Friday, December 21, 2007
Christmas, 1965 or thereabouts
The boy was very young; perhaps 7 or 8 years old. He loved everything about Christmas - the lights, the music, Santa Claus, the trees covered in tinsel and shiny ornaments - but especially the snow. For as long as he could remember (which wasn't very long, but it was a lifetime) there was always snow at Christmas. The whole thing was magical.
He walked down the street, on his way to a store near his home, and it was beginning to snow again. There was already an inch or two on the ground from yesterday and it was shiny, bright, white, and made everything it covered pretty. He opened his mouth and turned his face to the sky, trying to catch a couple of snowflakes on his tongue. He thought he succeeded, but it was hard to tell because snow melted as soon as it hit your tongue, so you couldn't collect a mouthful of it to prove that you caught some. He jingled a couple of nickels in his pocket, sliding his green rubber boots along in the snow as he walked with his face to the sky.
He was on his way to the store to buy a gift. He enjoyed receiving presents, of course; what child doesn't? However, he also very much enjoyed giving them to others. He loved to see people's faces when they opened their gifts. It was another magical thing about this time of year. He rarely saw anyone unhappy around Christmas and he never saw anyone unhappy when they opened a present.
Being very young, the boy didn't have much money. He received an allowance, but only one dollar. He had already bought presents for his mother and father. For his mother, it was some cheap perfume. For his father, it was some cheap cigars.
(Realize that when I say "cheap", I don't mean to imply that the boy had gone out of his way to buy inexpensive and shoddy presents. He hadn't. He had lovingly picked them out, albeit within his modest budget. The cigars and perfume were cheap, though. Being a young boy, he had no appreciation of perfume and thought they all smelled pretty much alike - stinky. He also had no idea that some cigars, when lit, smell like innertubes burning. However, these had come in a package with a big white owl on the front, and he did know that his dad liked owls.)
He had ten cents leftover from his original dollar, which will give you an idea of the value of the cigars and perfume. In any case, he now wanted to buy a present for his aunt.
His aunt was the older relative closest in age to the boy. She was around 19 or 20. She had lived with the boy and his parents for a short while when the boy was much younger. They had grown very close during this time. She was close enough in age to have been the boy's older sister and, in some ways, that's what the boy thought of her as.
The boy reached the main street. The store was on the other side, so he pressed the button that made the light red to stop the traffic. He loved how even the traffic lights joined in with the season, flashing red and green and yellow just like the lights on a Christmas tree. He looked both ways and then crossed the street.
He walked through the parking lot of the store, again noticing how people were so much happier this time of year. Everybody had a cheery "Hello!" for the people they met. As he entered the store through the automatic door (how did it know?) he heard Christmas music playing over the store's speakers.
He felt great. He was in love with the world.
Now he had to find a present for his aunt. He hadn't really given thought about this part of the task. He just assumed that he'd be able to find something nice. After all, a dime would buy a comic book, or two candy bars, or even twenty of those 2-for-1 Mint Julep candies. Certainly he'd be able to find something his aunt would love.
What sorts of thoughts go through the mind of a small boy? Many and varied, of course, but some are unfathomable. As he was walking down one of the aisles, he spotted something very colorful and pretty. He had always liked how these things looked. They were useful, too. And, when he checked the price, it was ten cents - just right! This is what he would get his aunt for Christmas.
He brought the gift up to the checkout and paid for it. Now there was nothing to jingle in his pockets, but that was OK. His Christmas shopping was done.
He made his way back home, enjoying the big colored lights that were on just about every house in the neighborhood, again catching (or trying to catch) snowflakes in his mouth.
When he got home, he took off his boots (which was always troublesome – he always seemed to leave one sock inside of a boot) and then ran upstairs to his room, to wrap this newest gift.
He was an only child. He spent many hours by himself, in his room, and he very much enjoyed that privacy. He didn’t dislike other people - far from it, in fact - but he did enjoy dreaming and using his imagination. He discovered early on that it’s almost impossible to dream when someone else is in your room. Someone else almost always wants to talk, and you can’t carry on a decent conversation with someone else and dream at the same time. Anyway, as a result of spending much time alone, he became fairly self-sufficient.
(Whenever anyone asked him if he wouldn’t rather have a brother or sister, he would firmly say, “No!” and he hoped that the people asking him these questions would see to it that the proper authorities – whoever was in charge of bringing brothers and sisters – did not make any deliveries to his house.)
Being such a self-sufficient boy, he mostly wrapped his own presents. He had already wrapped all of his other gifts for family. Many of his relatives got handmade gifts of one sort or another. For instance, every year since he was able to handle crayons, he had made his grandfather a hand-drawn calendar, which his grandfather treasured receiving. Now, he wrapped the gift for his aunt in colorful paper, once again admiring how colorful the gift was, too.
That night, Christmas Eve, he did what most Christian boys and girls try to do. Almost immediately after dinner, he went to bed. He tried to go to sleep at an abnormally early hour, hoping to thus wake up sooner and make Christmas come quicker. Before going to bed, he hung his stocking on his bedroom door (since there were no chimney or fireplace in his house.) He turned on the little transistor radio he had received as a gift on his last birthday and searched out a station playing Christmas music. In those days of his youth, it seemed the only time they ever played Christmas music on the radio was starting on Christmas Eve and he loved hearing all of the songs he heard (and loved) a year ago. His favorite was “Silver Bells”, and they played it not long after he lay down, much to his delight. Slowly, to the strains of “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, he drifted off to sleep.
