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.