Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Gift

When I was a kid, my parents didn't have much money,
and yet somehow, they managed to make Christmas
special. We always decorated the tree together as a family.
On those nights, a joyous mood wafted through the air
carrying with it the aroma of cider.

First came the lights, those multi-colored blinking
ones. You know the kind. If one bulb was out, the entire
string wouldn't light. And you also know, if you ever had
those lights, that every year at least one strand was dark.
I can remember sitting with my father replacing bulb after
bulb for what seemed like hours until we found the right

After the lights--my mother would always say there
weren't enough--we strung the garland. Silver, whispery
rolls of it wrapped around and around. And then came the
ornaments--dozens of gaudy red balls my parents had found at some discount store. With very little money, they managed to work Christmas magic.

I can close my eyes and still see the exact shade. They were the color of dreams. Candy apple red almost gets you there, but not quite. They were in-your-face bright red. And there were lots of them.

Each year we lost at least one of those red balls.
Some dropped from branches overloaded with cheer, while
others were accidentally stepped on. Once, when I was nine,
I gave one to a friend whose family didn't have much of
their own. We certainly had enough for ourselves, and
wasn't giving the true nature of the season?

As the years rolled past, picking up steam like an
old locomotive cresting a hill, our society became one of
disposability. My siblings and I began buying newer and
shinier ornaments. We made a concerted, though unspoken,
effort to abolish once and for all those bright red
eyesores. We could do better, couldn't we?

Here it is years later, and the child I was then has
become the man that I am now. Did we do better? It's hard
to say. My parents certainly have an eclectic assortment of
decorations for their tree now. Is that better? Who knows? I can only tell you this; with each passing year a feeling
inside me grows just a little bit stronger. The feeling
that something is missing.

I'm not sure when it happened, but finally it did. One
year those red bulbs were gone. Not a few of them, not most
of them...all of them. Gone. Like a dream, we let them
fade into nothingness.

I remember noticing their absence years later. The box of decorations was empty...the tree was full...and there
were no red spheres hanging anywhere. I didn't say anything
then, but each year since I have looked for them. I
searched my parent's house and came up empty. So this year,
just like every other, I look wherever decorations are sold.
And, just like every other year, I keep not finding them. I
can remember that deep, lustrous crimson that looked almost
brown when the light hit it just right. Apparently that
shade of red is hard to come by these days.

I turned Forty Seven this year. My birthday fell on
Thanksgiving and my family and friends sang Happy Birthday.
I received more than my fair share of presents, but it
wasn't until later that I got the gift.

The evening drew to a close and my wife and I walked
slowly to our car. We were sleepy and full from too much
food. I opened her door first, and closed it behind her.
Then I turned and waved to my mom who always stands at the
front door and watches her children drive safely away.

The box, neatly wrapped and held together with a silver bow, rested silently on my seat. I glanced back, but my mother had already gone inside. I looked at my wife, but she only shrugged. With a smile, I opened the box.

Who can know when their world will change? How does a person prepare for the simple things that sometimes mean so much? Nestled among the folds of silver tissue paper was a shiny red Christmas ornament. Tears welled in my eyes. I stared at my wife, who knew some of the story but not all of it, and then up at the house.

There, in the window, was my father. He stood very still as he watched. I waved to him and he waved back, then he turned off the light and went to bed. My dad, who had somehow known when no one possibly could have.

It was the perfect shade of red.

My wife and I drove home in comfortable silence. A
week later, we placed that ornament on our own tree.

All the others paled in comparison.