(A curious thing about being a boy is that sometimes you can will yourself to dream what you want to dream. Not always, of course, but sometimes. You might think it an odd thing to dream, but the boy had dreamed of Yogi Bear and Huckleberry Hound every Christmas Eve [that is, every one in the memory of his short life] and he hoped that he’d have that same dream again this night, as it was great fun running around with cartoon characters. He did.)
Since he had gone to bed so early, he awoke at 3 am. He got up to go to the bathroom, but when he opened his door, he felt the heaviness of a full stocking on the other side of it, so thoughts of peeing suddenly took a backseat to seeing what Santa had left. He gently took out the tack that was holding the stocking to the door, making doubly sure he had a firm grip on the stocking and it wouldn’t fall on the hall floor (in case there was anything in it that might break) and he took it back to his bed, flipping on the bedroom light switch as he did so.
He wasn’t a greedy sort of a boy and so he didn’t just dump everything out on the bed in one fell swoop. Instead, he took the items out one at a time and carefully, lovingly, examined them. There were candy cigarettes with little bits of red food coloring on the ends to simulate their being lit; a set of jacks with a small rubber ball; a wind-up dog that did backflips until there wasn’t enough wind-up left (so then it landed on its head); a pinkie ball (great for three-flies-out on the front steps); one of those puzzles that you have to move around the pieces until you get it to read 1 through 15 in order; and a pencil with his very own name engraved on it! He attempted to solve the puzzle for a little bit, but then he remembered that he had to pee, so he did.
(He went to the bathroom to do so.)
After washing his hands and brushing his teeth, he went downstairs and plugged in the Christmas tree. He considered a Christmas tree the most beautiful thing on earth, and this one was filled with enormous colored lights, ornaments of all shapes and sizes, big handfuls of tinsel on every branch, and a long garland of popcorn (which he and his mother had strung one evening last week.) Topping it off was a white star with a red bulb inside it. He sat down on the floor and just stared at the tree for ten minutes, bathing in its warmth, both real (from the gigantic lights) and metaphysical.
He probably would have stared at it a bit longer, but his cat came along and started playing with one of the low-hanging ornaments and that broke him out of his reverie. He loved the cat very much and he loved watching her play - even more than he liked looking at the tree. After she failed to defeat the ornament - it still hung on the branch and she now wriggled on her back, enjoying the pine needles that had fallen - he went out to the kitchen and opened a can of cat food. Hearing the opener whirr, she came running like a shot - for a cat will take food over ornaments, every time (thus proving, once again, their innate intelligence.)
The boy poured himself a glass of milk and added some chocolate to it. He then took this back upstairs, drank it while eating a candy cigarette, and went back to sleep, listening to “The Little Drummer Boy” and imagining himself a poor boy playing drums for Jesus. The cat came upstairs and joined him in sleep, though what she dreamed of remains a mystery.
When he awoke again, it was 7am and his mother and father were also awake. They all went downstairs and opened presents, enjoying some cocoa while they did so. The boy received wonderful presents of games and toys, as well as a couple of shirts and such that he knew he should be more thankful for than he was. The cat received a catnip mouse (from Sandy Claws) and was very thankful for it. The parents exchanged gifts with each other and were thankful for those, and they received the stinky perfume and the smelly cigars with warmth at the thought behind them.
Now it was time for mass, after which the family would head over to the aunt’s to exchange gifts, before heading off to the house of the boy's grandparents.
Mass was as mass usually is – something which cats are thankful not to have to attend. It wasn’t that the boy didn’t want to wish Jesus a happy birthday and all – he really loved the bible stories very much, and he admired to no end someone who would lay down his own life for that of his friends – but the priest saying the mass this morning just went on and on and on and on. Even though he had slept close to ten hours, the boy could feel his eyes drooping as the interminable homily crept, s-l-o-w-l-y, towards a conclusion that had stopped being meaningful to all but the most die-hard some ten minutes before. Finally, after the homily died its excruciating death and communion was served, and after everyone had sung a rousing “Joy To The World”, it was time to get on the road and go exchange presents with other family members. After a 15-minute drive, the boy and his parents arrived at the aunt’s house.
They went inside to a warm welcome from the aunt and the rest of her family gathered there, which included a few other adults and a couple of infants, the boy's cousins. After a few minutes of small talk (mostly complaints from the boy’s father concerning the length of the homily at mass) it was time to open presents.
The boy watched with delight as everybody opened packages and smiled. Here was the magic again. Everyone oohed and aahed in the appropriate places as they received the presents that others had purchased for them. And now, his aunt had his gift in her hands and she carefully removed the wrapping paper, revealing the gift for all to see.
There were some smiles. Not that the boy noticed, but there were also a couple of glances exchanged by the grown-ups with some muffled laughter included. The aunt regarded her gift and looked lovingly at the boy. He looked back at her with love in his heart.
She said, “Oh, Jimmy, they’re just what I needed! Thank you, darling!”
She reached over and kissed him. He blushed and said, “You’re welcome.”
Never before had a package of red and green kitchen sponges brought such joy to two people.
My Auntie Ba could have laughed at such a ridiculous gift. Some of the other adults might have joined in and then I would have been mortified. Instead, she taught me a marvelous lesson that Christmas, and she did so just by being her wonderful loving self. She taught me that there is no such thing as a bad gift, so long as there is love behind the giving of it.
My Christmas wish for all of you is that the gifts you give, whether large or small or precious or ludicrous (like sponges) be received as lovingly. My Christmas request to all of you is that you receive with love every gift given you. You never know how profoundly your love might affect someone.
My Auntie Ba is gone now, and I miss her, but her spirit lives on with me every Christmas because of the love she showed a well-meaning boy and his silly gift.