She was an old lady, maybe sixty years old, but I still liked to talk to her. I'd drop by sometimes after school when mom let me. I'd never known an archeologist before and I thought I might like to be one. She talked a lot about the years she spent working in southern Mexico. Sometimes she'd get a far away look in her eyes and look like she wanted to cry. She must have really liked that place.
I'd never been anywhere but Arkansas. Grandma lived up by the Missouri border, but I'd never been across it - at least I don't think I did. How did a person know for sure when there was no line? We'd hunted mushrooms in the woods up there. If there had been a line, I would have crossed it, just to say I'd been someplace besides Arkansas.
Sometimes when Miss Lorena talked, I imagined myself traveling to the places she had been. I'd seen pictures of the digs she had been on in the southwest desert. It all seemed so exciting, digging up things the Indians had used years before the white man came to the desert. She had some pottery - artifacts, she called them. She said people had looted some of the sites. I didn't understand the difference between looting and taking something to put in your home, but I didn't want to chance insulting her by asking.
On the last day of school before Christmas Vacation, I went to her house on the way home from school. Mom got a present for her - a poinsettia. I hoped the bright red flowers would cheer Miss Lorena up some. She looked sad the last time I saw her. I skipped up to her big old house and knocked on the door. I stuck the flowers behind me so that they would be a surprise.
Miss Lorena opened the door and invited me in. "I just made a fresh batch of cookies."
The cookies were cooling on waxed paper on the kitchen table. Miss Lorena poured me some milk and put a few cookies on a plate for me. She sat down across from me with a cup of coffee.
I carefully placed the flowers on the table in front of her, watching her expression as I did so. "These are for you," I said.
She stared at the flowers, not looking happy like I expected. Finally she looked up at me. "How did you know?"
"Know?" I echoed. "Know what?"
She closed her eyes and lowered her head. I thought she was saying grace, so I closed my eyes and bowed my head to say thanks for the cookies and milk before I scarfed them down.
When I lifted my head, she was watching me, tears in her eyes.
"I'm sorry," I said. "Mom thought you would like the flowers. They are so bright and cheerful…."
"I love them," She said, her voice almost a whisper. "They are my favorite, because.…" She frowned. "They aren't really flowers, you know. The red petals are really leaves, called bracts. The flowers are those tiny yellow things in the center. They come from southern Mexico."
I watched her and listened as I ate my cookies, knowing she was trying to control her emotions.
Finally she sighed. "He always brought me Poinsettias - my fiancé."
I didn't move - not even to chew or swallow. No one knew about a man in her life. I felt special that she was telling me.
She touched the bright red leaves. "He died there. I still miss him."
I never asked her about him and she never said, but I knew the present I gave her that Christmas was more valuable to her than anything I found under our tree. It was the year I learned the real value of a present had nothing to do with the price.