Presents or Presence?

December 15, 2011

The rush is on to buy gifts and goodies to celebrate the season of lights, American style. I’ve made a few purchases, including one gift that I can’t wait to give, but I’m also trying something new this year: if I can’t come up with a meaningful item for someone, I’m giving them the gift of my presence. I’m offering lunch and movie and afternoon tea dates to people I love and inviting them to cash in when it suits them. Otherwise, I’d be handing them something from a sense of obligation, and isn’t this the season to be jolly?

For me, there’s nothing merry about fighting traffic and crowds to buy gifts that may not be appreciated. And there’s no joy in spending money if it increases our debt load instead of someone’s pleasure. I’m lucky I have no kids, because it would make me crazy to buy toys that they might cast aside by New Year’s Eve. I myself can only remember a handful of the gifts that I received as a kid, and one of my best childhood Christmas memories has nothing to do with anything from a store, excepting the grocery aisle…

When I was eight years old, my father moved our family to Cape Cod to start his own business. Recently laid off from a town job in New Jersey, Dad wanted to be his own boss in the place where he’d grown up. Because this meant uprooting my two brothers and me from our friends, schools, and cousins, we protested. But the relocation was especially hard on Mom, as it placed her hours away from her mother and sisters for the first time in her life. Adding insult to injury, several precious things broke on the moving van, including our Christmas tree ornaments.

We landed on the Cape in September, and my brothers and I spent the fall trying to like our new classmates, neighbors, and the children of Dad’s old buddies with the funny accents. Mom had a harder time than we kids did, having no school or neighborhood games to supply her with new pals. On top of that, we were broke, which often meant relying on what Dad fished out of the sea for dinner. The problem with that plan?  My brothers and I had eaten no seafood up to that point beyond canned tuna and processed fish sticks coated with enough breading to render them tasteless. On Cape Cod, of all places, we consistently turned up our noses at clams, scallops, mussels, and the most dreaded creature of all…bluefish.

Mom, bless her culinary heart, tried all kinds of ways and recipes to make the stuff palatable to us, but still we refused to eat it. Our resistance was extreme. One night my baby brother, prohibited from spitting out a scallop at dinner, kept it wedged in his cheek rather than swallow it. My parents discovered the deed when they caught him brushing his teeth with a chipmunk-style bulge in his face. Mom gave up the battle at that point, and we kids had pancakes or macaroni and cheese on the nights when my parents ate seafood.

As fall approached winter and money remained elusive, Mom’s spirits grew as grey as the skies. She was lonely for her own mother and sisters, and Dad was spending a lot of time outside the home networking for his new business.  Christmas was looming, and gifts were not in the budget. Suddenly a woman nicknamed Happy was feeling anything but.

So I was surprised to come home from school one mild December day and find Mom out back, assembling an impromptu craft station on the picnic table. “We lost our ornaments,” she proclaimed, “so we’re gonna make our own this year.” Mom had spray paint and glitter all ready to adorn the unlikeliest of decorations—soup can lids. She’d spent the morning removing the lids, and waited for us kids to arrive before cutting them with tin snips into stars, bells, angels and trees. My brothers and I got to choose our shapes and decorate them as we laughed, sang carols, told tales, and basked in Mom’s renewed cheer. That December afternoon at the picnic table was more memorable than most Christmases.

To this day, my brothers and I fondly recall our “poor folks” Christmas as we point out the few surviving ornaments on our parents’ tree. Primitive, yet crafted with love and hope, they are more precious than the shiny new ones. I recall that ornament making party as a glowing example of my mother’s creativity, resilience, and ability to bring love and light to our days no matter how dark her own were. Saddled with three kids, persistent migraines, various part-time jobs and a business to co-manage, Mom didn’t have room to explore her passions during my childhood. But she was always up for fun, and she could turn tin cans into angels.

What kind of memories will you give yourself and others this year?  Hopefully the kind that’ll last longer than the warranty on an iSomething. As for Mom and I, we’re going to take in a Rockettes show, which should be a kick (pun completely intended).

Happy Holidays. Let’s celebrate the light in each other, which is what this season’s really about. And if you need a reminder, spend four minutes with these creative Alaskans who are bringing joy to their world.


