My father abandoned us when mother was six months pregnant with her fifth child. Members of mother's church considered adopting her children.

My father abandoned us when mother was six months pregnant with her fifth child. Members of mother's church considered adopting her children.

I was selected to be the tryout sibling. I — who ran barefoot in the Applegate mountains, spotting bluebells, freezing in the presence of a large cougar, cracking watermelons over rocks and plunging my face into the shards, wiping my mouth on a sleeve — was to be shod and sent to live in a pristine house in Medford with a mature couple whose daughter was 7 years old.

When the husband drove us through downtown, which was adorned with glittering Christmas lights and decorations, I felt transported into a glowing, enchanted land. But the glow shortly dimmed under the problem of the peas: I was captured in a highchair until they were eaten. I was 4-and-a-half years old. I could out-wait them.

More dimming occurred when the wife told me about a little girl who happily helped her mother wash dishes, then beamed down at me, "Now, you may help with the dishes (smile) or (frown) go play." The tricycle was great fun as I pedaled on the sidewalk.

But the lights went clear out in Georgia while I was standing in front of a bookcase full of beautiful dolls and reached out to grasp one. The daughter threw herself on the floor in a conniption fit. After that, I was sent home — sans tricycle.

Mother wrote her good friend, Gertrude, asking what to do. Gertrude's reply became the gold standard of our family: "I cannot tell you what to do, but I'll tell you what I would do. As long as I could keep a roof over their heads, food on the table and clothing on their backs, I would keep my family together."

Our further good fortune was our maternal grandfather, Fred Mansfield Law (who played the fiddle and wept when he sang "Red Wing"), and his three magnificent sisters — Sarah, Emma and Elva — all descendents of the McKee family, early settlers in Logtown, who became our guardian angels through the years.

A few months after the baby's birth, a flame from the wood cooking stove leapt to a curtain, and our house and meager possessions were swiftly reduced to embers. The aunts helped us settle in an ancient brown-shingled house in town.

The baby increased in beauty — golden ringlets, wide blue eyes, a happy disposition, loved by all. Christmas was again approaching when, briefly alone one day, I discovered a box on the porch with gifts, all tagged in pencil for "Baby Mary." I sorted them out on the bed, erased her name on several tags and printed Ted, Carl, David and Jeanne (a futile effort, given the contents).

We each received one charity toy. Mine was a small, very old doll with hundreds of cracks on its face. I could not articulate how bad this made me feel. I knew the doll deserved to be loved, but I could not love it; a neighbor made it tiny dresses from material scraps, which altered my misery somewhat.

The following Christmas this same neighbor confided she had purchased me a book. "Nancy Drew Mystery!" was the sugar plum that danced in my head. Instead, it was a book of poems, which I tossed aside with the same disdain accorded "Little Women" when Jo did not marry Teddy.

But, then again, it was the only book I had ever owned. It cost $1. I wound up memorizing the poems and, over time, frayed the pages.

That same Christmas, another box appeared on the porch; it contained a gift for each of us, mine the present that would restore my soul — a lovely mature doll with elegantly groomed hair, wearing a beautiful dress, whose perfection dissolved all my disappointment over the crappy cracked doll.

These were magnificent, life-altering gifts: a letter that gave my mother the courage to hold our family together; relatives who cherished us; delight in the beauty of words; and a Christmas doll from a stranger whose message for me is a message for all — that we are worthwhile and entitled to the loveliness of love.

Jeanne Marie Peters lives in Ashland.