Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Gift



[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.

******************************************************************

True story.

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.

Merry Christmas!

34 comments:

Ami said...

So sweet. A reminder that when you're with a small one, EVERYTHING you do means you're handling their heart. And it's delicate and loving and feels everything so much more than a scarred and tough old grownup heart.

joeh said...

Great story, but now I have to go and make up with the two toddlers that I yelled at because they were interrupting my reading of it.

THEY'LL BE OK SO DON'T FEEL BAD,

Merry Christmas!

Daryl E said...

i love this story .. its would make a better movie than A Christmas Story which personally i found to be MEH ..

OldAFSarge said...

Okay Suldog, I have a bone to pick with you. Here I am, a grown man, at work, drinking my coffee and reading this post and now trying to hunker down behind my monitor so that the others in the lab don't notice the tears in my eyes. Yeah, man, this post was so absolutely, breathtakingly, awesome and beautiful that it brought tears to my eyes. It. Was. That. Good.

This story sings to me of Christmas and what it really means. You also took me back to my childhood with all of its wonderful and cherished memories. I can't thank you enough for that. You're an awesome story-teller my friend. Thank you and thank you again.

Even though you made me tear up at work. Ah well, I can always claim there's dust in the air.

Merry Christmas to you and yours, Suldog. May God bless you always!

Hilary said...

One of my all time favourites. I think this is the third, and possibly the fourth time reading it and I love it more every year.

OldAFSarge said...

PS I loved this story so much I linked to it from my blog. Hoping that others will come here, read and enjoy and perhaps be comforted. As I was. Thanks again Suldog.

Jackie said...

I commented and it disappeared. Is that a sign that less is more?
Your Auntie Ba was a lovely woman, Jim. I love the love written about here, and this story is among my all-time favorites for sure.
I agree with Daryl: this would make a better Christmas movie than "The Christmas Story."
The boy with a kind and gentle heart grew up to be a man with he same qualities.
Merry Christmas, my friend.

Jackie said...

* the *

Tabor said...

But it was a wonderful gift. Given in the true spirit of Christmas. I can see why she did not laugh.

Craig said...

Ah, yes. . . Wonderful story, Jim. I think this is (at least) my third time thru it, and I still get a catch in my throat. Wonderful, wonderful stuff. Thanks.

Stephen Hayes said...

This is the first time I've read this story and it really contains the magic and spirit of Christmas...as it ought to be. Thanks for sharing this well-written story.

Michelle H. said...

I remember reading this story many times that I can picture everyone. A lovely story. I do wish that your Christmas is a great one.

Buck Pennington said...

Still classic, still brilliant... and attracting new fans, I see.

Joanne Noragon said...

Lovely. I like to think the world is made up of Auntie Beas who love seven year old nephews.

Uncle Skip, said...

You know that post you wrote, "It's Not Really Christmas Until I See"?

It's really Christmas now because I've seen it.
I think I mentioned this story kinda reminds me of an O Henry story.

It's that good.

Kat said...

Oh I just love this story. I loved it the first time I read it and I loved it again now. And oh how I love your Aunt Ba. Love.
Thank you for reposting this story. :)

Lady Di Tn said...

I came over by way of Teachers Pet and glad to have traveled through blog land to find a story that signifies "Love is the best present of all." Thanks for sharing. Peace

Barbara Shallue said...

One of my favorites, Jim. What a sweet soul your Aunt Ba, was, and obviously she understood what Christmas giving is all about.

Lew said...

Beautiful story, well told! and your Auntie Ba is up there still smiling down on you!

Juli said...

SO incredibly awesome. Merry Christmas.

Lora said...

I resisted the urge to just scroll down and see what the gift was, and read the while story. So sweet!! And such a great lesson for everyone.

messymimi said...

You've made me smile, and i hope you have a blessed and beautiful Christmas season.

IT (aka Ivan Toblog) said...

Found myself a "public" computer nobody else wanted to use
Thought I'd catch up
Your reruns are always worth rereading
Merry Christmas to you and YOUR WIFE

Juli said...

OH! And as for your comment at my place, not Watertown, sorry. I'm a So. Shore girl, Plymouth. I try and be vague so the kids have some anonymity. Thanks for the place of honor. :) Enjoy whatever gifts the season brings your way!

lime said...

this is always one of my favorite stories. a gift given in love and received in just the same spirit. isn't that how it should be? merry christmas to you and YOUR WIFE. wishing you both much love.

Ruby said...

Merry Christmas to you and your family Suldog!!!

Joan said...

Perfect now and when I first read this.
Happy Holiday's to you!

Shammickite said...

I remember the year that I bought my mother a yellow hand towel, and my father an orange hand towel. And I spent hours and hours agonising on which colour to give to which parent! And they loved the presents! I've been a very naughty blogger just recently, what with my internet going horribly wrong and then as soon as it was fixed, the Christmas Variety Show kept me busy and now all the Christmas prep.... however I promise to be better in the future. So Have a Happy Christmas and all the best for 2013!

MMC said...

Suldog, it's the first time I've dropped by your blog (courtesy of the Lexicans) and I must say two things: first, a beautiful, sweet Christmas story; second, the writer truly has the gift of being a master story-teller (reminded me a bit of the writing a mutual friend and that is about the highest compliment I can bestow). Merry Christmas, sir!

Suldog said...

It's about two minutes to Midnight as I write this. Thanks to all - your kind words are the best gift of all. Merry Christmas!

sandyland said...

Seriously it's the love with which its given I just opened gifts from my students reindeer socks, mugs. I can see the gleam in their eyes as they open them

Buck Pennington said...

Merry Christmas to you and yours, Jim.

Jeni said...

I loved this story the first time I read it and each time I reread it, I find myself loving it all over again but just more! It makes me realize you write unafraid to show how sentimental you are and I think that is something that makes your stuff even more enjoyable. Never lose that gift!

The Geezers said...

Delightful piece. You have a talent, for sure.