The Christmas Gift

wrapping paperIt is December, and is time to wrap the gifts I’ve carefully selected for my children.  A few evenings ago, I rummaged through the attic in search of paper and ribbon and came across a box marked “Sentimental Stuff.”  Inside is a music box with a dancing clown.

In the late summer of 1982, I window shopped at Johnson’s Bookstore in Springfield, Massachusetts with my husband, Paul.  Johnson’s was an amazing store with rooms upon rooms of books, toys and art supplies.  We browsed for hours, leafing through pages, and dreaming of giving the beautiful dolls, books and teddy bears to our unborn child.  On a shelf were small shadow boxes containing jointed paper clowns that danced when the music box on the back was wound. I was immediately taken by them, but I knew my practical farm-raised husband would not recognize the value in such frivolity.  Besides, in those lean years, our pennies were carefully counted and reserved for bare necessities, so after a few moments of watching the paper clown dance, I turned and left the store.

That December as the holidays approached, we struggled to pay for food and oil.  We kept our heat only high enough to keep our pipes from freezing, and heated water on the stove for dishes and bathing.  Our finances were grave, but our mood was bright.  It was Christmas, after all- the celebration of our Savior’s birth.  Christ was born into poverty with the sole purpose of dying for all mankind.  And yet, there was no bitterness in His birth.  The heavens rejoiced, and so would we.  We decorated a small tree and settled in front of the fireplace to discuss our gift giving budget.

After a long conversation, we settled on rules for our yuletide celebration.   We would each have ten dollars to spend on each other.  There would be no cheating, no borrowing, no allowing anyone else foot the bill.  Everything under the tree would have to be something we made ourselves, or bought within the ten-dollar budget. 

During the following weeks, I stretched my sweater over my growing belly and concentrated on knitting wool scraps into mittens for my husband.  I used my ten dollars on wool socks, a flannel shirt, and Christmas goodies to fill Paul’s stocking.  A few days before Christmas, I finally finished the mittens.  They were pieced together in stripes- tan, rust and brown, all from yarn left over from my mother’s past projects, but the stitches were tight and they promised to keep his hands warm when he shoveled our long driveway on snowy mornings.  I carefully wrapped them, hoping they would fit his hands, and wondering if he would like them.

Christmas morning dawned and we feasted on eggs, homemade muffins, and coffee.  We prayed our thanks to God for the amazing gift of His son and sat at the foot of the tree to open gifts.  Paul was pleased with his. The shirt and socks fit and he promised me that he loved the mittens and would wear them often.  Then he handed me a small box.

I slowly opened the red and white paper and to my surprise, discovered the dancing clown music box clownfrom  Johnson’s Bookstore. 

My eyes filled with tears.  “You cheated!” I accused, knowing the music boxes cost far more than our budget had allowed.

“No- really,” he protested.  I kept looking and looking but I couldn’t find anything I liked that I could afford.  I went into Johnson’s and this was the only one left.  It was stuck in a corner and was a bit dusty.  There wasn’t a price tag on it, so I asked.  The clerk couldn’t find a price, so he offered to sell it to me for ten dollars.” 

“I saw how much you loved it last summer,” he said softly.  “I wanted to get it then, but I couldn’t afford it.”

My eyes filled with tears and I hugged him as tightly as my swollen belly would allow.  We placed the clown on a shelf where it served as a reminder that young love can overcome the tightest budgets and the toughest obstacles.

Somewhere in the years that followed the music box stopped working.  Perhaps it was wound too tightly, or maybe its Christmas magic just ran out.  But the clown stopped dancing, and the music stopped playing, and eventually the marriage ended.

But in December, there is no room for bitterness. Although we are no longer a couple, I still remember that Christmas with great fondness.  Even though we cannot live as husband and wife now, the love we shared on that day, and for many more was real and true. 

I carefully put the clown back in its box and closed the lid.  Then, taking a deep breath, I grabbed a roll of paper, turned out the light and shut the door to the attic.

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My Favorite Things- or at least a few of them…

It’s only late October and I’m already in full Christmas-preparedness mode.  I’ve dusted off my sewing machine and started the search for special gifts for special loved ones.  Whenever I spy something unusual and special- the kind of thing that I know one of my children would love- I hear tiny ensembles play Jingle Bells in my head.  If the gift sings to me, I know it is a keeper.  If not, I leave it behind.

Today I snagged a one-of-a-kind catch that makes me so excited that I can barely keep it a secret until the yule log blazes.  Scoring such an item got me thinking of my family’s favorite things, and thinking of those things led me to think of my favorite things.  Most of these are not items that can be wrapped in colored paper or stuffed into a stocking, but at my age, there isn’t a bunch of “stuff” I want or need anyway.  However, if you want to join me in a little mental vacation, smile through the following list with me.  And then, make one of your own.

