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The best gift I’ve received in the last few years was a small wooden box, fashioned by hand, and containing a number of carefully selected small objects each with a personal meaning. It has no commercial value. It is a gift of the hand that is filled with the heart. I keep it nearby in my home and, from time to time, I open it and take out each object and hold them briefly before putting them back in their box and the box back on the shelf.

In another time and in another place I once saw the most Christmas gifts I’ve ever seen in a single home. It was in a place where the hands had gone astray and the heart been misplaced. It was the struggle of quantity to overcome quality made manifest.

It was at a home of some people I once knew in a town I once lived in. They had the required large house of many rooms. As a family of four they had about five rooms for every person. It was a house they could all hide in and they did. They hid from each other and they hid all year. On Christmas, however, they came out and pretended they were still a family.

The tree was set up in what these days we call “the family room” even though the room was really just a pass-through for the other rooms. The tree was, as these things had to be in that land at that time, very large and professionally decorated in whatever theme was deemed to be “in” that year. The star at the tip touched and was bent down by the ceiling. The ornaments were so thick that they obscured the green boughs that supported them. The lights were so numerous that the whole tree could have been hauled out and found a place among the approach lights to an airport.

It was good it was a big tree since it needed to be strong to support the wild pile of gifts that started where the two stairs down into the sunken family room bottomed out. The gifts then rose, in a tumult of wrapping paper, in a riot of colored ribbons, to a level of at least two and a half feet by the time they reached the outer boughs. For the family of four there were literally hundreds of presents all wrapped and tossed into the room like some third-world garbage heap until they filled the family room corner to corner.

To pass through this room you had to step carefully along the edges and most people who’d come to the party just went down the adjoining hallway.

In the larger rooms on that day before Christmas the family of four was holding their party for their friends and acquaintances. At that time and in that land the people attending still had lots of young children and their laughter and chatter gave a nice Christmasesque soundtrack to the drinking and eating that went on and on and on.

Our hosts were, to say the least, not getting along that year. Alcohol was taking its toll on the couple, as were the standard infidelities and betrayals common to that set in that land at that time. The hosts tried to put their war into a state of truce on this day so they could pretend, for a little longer, that everything was picture perfect in their world. But as the drinks kicked in their bickering became more and more bitter and I finally sought refuge from the ill spirits and moved off into the house.

I stood at one entrance to the tree/gift room and looked out the window over the mound of presents at the softly falling snow that filled their yard and pool. The winking lights of the tree and the Manheim Steamroller Christmas music coming out of the hidden speakers gave me a moment of Christmas feeling. Angry voices rose for a moment from the far room and then faded.

One of their boys, driven from the room by his parents’ rancor, showed up at the other entrance of the room and looked out over the massive pile of presents. He was a good kid. About four years old and less than three feet high. Red headed and freckled. A Norman Rockwell of a boy. I smiled at him and he smiled at me and then took a step down the first of the two stairs into the gift room.

And tripped.

And disappeared.

Before I could move that kid pitched forward into the gift pile and, with a swoosh and a crunch, was gone.

There were so many gifts piled up that they literally swallowed up the child so that the child could not be seen. He’d vanished beneath the waves of wrapping paper and bows.

After a moment his head popped up like a drowning child in a sea of turbulent affluence and he literally began to make crawling and swimming motions to get himself back to the safety of the stairs. There he climbed out, stood up and glanced at me ashamed by something he didn’t understand.

“Looks like you’re going to have a very big Christmas,” I said.

He looked out at the presents that contained at least a hundred with his name on them.

“I guess” he said.

“I dunno,” he said.

Then he went back to the party and back to his parents, The Bickersons.

I had a similar but much smaller Christmas that year in that lost land of long ago. But it was, for that year, a good Christmas.

As for The Bickersons, their marriage and family was finished by late spring of that year. It had gone off to the same landfill that today contains all those hundreds of gifts. It couldn’t, I guess, take the weight. I dunno.

I treasure few things in this world but I do treasure my small burled wooden box containing the things of the hand and the things of the heart. I know where that gift is and what that gift is. And it abides.

Alert the Authorities!

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  • ghostsniper December 25, 2017, 1:16 PM

    Ahhh yeah, forgot about this one. Another of my favorites.
    One of these days I’m gonna start “stealing” these, my favorites, and get one of my wife’s publisher buddies to put them all together in a coffee table book format. It’ll be titled “AMDIG” and it will have a picture of GVL right in the middle and submitted headshots of all the regular readers all around him.

  • Mary Ann December 25, 2017, 1:20 PM

    Thank you for reposting this. I think about it every Christmas. We had our own version of this experience 20 years ago or so. It refocused our approach to Christmas and what was valuable and to be treasured and what was filler. Merry Christmas to you and yours Gerard.

  • Sam L. December 25, 2017, 6:05 PM

    I remember this one, too. A classic. You write good, Gerard; damn good.

  • Don Rodrigo December 25, 2017, 8:21 PM

    Merry Christmas!

  • Joan of Argghh! December 26, 2017, 6:49 AM

    Merry Christmas, Gerard, to you and your mom!

  • ghostsniper December 26, 2017, 7:34 AM

    Well my wife went a little overboard again this year. For the past 20 years I’ve been telling her we need to scale back on this whole gift routine and we have but she’s been reluctant. She turns into a little kid all over again at Christmas. The ENTIRE house gets the works, inside and out and she starts this process on the 1st of Dec and not 1 minute sooner. All the holiday stuff takes up about about 1/8 of my garage from floor to ceiling and I’ve told her we need to weed that stuff out but it never happens.

