The Talking Parrot

Shalvi is very excited about turning five next month. The day after Chanukah I came into her room in the morning to find her singing “Tu Bishvat Higiya,” heralding the birthday of the trees, which was over a month away. We had told her that Tu Bishvat was the next holiday after Chanukah, and she knew that Tu Bishvat was right around her birthday. She was perhaps the only kid who was eager for Chanukah to be over with so that Tu Bishvat would come already. When I asked her what she wanted for her birthday, she looked at me, bewilderment giving way to incredulity. “Ima, you are going to buy me a Matana?” she asked. “You don’t have to do that,” she rushed to assure me. “My Ganenet is going to get me a present.”
“But Shalvi, I want to get you something for your birthday,” I told her, feeling somewhat guilty that she did not automatically associate her birthday with presents.
“You do?” she looked up at me, still not quite believing it.
“Yes,” I told her. “If I buy you a Matana, what would you like?”
She thought for a minute. I imagine her thoughts were drifting back to the same place mine were, to the last time anyone let her select a present. It actually wasn’t all that long ago, on a cold day with the sun already low in the sky when my mother-in-law picked up all three of the girls from school and Gan and took them to the Red Pirate, the huge toy store in the local mall which has, as my starry-eyed daughters reported to me, every toy imaginable. They returned with the largest Lego set I had ever seen, which the twins had chosen; and a double doll stroller, which was what Shalvi had been requesting for over two years. Whenever she played with dolls, she played with two dolls – as if every baby came in twos, and she was irregular in being a singleton. There was another family in her Gan two years ago that had a double stroller, and whenever I picked her up, she pointed to it and told me, “I want a stroller like that, for two babies.” That was, as I said, two years ago, and I had not done a thing about it. Now she doesn’t really play with dolls anymore, but I think the sight of that stroller reminded her of what she had dreamed of for so long – and so even though it wasn’t what she wanted anymore, she hadn’t yet surrendered the fantasy. It was her dream deferred, and I was overcome by remorse when I thought about how much she would have enjoyed that bright pink stroller in its proper time. To everything there is a season; the pink stroller sits in a corner of the living room where we all trip over it from time to time, because now Shalvi is more interested in how to spell “doll” then in pushing one around in a stroller.
Each time one of my kids has a birthday, I write them a long card and buy them a book, which I inscribe. I don’t always wrap the book, nor do I really think of it as a present – it’s more a way of celebrating their ability to appreciate, with each passing year, an increasingly sophisticated text. In the card I make mention of their milestones, hobbies, interests, and a bit about what Daniel and I most appreciate about them. I try, as much as possible, to make the card unique to that specific child at that specific point in time. I type up all the cards and save copies in a file on my computer – it is a file I rarely open, though I’d like to imagine that at some point I will find a way to give all these notes to my kids. Would that constitute a real present?
It was Shalvi who asked me about a real present when I pushed her to consider what she would want for her birthday: “Ima, you mean a real present?”
“Yes,” I told her, already knowing what she was getting at.
“Not a book?” she asked.
This is a familiar question in my house. My kids know how much I love buying them books and browsing in the library for them – often when they come home from school, I announce, “Guess what I got for you?”
“A book,” they say in their most bored voice, sometimes accompanied by a snort. “I know it’s a book.”
All of my kids love to read (or at least to be read to), and inevitably all of those books get read. But my kids don’t think of books as presents, because we are forever bringing new books into the house. Late at night, when I need to get a little exercise before getting into bed, I sometimes take a walk to the book drop near our house, a pop-up neighborhood lending library where people drop off the books they no longer want and help themselves to the offerings on the shelves. I love the serendipity of the book drop, whose contents are forever shifting. If I had arrived ten minutes earlier, would I have found that pile of National Geographics for kids? One night at about midnight I was scanning the shelves when suddenly I was blinded by bright lights and I heard the screech of car wheels coming to an abrupt halt right less than a meter away. I leapt, like a deer in headlights. Was I in trouble for disobeying a pandemic stay-at-home order? I turned my eyes away from the shelves slowly, already trying to formulate what I would say to the cops. But it was a large, run-down pick-up truck, and the driver, with a cigarette and a baseball cap, had popped open the back door and was unloading box after heavy box onto the sidewalk in front of the book drop. All kids picture books in Hebrew – I could hardly believe my good fortune! I took all I could carry, vowing to bring some of them back when we had finished reading them so that others could share in the bounty.