                  Twenty Favorite Things

  1. The smell of percale sheets that have been dried outside on a cold blustery day.
  2. Drinking my first cup of morning coffee under the covers while I watch the morning news and check my email.
  3. The sound of my children laughing when they don’t know I am listening.
  4. Turning up the car radio so it’s one decibel below the point of breaking glass.
  5. Watching someone I love open a gift I made especially for them.
  6. A long hot shower on a frigid January morning.
  7. Dinner with as many family and friends as can be crowded around one table.
  8. Toasted homemade bread slathered with melting butter.
  9. An August breeze that smells of newly mown hay.
  10. Catching a wave in the Atlantic Ocean and riding it all the way to shore.
  11.  Finishing an entire crossword puzzle without cheating.
  12. Dinner and a margarita on a sunny deck after work.
  13. A ninety minute massage by a therapist who doesn’t want to chatter and ask questions.
  14. The memory of my parents laughing at Johnny Carson while I lay in my bed.
  15. Kissing the head of my newborn baby.
  16. Trying on a pair of pants and finding that they are too loose.
  17. Comfortable shoes.
  18. Standing next to my brothers, or anyone else who towers over me, so for once in my life I do not feel like a giraffe.
  19. Hitting a harmony so the notes hang in the air as if they are crystalized.
  20. Knowing that I get to live another day to enjoy numbers 1-19.

Epiphany!

When I was a little girl, we celebrated Epiphany at our church.  For those who may not know, Epiphany commemorates the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus.  In our parish, we brought small gifts to a special Mass and laid them in front of the crèche.  It was explained to me that the gifts would later be distributed to “The Needy,” which to me meant anyone who didn’t get gifts at Christmas.  Usually, my mother would give me a dollar to buy something like bath soap or after-shave lotion.  I would walk to the drug store and search the shelves for something that fit my budget, carry it home, and wrap it in pretty paper.  Presenting my gift to the baby Jesus was exciting and heartwarming.  It was at that crèche that my social conscience began to bud.

The Christmas before my eighth birthday, the nuns urged us to consider “sacrificial giving.”  They explained that giving from one’s excess was not a gift at all; that a true gift was something of great value that its owner gave up for another.  True sacrifice, they said, would bring a smile to the baby Jesus.

As the day of the Epiphany Mass grew closer, I thought about this at length.  My childish ignorance made me unaware that my parents were already sacrificing in order to supply gifts for the Mass.  Instead, I wrestled with the concept of personal sacrifice, and how much I was willing to make this a reality in my own life.  I wanted to make Jesus smile.  As the January date approached, I knew I had to make a decision, no matter how painful.

The day of the Mass approached.  I had made up my mind.  Slowly, I wrapped my gift.  It was a stuffed bunny I had received that year from Santa.  Soft and yellow, with blue gingham ears, it had been my constant companion since I unwrapped it a few weeks before. I loved it as much as a little girl can love a stuffed animal. Eyes streaming, I took the bundle to my mother to put with the other gifts.  Realizing what I had done, my mother drew me to her lap, stroked my head, and explained that although Jesus would very much appreciate my gift, “The Needy” probably would make better use of the talcum powder on her dresser.  She asked me to fetch it and wrap it for her.

I now suspect that “The Needy” were people in nursing homes, who indeed had little use for a yellow stuffed bunny.  I wonder, though, if this was my mother’s way of sparing her little girl the pain of giving up someone she loved.  I kept my bunny, and loved it until the yellow turned brown and the blue gingham tore away from the fur.  But the seed had been planted, and the concept of sacrificial giving flourished.  I remember that Epiphany every time I consider what to donate to a food drive, or how much of my time to volunteer, or when I kiss a loved one goodbye as she leaves for a mission trip.  In the end, the nuns were right.  Sacrificial giving brings a smile to Jesus.  It makes me feel pretty darned good, too. 

A Gift for Christmas

Those who know me, know I love Christmas.  Like the tympani in a concert, the excitement begins around Thanksgiving and slowly builds as the weather gets colder.  By the time the first snow arrives, there is a distinct rumble in the distance, which grows louder and faster until its crescendo on Christmas morning.

Although I am by American standards, a conservative holiday spender, the weekends preceding Christmas are usually spent searching for the perfect gift for my loved ones.  I love nothing more than to surprise someone with a brightly wrapped package that contains an item that will warm his heart. Sometimes the gift is homemade, like the flannel pajamas I sewed for family and friends last year.  Sometimes it is a costly treasure, never dreamed possible by its recipient.  Sometimes it is small and inexpensive, but tugs at the heartstrings and brings tears to the eyes.

This year has been different.  Although I usually hear silver tinkles of “Jingle Bells” in my head as soon as the kids go back to school, this year I heard nothing.  I wandered around a few stores earlier in the fall, but I just couldn’t get excited about gifts.  I was trying to adjust to the idea that for the first time, we wouldn’t be all together. We’ve had other holidays with family missing, but not Christmas.  I knew the time would come eventually, and I thought I was ready, but I was not. 

As parents, our goal is supposed to be to get our kids to a place where they can fly alone.  We strive to teach them independence.  We help them to walk, and to pedal a bike, and then to drive.  All these lessons teach them to move away from us.  It is part of the Master’s plan. But there is nothing in the handbook about the hole that is left when they are gone.  How do we have Christmas without us all together?

Then, Elizabeth had an idea.  “Let’s forgo gifts to each other, pool our resources, and fly Gabe home from England for Christmas!” she suggested.  It was a brilliant plan that after several Skype dates and emails was finally executed. Tonight at 6:20, his plane will land in Boston.

No, there won’t be packages to unwrap. No ribbon on the floor, no trips to the dumpster to get rid of tissue and packaging.  No surprises and shrieks of “Just-what-I-always-wanted!”  There will be no last minute stuffing of the stockings.  No midnight wrapping of gifts.  There will be no whispers behind closed doors, no shaking of boxes, no searching for scissors and tape.

But this Christmas, our home will once again be warm and full and cozy.  We’ll be together, if only for one more year.  And all will be bright.

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