  • Cynthia

    There are so many ways to rspond to this, but I choose one that vibrates with your strings of mom, Christmas, craft. My mother was a great cook, with a lot of joie de vivre, but not a gardener, seamstress or crafter. So, I have none of those skills. Altho I’ve tried. Knitted scarves for my brothers that curled at the edges. Baby sweaters left on the needles and moved from place to place too many times to remember, until abandoned. Failed attempts at mosaic-making, still carting around bags of broken crockery. Since moving to Oregon, I’ve been a bit more successful with jam-, chutney- and, this year, cordial-making. But one Christmas, spent at my brother’s house in Virginia Beach and frought with tension because of the selfish woman he’d chosen as his companion, we decided to string together popcorn and cranberries. It took a long time, too long it seemed most of the time, but Marge was game and despite lots of needle-pricked fingers staining the thread a bit redder than it should have been, it was completed. We had several yards of jaunty trim, alternating yellowy white and red, pleasing in nature’s irregularity with the memory of salt and juice and a house that smelled of popcorn. We draped the tree with swagger, overcoming the bitterness of my brother’s relational strife.

    I don’t immediately recall the year. But I do remember that, looking back at the photos from that holiday, my mom looked decidely unwell. We didn’t know it then, but she already had lung cancer. It was diagnosed in June 1984; she had surgery that year, radiation the next. And she died from the disease 17 years later. On December 28, 2001.

    Thanks, Kim, for prompting me to remember. Bittersweet and malancholia always underlie the joy of Christmas, once you’ve lived a few years.

  • Elizabeth

    Dear Pilgrim:

    This year has diverted me onto a new path similar to the one you describe in your family Christmas story. After several nights of tears and heartache as we wandered into the Christmas season with all old traditions lost, my 12-yr old twin daughters and I bought cookie cutters and decorating supplies, and spent two nights with holiday music making new home made ornaments for our first Christmas. We are a smaller new family together. A bit financially “poorer”. A bit more isolated.

    Your story is especially poignant for me this year, as I battle the downward grief of sentimental loss and the rebirth of newly created traditions. Thank you for your synchronous seasonal memory. With warm wishes —

  • Debbie

    Lovely, Kim. I especially like the image of your brother cheeking the scallop. You can’t make up these things! May you have a serene and bountiful Christmas surrounded by friends and loved ones.

  • Linda Shoemaker

    Thank you Kim, this is wonderful, such a great reminder about what’s really important beneath all the hustle and bustle of this season. We’ve decided to go very simple this year & it’s such a relief! All the best to you & yours…LS

  • Jeanine

    Beautiful story! I completely agree.. for years I have both given and requested experiences rather than objects. “Things” while sometimes thoughtful can just add to the clutter, whereas outings and shared activities create new memories with the best gift money can’t buy: time and care. Thanks for the reminder, Kim!

  • Dina

    We are giving ourselves the luxury of not rushing around Christmas morning to get in the car and drive two hours to enjoy someone else’s food and tree. As much as we feel blessed to have such options and spend time with extended family, it will be a treat this year simply spend time with my husband and kids, sipping coffee and eating fresh oranges and a homemade coffee roll and being grateful for what we have.

  • Eric Volkin

    Dearest Kim, that was so beautiful. Your story brought me joy and hope. Words seem to be escaping me at the moment, but have a feeling of warmth, and some lost innocence returning. Thank you so much for being you, for your presence is invaluable. Wishing you and Laye lots of light, love, peace and happiness.

  • Herb Pearce

    I loved your story. I grew up in a poor family and we often didn’t have too many presents. I loved simple things. My favorite gift was a red camera I got when I was 12. Probably cost $5 back then and I took pictures with it for years. I ended up going to photography school in my 20s. I ended up being a psychotherapist but it was a close call.

    Being poor was helpful as I became an entrepreneur by age 10 making money digging gardens, selling greeting cards, cutting grass, delivering things, being a newspaper boy, etc. and I’m still doing things like that to make money besides being an author and workshop teacher. It’s fun having obstacles to solve by being creative and serving others’ needs.

