reply. I look around and hope my relief has arrived. She can have this party. The day has already done its damage. But there is no rescue in sight, and so I serve the party, and they are actually a delight, no doubt, but my body can’t tell the difference. It wears exhaustion and weariness all the same, draped over my shoulders like lead.
As they leave, finally, way past the time I was supposed to leave, the head of the family returns, smiling. He thanks me for the wonderful service and then holds out a small gift. It’s a button on string. “Since you were so patient with us, I wanted to give you a gift. Oh, it’s probably useless, but it’ll keep you busy staring at it when you’re doing nothing. Which you probably never do nothing, but anyway.” And so he demonstrates the button on the string as it twirls and twirls. “And when you aren’t entertaining yourself with it,” he says, “You can just wear it like a necklace.” I thank him, and I mean it, and I put it around my neck. It looks like a gift one of my children would have brought home from school when they were small, over a hundred and eleven years ago, and it’s beautiful. For a few moments, I delight in the joy of the gift, and then another thought comes along: how long will I keep it?
In recent years, I’ve been downsizing my life little by little. Sometimes it means pulling pictures from dozens of frames and inserting the pictures into albums instead, and sometimes it means donating books to the library. But as I’ve minimized more and more, it’s meant letting go of trinkets and such, things that collect dust and take up space and don’t always hold value — monetary or otherwise. I like having less in many ways, but there is often some guilt attached. I forget that it’s not very likely that others have attached emotional tracking devices on gifts they’ve given, that it is ok to part with them eventually. I forget that I don’t remember every gift I’ve given others and if they have parted ways, that’s ok too. I don’t have to keep everything.
So often, I hold on to gifts like I hold onto the past. Slights and hurts cling to a heart that usually doesn’t think about the when and the how, but then a moment comes up, a smell, a tiny smidgen of memory, and I realize I’m still keeping the pains, still tucking them away like little treasures, carrying that which should have been discarded so long ago. A bad day at work can stay with me just as long as the memory of fists from childhood, and as much as I try to shrug things off, how that bad day went will often turn expectation of the next working day into one of dread. And I will carry that with me too. Like pain that paints an ugly picture of distrust, I will take something too personally, and what did she mean by that? and what did I do so wrong here?
The button on a string around my neck today reminds me that I keep and carry too much. I hold onto that which is useless and tiresome, and instead let go of that which matters. I don’t have to keep everything. But maybe I will keep the button on a string, the sweet memory of a stranger’s kindness. A gift that has little monetary value but carries a strong message: you can do hard things, and you can push through hard times and still be great and kind, and you are worth more than the ugly things you have been keeping.