I bring home books all the time, at all hours of the day and night. And so Shalvi wanted to be sure, when I offered her a present, that I wasn’t referring to a book. “A real present,” I reassured her. She looked like a Queen Esther who had just been offered up to half of the royal kingdom, or like Sylvester clutching his magic pebble.
“I want… I want…” she said, scanning in her mind the shelves of every toy store she had ever seen – which may just be one, as far as I know. Suddenly her face lit up. “I want a talking parrot!”
“A talking parrot?” I asked, unsure exactly what she meant.
“Yes,” she said. “Every time I say something, the parrot will say the same thing.”
“A talking parrot?” I parroted back one more time. “Do you mean like the Passover parrot?” The last time we had even encountered a parrot was in the Passover children’s book about the child who practices the Ma Nishtana over and over again, until his parrot learns the entire song by heart and recites it from the top floor in the middle of the Seder, when the child freezes up. “No, no,” Shalvi was quick to disabuse me. “I don’t mean the book about the parrot. I mean I want a parrot. A tukey,” she clarified, as if all I was missing was a Hebrew translation.
The only toys I really cannot abide are the ones that talk. A few years ago my mother-in-law bought my twins two talking unicorns that came up to their knees, with a leash made of string around each neck. The girls led the unicorns around the house, and each time they pulled on the leashes, the unicorns broke out in canned music – “Brave unicorn, flies through the sky….” It was the kind of present you would never buy for members of your own household. I had the song in my head for weeks until I finally unscrewed the batteries in a desperate frenzy one night and told the girls they had died simultaneously. With seven people living under our roof, the last thing I need is more noise.
“Well,” I said to Shalvi. “Maybe you have another idea? Something else you would like?” Shalvi thought for a few minutes and made suggestions that were, to my mind, equally inane – did she really think I would buy her a gigantic unicorn stuffed with candy? But then again, should I? Would this be her next dream deferred?
That evening we were on a video chat with my sister-in-law, whose home we frequently visit. Shalvi waited patiently for her turn to talk to her aunt – she clearly had something she wanted to say. “Estie,” she said eagerly to my sister-in-law, when it was finally her turn. “Can you take me to your closet with the toys?”
“Sure,” Estie obliged, carrying her phone with the video still on to the giant floor-to-ceiling closet in her playroom, where my kids can occupy themselves for hours. “What is it you want to see in the closet?” she asked with the infinite patience of a relative who is not a parent. Shalvi knew exactly what she wanted, and she also knew exactly where it was. She directed my sister-in-law to the second shelf, all the way on the right. There, hiding behind a set of magic tricks and a Harry Potter costume, was a toy Torah scroll, with the full text of the Torah printed inside in miniature letters, wrapped in a faux velvet cover. “I love that Torah,” Shalvi told Estie. “I can’t wait to come to your house so I can play with it.”
I’m not sure what Estie said in response, nor do I know who took the phone next. In my head the wheels were turning fast and furiously. A miniature Torah! That’s what I would get Shalvi for her birthday! It was the perfect cross between a book and a toy – it was both text and ritual object. She could lavish her affection on it but also identify the letters and start reading the words. And while a toy Torah is a far cry from a talking parrot, I’d like to think that eventually she will speak the words aloud, and the words will speak to her.
Among the list of the Israelites desert wanderings, the book of Numbers recounts that they traveled from “Midbar” to “Matana” – from the desert to a place called Matana. The term “matanah” means “gift” in Hebrew, and the Talmud (Eruvin 54a) explains that this is a reference to Torah – the gift given to the Jewish people in the midbar, the wilderness. The best gift I could give my daughter was Torah. Of that I was certain.
But maybe, just to be safe, I would buy her a unicorn too.

One thought on “The Talking Parrot

  1. Sharon Citron Urbas says:

    Ilana charming. But on the other hand the gift is for Shalvi not for you. Buy her the talking parrot. And if you can’t find one the unicorn. But only if you FILL it with candy. The poor child is already incredulous that you’re even considering buying a REAL present not something you consider educational. After the real present you can consider the educational gift.That way she won’t have to wait two years for her to think you are REALLY listening to her.
    I love all of you



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