    For Christmas, I made a special bird collage last year from bird calenders for a dear friend of mine who I bird-watch with. It was a blast to make and she treasures it. I often will give people options of going on a personally guided plant walk or singing a song to them or attending an event together, etc. It’s fun to be creative and putting some energy into thinking about a particular person and what they would like.

    Thanks Kim. I’m a fan of your blog and you too!

  • Hope Tripp

    Thank you for reminding us about the true meaning of Christmas. This is a special Christmas for my son and grandchildren, as it is the first one that they will celebrate as a “newly divorced “family. My son decided that he was going to make this Christmas a warm and fuzzy holiday season for his three children. He did this simply by having his fire place re-opened.
    Opening the gifts on Christmas morning in front of a fire was something that he, his then wife, his children and I did every Christmas morning. This was before he became a C5 quadriplegic and is now unable to build the fire himself. A new holiday tradition has begun; he now has his children build and light the fireplace on the weekends! They get so much pleasure and joy out of lighting the fireplace and will often just lie on the floor and watch the flames. This time with their dad is something they will remember forever.

  • bruce

    Gosh, Kim. Brings back lots of memories in the Childs’ homestead on Main Street, where your dad and I grew up, without the memory of our dad, Jack (maybe Peter had some memories, not sure). However, speaking for myself, I’ve very clear memories of Mom’s efforts to make the best of Christmas in a poor household. I remind myself of how hard it must have been for Mom to have endured the hardships of making it a better place in the world for my 4 brothers and sister Mary. She never really complained. Even as a kid I was drawn to her very special strengths of spirituality and hopefulness.
    Two special Christmas tree stories I remember in early childhood: Felix and Bobby, maybe other brothers and I piled into the family sedan with one of the numerous dogs to hunt down and cut a Christmas tree in some public/private woods near Centerville. What I remember was not being able to go with them in the forest to cut the tree, a disappointment for my young heart, which was also filled with joy at the very notion of having the fresh smell of pine needles in the house for a period of holiday cheer, maybe until after New Years! Second memory is of Grandpa Daley, years later, procuring a tree so tall that he had to cut and splice the tip so as to get the marvelous portion of forest into the living room. What joy in seeing Gramp gifting the family he had recently joined with sheer pleasure of a gleaming, fresh smelling pine tree, which everyone ceremoniously decorated with the traditional ornaments (and lots and lots of silver and gold streamers). Your dad, in a conversation about recent good fortune in our lives, recounted how we actually never knew just how poor we were in the 40’s and 50’s. I couldn’t agree more.
    I also remember with a big heart how my brothers and sister set me up for Santa’s visit by placing a quart of Pepsi and glasses on the dining room table, in front of the fireplace, for Santa on Christmas Eve. Even though I rarely drink a soda these days, Pepsi became a symbol of playful deceit and a very happy holiday moment, upon seeing the empty bottle and glasses that Christmas morning.
    Perhaps because we were poor, but surrounded by “wealthier” uncles, aunts and cousins growing up in the Village, I saw early on that spirit was and is more important than things (ithings). To this day I too avoid the scramble to consume in the name of all that is holy at Christmastime. Instead, I look forward to the beautiful traditions of New Mexican luminarias (now a universal phenomenon) and the smell of Pinon burning in fireplaces throughout the city of Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
    A few years ago I flew to NYC from Tennessee to take a good Swiss friend who was in residence there to a performance of Handel’s Messiah. I then spent time in Brooklyn with my Jewish friends. What a beautiful Christmas that was. I will find sacred music here, as well.
    The magic of Christmas stays with this fall-away Catholic, but the good memories enable me to stay in touch with Mom and her pure, unselfish love of her brood. It’s amazing to me that she raised all six children, including your Dad and me, alone and with little friend from her friends, for over 20 years. Mom never drove a car, worked multiple jobs, fought off cancer to the end and left one beautiful legacy, including you, your family and so many lessons learned in tough and in good times. The real gift is in giving of one’s inner essence. Money helps some. You know what? I’m going to go out and dig up the Christmas lights in my garage. You have inspired me to light up, to reflect upon those childhood memories!

  • Maria Elena

    Another great one, chica. That Hallelujah Chorus was a high school flashback. Used to sing the alto part with Ine. Hope your Xmas is super fun and cozy. MEV

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