    The 75′ long of string of blue C9 bulbs that go on the porch railing are 12 years old now and the paint has been flaking off them for about 5 years. The home made cardboard and paper mache manger set up her brother made in boy scouts about 50 years ago that is tattered and torn and needs more scotch tape each year. The santy clause collection she started when our son was born and 1 more added to it each year that now has 38 of them but he hasn’t lived with us for a long time. And the 20+ ceramic houses with internal lights with shubbery’s and trees, pedestrians, and even an ice skating rink with skaters, that are chipped or have flickering lights. And on and on. Way too much stuff.

    I told my wife to only give me a couple things and they must be things I can “use”, not things to “have”. There’s a diff. I want very little and need even less, and so do most people if they stop and think about it. But again, the day after Christmas my office has a bunch of stuff that will get rarely used and all I can think about is the money that was spent for it. I’d rather she kept the money. I feel guilty when she does all this. I have never felt right about the few meager windfalls that have happened in my life. If I didn’t earn it or exchange something of value for it then I feel like I shouldn’t have it. I understand the concept of a gift, but at what point is a line crossed? 2 gifts? 3? 10?

    This year was the first in 62 years that my wife has not at least talked to her mother. For 33 years in a row our Christmas days were spent at her house, eating, laughing, yappin’, spreading the cheer, and other family members would stop by and bring food and gifts and the place was a veritable hub of family activity and by the time we got home over an hour away after dark we would be exhausted. We don’t drink so that is a good thing cause traversing these ice covered winding country roads straight is daunting enough let alone 3 sheets to the wind.

    But this year was diff because my wifes mom was not there. She went to be with her husband on 27 Nov. We suffer what’s been lost and we hope she is now better off. Through the past 4 weeks my wife has taken all of this fairly well, I thought, considering how close she was to her mom. Not a day went by that they didn’t talk on the phone and I can’t tell you how many times she has burst into my office wanting to use my phone to call her mom back cause her battery went dead. Hundreds I’m sure. When she spoke a few words at the funeral her last sentence was, “Mom was my best friend.”, and now she’s gone. Since then my wife has not shed a tear in front of me and said she hasn’t shed any at all and she doesn’t know why. I told her I have no answer as to why that is. This morning my wife was at the top of the stairs and I was down by the front door heading out to my office and I yelled up at her, “When did you get the new Cardinal wind chime on the front porch?” She told me it was her mothers and she brought it back when her and her 2 brothers were going though her things a couple weeks ago. She spoke some more about her mom and I could hear her voice cracking and the floodgate opened and she started coming down the stairs to me and I met her halfway up. I held her and she melted into my chest and I tried my best to absorb all the pain away from her. I think I can carry it better than she but what do I know? I just don’t want her to feel bad and do whatever I can to not let that happen but some things are beyond my capacity. This isn’t a gouge in the drywall, or a sticking door latch, or a dead vehicle battery. I can’t fix this. Only time can do that but a scar will always remain.

    In a day or 2 the burn barrel will be glowing white hot as I pile all the boxes and wrapping paper and bows and such in it and I’ll stand there up wind with the temp in the teens and snow all around and think about Christmas’s past and maybe even the next one and be thankful for what I have. Look! There go three deers!

    “The Ghost of Christmas Passed”

  • Julie December 26, 2017, 5:52 PM

    Dammit, Ghost, you made me cry. I know you aren’t a man of faith, and you don’t care what most people think about much, especially when it’s personal. Even so, your wife and her family are in our prayers. She sounds very special; I’m glad she has you.

  • ghostsniper December 26, 2017, 8:05 PM

    I do care Julie, but in a serious way that most people cannot appreciate, so I walk alone.
    I’m content to live and let live.
    Thank you.

    When we met I was a 10 ton wound-up razor sharp spring with a built-in million volt wire sparking and hissing. She grabbed on and gave me direction, inspiration, and reason. I didn’t know it would last this long but that was never the goal. Just getting by each day was good enough and that got us to where we are now. A variation of that thing my grandmother used to say, “Keep track of your pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves.”

  • Julie December 27, 2017, 7:05 AM

    Your grandmother was wise. We have two little kids. They are constantly trying to plan for things months and years away; we are constantly telling them, let’s just get through today!

  • ghostsniper December 28, 2017, 4:11 AM

    Julie, I liked your interpretation of the ostrich and stared at it for quite a while.
    In fact, it’s part of the slide show on my desktop right now, hope you don’t mind.
    I tried to define the 3 basic steps, the background, the subject, and the thin black detail lines.

  • Teri Pittman December 28, 2017, 4:36 PM

    I have a new favorite gift this year, from my husband, who usually doesn’t do a good job of this. It’s a hand made suede purse. It has a feather design, done in free motion quilting by Tim Latimer, who is well known in the quilting world. He does his work either by hand or using treadle sewing machines. It’s a simple but amazing thing. When we looked at it, it was one of those things I hoped he’d buy me. Then he had to check and see if I thought it was okay to spend that much (like someone is going to say “No, don’t you spend that much on me!”)

    And I got lucky and hit upon the perfect gift for my stepson. I’ve got him hooked on Field Notes and found a custom made holder. I really think Christmas is a better holiday when we try to find gifts made by hand.

  • ghostsniper December 28, 2017, 5:29 PM

    Well don’t take that out when it’s snowing, you know what that does to suede.
    If you HAVE to go out when it’s snowing you can turn it inside out, but then nobody will want to be be seen with you. (Seinfeld ref.)