The Greatest of Gifts


Christmas Circa 1974

Christmas Circa 1974

My mother and father occupied opposite ends of the gift giving spectrum. My mother was literally Santa without the hat. Christmas was her year round occupation, starting with day-after-Christmas sales and ending with Christmas Eve bazaars.  She squirreled away presents in every closet of the house.

“Hey Mom, have you seen my …”
“Don’t go in there.”
“But I’m just looking for …”
“Don’t open that door!”

She not only showered our nuclear family with gifts, she sent care packages around the country to her extended family. She left our mailman a gift. She left gifts in every mailbox on our street. (And we lived in the country. Our street was a two mile stretch of road!) She sent Christmas goodies into work with Dad. She came into school with cookies for our classrooms. She gave our teachers presents. She brought the front office staff presents. She gave the principal a present. She gave a little something to the clerk at Thriftway, where she got her film developed. She brought in goodies to the office of her doctor, her dentist, orthodontist, ophthalmologist, otolaryngologist, pulmonologist, podiatrist, internist, dermatologist, psychologist. Once, she gave her psychiatrist’s mother’s brother’s nephew’s neighbor’s daughter a Christmas gift. (No!  I’m kidding.) But you see the problem, don’t you? When you have a list that large, where do you stop? You’re probably thinking right now, “Hey, how come I didn’t make her list?”

It first occurred to me there might be a little imbalance in my

family when I was in grade school; when everyone came back from Christmas vacation and talked about what they got for Christmas. One person got a sweater, another got a flashlight, another got a Tootsie car, another got school supplies.

“What did you get?” asked a girl standing next to me. My face reddened as my brain went into high gear. Somehow I sensed I wouldn’t fit in if I exposed my list of dozens. But which one should I share about?
“You get nothin’?” she taunted.
“No, I got boots.”
“Yeah, my old pair of rubber boots had a lot of holes in them; I ruined every pair of socks I wore with them. Now I can walk through the field without mud getting in.
The spotlight moved on to someone else.

My father, on the other hand, simply didn’t do Christmas. Not that he was a humbug. He was a nice guy and all that. He just didn’t engage in gift giving. Oh sure, we would get gifts signed “Mom & Dad”. But it wasn’t his writing. He hadn’t wrapped them. In fact, he was often just as surprised as we were to see what was inside.

So maybe you can picture the clash on Christmas mornings between Mr. No Gifts and Mrs. Gift Giver Extraordinaire. It could be a little tense. It seems we repeated the same scenario so many times, my memory of those Christmas mornings has boiled down to a single quintessential event – the year Dad gave Mom something obviously scavenged from the storeroom shelf at Tektronix, minutes before he left work on Christmas Eve.

We were all sitting in the living room, around the Christmas tree, hip deep in discarded wrapping paper and presents when Mom picked up this poorly wrapped object from the table. It got quiet. My mind automatically ran through a list of all possible room exists, just like in a fire drill. I tried to blend into the fabric of the chair I was sitting in. I tried to be preoccupied with something I had just opened. But, as much as I didn’t want to be in that room right then, some part of me had the macabre need to watch the drama unfold. Mom unwrapped Dad’s gift to her and revealed a laboratory container of some sort; a clear plastic squeeze bottle with a strangle spout.

“What is this?”
“Oh, that’s the reagent bottle.”
“What do you use this for?”
“Oh, you can store liquids in it. You can use it to apply liquids in a precise stream.”
“I think I’ll go see how breakfast is coming along.”
Slam! The kitchen door shut. Then came the sound of banging pots and pans.

Decades later, my Dad was unexpectedly diagnosed with cancer. Facing the prospect of dying in few years, he set up counseling appointments with each member of the family. He felt we had drifted apart and he wanted to change that if he could. And, he managed to change some things. For one thing, he took charge of his own gift giving. For Christmas one year he gave me a small bronze of Perseus on a marble base. Very cool. (I don’t even know where you would go to find something like that.) But, even more cool, I was so proud of my Dad for changing up his game and becoming a meaningful gift giver.

Gift giving and receiving and Christmas mornings are still hard for me. And I suppose a person could make the case that my parents contributed to whatever weirdness I have around that stuff. But I am more inclined to consider myself lucky to have seen one of my parents change their behavior and witness the difference that change made in their life. As I get older, I grow more convinced that was the greatest of gifts.

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