A Boy’s Gift

- Dec• 29•16

By Alexandra Rowley ‘10

Let me begin by saying this:Elliott Rowley

My husband, Stephen, and I are parents in creative careers (a writer/editor and an artist/photographer) and have had an incredibly challenging year personally, professionally, and financially. A year that has caused us to examine literally everything and reconsider who we are and what we truly value. Terrifying though it feels, it has also been incredibly illuminating in important ways.

I make gratitude lists almost nightly and try to focus my attention on the actions we can take to feel grounded and model resilience for our son, Elliott, who is five and incredibly sensitive. I have thought a lot about using my skills in the service of my convictions and have found more ways to do that this year. And Elliott has been a constant source of inspiration for us to be our greatest selves. Both All Souls Church and All Souls School (where Elliott is in his final year) have been havens for us. That said, we have had to cut our expenses drastically and have not been able to make charitable contributions as we are accustomed. Put simply, we have not felt able to support the places that support us, and that hasn’t felt good.

Anyway, here we are on a hot August day, and Elliott and I decide to head out for an adventure. He loves trains, so we decide to go to Grand Central Terminal, where we chat with some conductors, get some “tickets” punched full of holes, hit the whispering gallery (an archway where two people standing at diagonal arches can hear each other whisper), and have a quick lunch of fries and chowder at the Oyster Bar before deciding to extend our adventure at the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn. As we are headed down the stairs to the subway and I’m searching for my MetroCard, Elliott says “Look, Mamma! Dollars!” I look down and right at his feet on the steps are four $100 bills. I look behind me and ahead of me and no one has just dropped them. No one is anywhere. The bills look fake they are so crisp and new. We are both paused, staring down, and a man running up the stairs flashes a smile and says “Wow! Lucky kid!” So I hesitate, but I awkwardly scoop up the money, drop it in my bag and down we go!

At the token booth near the base of the stairs I ask a man in a bright yellow vest if there is a lost and found nearby and he aggressively asks what I found and barks, “Give it to me.”

I hesitate. What am I teaching my son here? What are the limits of my control? What is the right choice? So I lie and say “No, no, we lost something.”

And he barks, “What did you lose?”

“A mitten,” I say. Which is true. Elliott is still upset about a mitten we lost on the subway eight months earlier. But it’s not true. Not now. But somehow it gives me a minute to gather myself.

So I flee my own discomfort at the lie and we thank him and get on the subway and I’m reeling and unsure but trying to seem collected. I tell Elliott we are going to consider all of our choices and discuss the money with Dada later.

We have a wonderful time at the transit museum and I feel an incredible sense of abundance that day. It’s not about the money exactly (because I feel deeply conflicted knowing someone has lost something), but it’s rather what the money represents. A windfall. A sign. A gift. A sudden unexpected moment of grace during a really challenging year. And I’m not superstitious. I’m someone who believes in hard work and that you make your own luck. But still. I’m open. Especially this year. This felt auspicious in larger ways. It felt like the universe saying, “Pay attention! Put the phone down! Look! There are gifts everywhere!”

We got home and discussed it with Stephen. We agreed that it wasn’t our money. Not any of ours, but really, especially, not ours. Elliott found it, so it was for him to decide, with our guidance. Maybe half in college savings? Half to contribute? There was brief discussion of a toy. We knew Elliott’s fifth birthday was coming up and he would be getting the puppy toy he wanted so badly.

“Okay, Elliott, why don’t you think about places to donate it”  —and before we could even suggest his school or the Humane Society of New York (where we volunteer and Elliott donates money he makes selling lemonade)— he said, “I want to give it to All Souls to repair the cracks in the ceiling!”

Boom! Just like that.

It was beautiful how quick and clear he was, without any hesitation or encumbrance. It was one of those moments where I think “My goodness, you wise little soul.” I feel an enormous sense of gratitude that he is in our lives to remind us to be simple and clear. He was so clearly paying attention.

You see, on Sundays, Elliott likes to come to church in the sanctuary and hear the music. He always has, even when he was two or three. Now that he’s five it’s easier for him to sit through service. “Music is my passion. Singing is my passion,” he will tell you if it comes up. He says it like he’s forty years old and has devoted decades to his art. But it’s true. He just loves to sing. And he has started violin. And he loves the music at All Souls.

We have a little ritual where he listens to the service and stands to sing (though he doesn’t read yet so he can only sing the songs he knows, like “Ode to Joy”) and he draws, and puts our modest check in the silver bowl and then (please don’t be cross) he silently eats cheddar bunnies during Galen’s sermons. And, lately, Elliott has been making drawings during the sermon. He insists upon giving them to Galen after. Two Sundays ago he made one that was so beautiful I asked if I could have it. A swirl of graphite train tracks. My brother agreed, it looked like Jean Dubuffet. Please? Nope. He said it was “for Galen to repair the cracks in the church.”

And I admit I was baffled. What did he mean? I pictured the sanctuary ceiling becoming a collage of Elliott’s work. Oh lord! That’s so not Unitarian. How could Galen use these drawings? Would he understand this eccentric little boy stopping him after service and handing him these pieces of paper, mumbling something about cracks?

And then it just dawned on me. Elliott knows I sell my artwork and people pay me to make pictures. He comes to my studio. He knows his father writes about art and design and that stuff people make is important. Elliott helped make chocolate caramels that were sold at the All Souls School winter bazaar to help raise money for the school. I think he must intend for his drawings to be sold to raise money for the church.

The money he found sat in my desk until I realized the other day that we hadn’t donated it yet. Perhaps I relished the auspicious abundance it represents, the promise of a windfall, and also the beautifully clear conviction of our son. But I knew it was time. And  I knew the good feelings would linger and be multiplied and that our year had been filled with other auspicious abundances. So I stuffed it in an envelope with a note as we raced out the door and arrived just in time to sing the first Christmas carol.

Clearly he is paying attention.

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