I share my birthday with a dear childhood friend, Ilona, and with Richard Nixon. I like to joke that I always do something Nixonian on my birthday, once visiting his library and birthplace in Whittier and once going to see “Frost Nixon.”
On Saturday, an early birthday gift arrived from someone I’ve never met. During a hasty cleanup job in the house in November when I was trying to get rid of the skin of dust that settles everywhere, I accidentally knocked a beautiful handmade kaleidoscope off the mantle, smashing the wheel to bits against the fireplace tiles. The kaleidoscope was a souvenir of a trip David and I took to Puerta Vallarta in 2002.
A kaleidoscope was a favorite toy when I was a kid, those simple ones made from cardboard that came from the dime store. I’d lie on the grass, point it toward the sky and twirl the tube, transfixed by the images that shimmered and melted into ever-changing designs. The kaleidoscope I broke bore no resemblance to those serviceable toys of my childhood—it was a work of art. Looking into it, you could convince yourself that you were gazing at the windows at Chartres or Notre Dame.
On the side of the kaleidoscope, a small sticker read “Cocolli México.” A Google search led to a Facebook page entirely in Spanish. I used Google Translate to compose an email message that was undoubtedly a halting tale of woe, saying that I had broken my beautiful glass kaleidoscope and asking if it was possible to fix it or, if not, to buy another one like it.
Google translate is a clumsy tool. My missive probably read crazily, along the lines of “Please to fix my broke kaleidoscope I very sad about this” etc., because Alfonso wrote right back in impeccable English, gently and politely saying that it was OK to communicate in English. He said I needed two new pieces, and that he would figure out the cost and shipping charges and get back to me. A couple of weeks later he wrote again to say he hadn’t forgotten, but that he’d been busy. A bit later, he asked for my address, which I assumed he needed to calculate the shipping charges.
Then a box showed up on Saturday. It contained the missing pieces that restored my broken kaleidoscope. There was no note or invoice enclosed, so I emailed Alfonso right way to thank him and to ask how much I owed him, and did he want my credit card number?
To my astonishment and delight, he replied, “Don’t worry about the money. It’s your birthday present.”
There are many morals to this story, the least interesting and most mundane of which is to slow down and stop doing things in a frenzy lest you break precious things. The second is to own your crimes (I confess that I buried the broken kaleidoscope pieces in one drawer, then stashed the stand far back in another, rarely used one, hoping no one would notice before I could get it fixed or replaced.) But David was rummaging through the drawer not long afterward, spotted the empty stand and asked, “What happened to the kaleidoscope?” I was forced to come clean. That was this year’s Nixonian birthday note, a reminder that the cover-up is generally worse than the crime.
But the loveliest part of the story is the realization that people like Alfonso can spontaneously drop into our lives as if by magic. Clearly, he is a gifted artist and a thoughtful, generous person. Like a kaleidoscope image, kind gestures bring a beautiful order and symmetry to our world. I’m going to carry that benevolent idea with me all year long.