I've always been a little funny -- I mean funny peculiar, not funny ha-ha -- about Christmas gifts. My mother would tell me to make a list for Santa, and I'd spend three days on it, belly down on our orange shag carpet with the Sears Wish Book in front of me, a ream of paper and some brightly colored markers. She often laughed out loud when I gave her the list; there, in my careful lettering, was what resembled an order form rather than a wish list. "Page 37-- Item D -- Honey Hill Bunch Dolls -- 'I.Q.' -- Fully rooted hair -- $2.95 -- Note: This is the Asian one. I already have the blonde one." Or "Page 74 --Item K -- Spirograph --Hasbro -- $6.95 (make sure it's the new one, not the old one)." I even drew a little box around the letters, exactly as they appeared in the catalog.
I apparently had some trust issues with Santa. Which actually isn't so surprising, given my eighth birthday, when my parents (I must have suspected the connection) bought me a bike, except I didn't know about the bike. They made a big deal out of my final present, my big present, the present that had been sitting on the coffee table the whole time. The present, which, when I opened it, was three Presto Logs (and unbeknownst to me, a note from my parents explaining that my real gift was in the hall). I remember sitting there, trying to smile politely while inside I was screeching "Presto Logs??? Presto Logs???"
I think it was my grandmother who realized something was wrong and said, "Honey, look in the bottom of the box. Isn't there a note there?" It turned out okay and now it's a funny family story, but I'll never forget that sense of confused hurt, and worse, feeling like I had to pretend I was thrilled with my Presto Logs.
My entire family, in fact, has been hit-and-miss with gifts. I remember the year my dad, an avid hunter, opened his present from my out-of-town aunt, a craft fair devotee. "What is it?" he asked my mom, his leathery forehead wrinkled in bewilderment. He held it up and we all stared at the thing, which looked like a ring of feathers plucked from the neck, wings, head, chest and tail of a pheasant. "It's a mirror with a bunch of pheasant feathers around it," my mom answered. "Jesus," my dad said, shaking his head and putting it aside.
The funniest thing about that gift was that my aunt must have felt like she'd made a Christmas gift coup. I could just picture her at the craft fair in October, holding it up and thinking, "Ohhhh, Earl would love this."
But last-minute gifts at our house were also their own special brand of oddness. My sister and my future brother-in-law invented the "truck stop Christmas" tradition, which stemmed from Chris putting off shopping until literally the last minute and having to wander the aisles of a truck stop looking for the less-than-perfect gift. He finally settled on the humor potential of the worst porno mag and the worst processed food product he could find. Wrapped in a big red bow, my sister had to admit that a can of squeeze cheese and a box of Ritz, when combined with the poor photography and even worse storylines of bad porn, makes a pretty hilarious gift. Still, I was glad it wasn't my gift.
My pickiness about gifts lasted well into my mid-20s. I had very specific ideas about what I wanted and would be disappointed for days if someone got me anything tacky, poorly made or common. "Don't they get it?" I would silently fume at 20, opening a box of glasses imprinted with the California Raisins. I needed glassware for my apartment, something funky and beautiful that you had to drive to Pier One to get. It wasn't like I had expensive taste, but I wanted things to look a certain way. If someone knew this and went to the trouble to get me just what I wanted, I felt loved, appreciated and known. But nooooo, I was stuck with the damn raisins.
By the time I hit my 30s, I realized that a
que sera, sera attitude and a healthy
sense of humor were the best way to deal
with not only presents, but the whole Christmas thing in general. Still, something happened last year that made me rethink even the sense-of-humor approach. It was late afternoon on Christmas Day and we were all hanging out in my grandmother's living room, long since finished with opening presents and now sedated by prime rib and repeated plyings of red wine. The room was a little too warm, and the dogs, all shih-tsus, were underfoot, their dog tags punctuating the conversation with eager little jinglings. I was between my mom and my uncle on the sofa, "shooting the shit" as my uncle would have said. He was telling us about the morons at his old City of Pullman job and how much he liked the new job, eight miles away in Moscow. My mom and I were laughing, chilled out with our glasses of wine and enjoying the lazy afternoon.
Across the room my grandmother chitchatted with my aunt. My grandmother is small. She weighs roughly 100 pounds and buys her shoes in the children's department. I was sure it was nervous energy that kept her thin; she's the kind of person who always knows exactly where the neighbors are and what they're doing. She once told me she didn't like reading because it made her "jumpy." Her house has never been subjected to dust or cobwebs.
I continued listening to the familiar cadences of my mom and my uncle talking. It comforted me to listen to these voices I've known my entire life, and we were in the middle of one of my uncle's exaggerated, irreverent stories when my grandmother came right up to us, too close really, and said, "I want to show you something." Blinking in surprise, we all paused and looked up.
Grandma had a knife in her hand, a medium-length, precise blade. In her other hand, she had a piece of notebook paper. "Watch this," she said, bringing the knife cleanly down the page in an S-shaped cut. My mom started to laugh, unsure what else to do. "Mom, why don't you sit down? You've been up taking care of us all day," she said, patting the sofa. My grandmother didn't seem to hear her, so focused was she on demonstrating the knife's considerable prowess. I looked at mom and she shrugged, shaking her head, as if to say, "What can you do?"
Grandma turned her pitch to my uncle. "There was a man at Wal-Mart demo-ing these the other day," Grandma told him, proudly holding the knife out for inspection. As she leaned forward I caught a whiff of her cigarette smoke. Her foundation, always three shades darker than what she needed, looked heavy and damp. "That's some knife, Mom," my uncle observed, being nice but wanting to get back to his story. "Look at the craftsmanship of the handle, and how shiny that blade is," my grandmother exhorted. "And wait till you see this." She fumbled for a minute, looking for something. "Oh, I forgot the tomato."
Grandma went into the kitchen for a tomato. I knew what was coming next and I felt giggles rising up in me like carbonation.
"The amazing ginsu knife will cut through anything," I intoned. "Tomatoes, acorn squash, books, cinderblocks, conversation..."
I was gratified by the sudden explosions of laughter from my mom and my uncle, but looking up, it hit me -- Grandma had heard. She glanced at us without seeing, her tiny permed curls seeming to vibrate like antennae. I heard the collar of one of the dogs jingle. It was in that precise and irrevocable moment that I realized it: I am an asshole. Grandma pressed her lips together and went into the kitchen. She returned with three wrapped packages, which she tossed into our laps.
"Here then, if you have to make fun," she said. I knew before my uncle could even get the paper off his that they were the exact same knives. Too late, I realized what she'd been trying to do. The oldest person at our family gatherings, widowed for 15 years, she'd found herself on the outskirts where once she'd been in the middle. I could see her at Wal-Mart, watching the demo guy slice through paper and then turn and use the same knife to section a tomato neatly. He would have no doubt been surrounded by a smallish, appreciative crowd.
What killed me is how she must have felt that tiny surge of excitement, that realization that she could not only get these knives for us, but she could stage the giving. Why put them under the tree when you could demonstrate, just like the Wal-Mart man, what it could do. While we were marveling at it, perhaps coveting it, she would continue with her demo, knowing that she had a nice surprise for each of us.
That moment changed me about gifts. I drove home remembering the lame gifts I've given people who were kind enough to appreciate them anyway. I finally got that it's
not about what you want so much as it is
about appreciating the giver. My old attitudes, my old needy insistence on getting exactly what I want, seem wrong -- too glittery, sharp and unnecessary, like a fancy knife in the back of a drawer.