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The Gifts Unknown

A single father longs for the Christmas of his youth.

by Mark D. Johnson
December 9, 2000

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The Gifts Unknown_Mark D. Johnson-A single father longs for the Christmas of his youth. Having finally found a small table in the food court, Scott sat quietly sipping his black coffee while his ten-year-old daughter ate pizza and chattered away. She had always been a gabby child, a trait inherited from her mother, and the excitement of the holidays seemed to wind her up even more. As was often the case, he didn’t have to energy to listen to every word, so he artfully pretended to pay attention, nodding here, smiling there - a skill he learned in his first year of marriage. Back then, it seemed the only peaceful solution: he could think of other, more profound things, while his wife went on and on without getting angry with him for showing disinterest. Now, for the most part, it was merely habit.

In fact, there were times when his little girl so eerily resembled Cheryl that he had to be careful not to transfer his bitterness from mother to daughter. He had hoped it would become easier to ignore the similarities as time passed, but instead it grew alarmingly harder, with Jackie turning into her mom before his eyes. Parenthood, for him, involved much more untraining than what his own parents had been through, and maybe that was partly why he resented any advice from them on child-rearing. Raising kids was easy for them; after all, there were two of them to handle it.

"So now Carrie sits in the front row and Lisa’s in the back row and Jason Katz is right behind me, which is totally not cool ’cause he, like, has a major crush on me? I swear Mrs. Carter did that on purpose ’cause she knows I don’t like him and I absolutely refuse to talk to him, but the good thing is that Missy Glover? You know, the girl who plays trumpet? Well, she sits in front of me and can pass notes to Carrie. . ."

"Hm," nodded Scott with feigned interest as he marvelled at all the busy shoppers. He once enjoyed Christmas shopping but now it was a chore -- an ordeal, almost. Retailers began putting up decorations before Halloween, for crying out loud. The consumers are more demanding and rude. Even the familiar carols which echoed throughout the mall from invisible loudspeakers seemed now to carry strains of sadness rather than joy. But of course, it was he who had changed more than anything else. "Christmas shopping" had become "shopping for Christmas" -- searching, in vain, he concluded, for the Christmas he once knew.

The month of December, growing up, the youngest of three kids, was a season of candles, cookies, and candy canes in their warm brick suburban home. Church every Sunday, singing carols, with Mom at the piano, the warm glow of lights on the Christmas tree, and two feet of snow on the ground. He’d sit by the tree, his eyes fixed on the presents, fascinated by what they might contain and ever-anxious to rip them open. But best of all, he eventually learned, were the days leading up to Christmas -- the wonder, the giving, and family unity that he took for granted in his selfish greed for toys and more toys. There, beneath the tree, lied not gifts, but love; a love that seemed more tangible wrapped up with a bow on top than in everyday form, like a ride to school or five bucks for the movies. Seeing them there, unopened and beautiful, unknown and mysterious, set his heart pounding with joy and vitality.

"Ugh! This is so messy and gross! It tastes like that pizza we had in New York last year. You know, the one that made us sick? That was definitely the worst I’ve ever had. This isn’t quite as bad, but I guess it could be if I start throwing up or something. Want a bite?"

"No, thanks."

He felt sorry for her, especially at this time of year. How strange it must be, he thought, to not have a mother around to bake cookies or wrap presents with. They would fly down to Florida on the 23rd to be with his family, as they did ever since Cheryl left them five years ago. His parents, in retirement, had moved to St. Petersburg and vowed never to see snow again. Every year now, in perhaps an attempt to underscore the importance of those lost Christmases, Scott would lament aloud the fact that it was Christmas Day and seventy-five degrees outside. How sad it was for Jackie and her cousins to miss out on the holiday magic of his youth.

He felt responsible somehow, though he knew it was pointless to view it that way; that by bringing Cheryl into the family he had, in effect, disrupted that harmony he now longed for. They met in a bar, shortly after Scott’s graduation from Cornell; she, a shameless flirt, he, a shy architect. Anyone could see they had nothing in common, but that’s partly what intrigued him so about her. So different; so much to find out about each other. One night, as he held her hand, his heart pounding with joy and vitality, he asked her to marry him. His parents and friends all betrayed him, slyly insinuating, one after the other, that he’d be a fool to marry this high school drop-out waitress, which did nothing but strengthen his resolve to go through with it. He’d prove that he was right about her. The honeymoon seemed barely over when the fighting started, and then suddenly there was little Jackie, and no going back.

"Oh, there goes Stacy Strayhorn. Her mom lets her wear make-up, but she puts way too much on. I think she actually thinks she’s, like, sixteen years old? But the way she acts around boys is so totally third grade. We call her ‘Phony-face.’"

"That’s not nice."

"Whatever, Dad."

Their last Christmas with Cheryl was a painful memory, one that returns year after year, haunting him like the Ghost of Christmas Past. There was his wife, that Christmas Eve, on the floor with Jackie, playing a simple geography game, as he stoked the fire. Cheryl held up a card with the yellow shape of a state on it.

"What’s this state, Jackie? It’s the biggest one in the whole country," she said in the giddy, shrill voice she used when talking to children.

"Alaska!" shouted Jackie.

"That’s right! It’s Alaska! And you know what? It was our fiftieth state. That’s why we have fifty stars on the flag."

"Uh, excuse me, dear, but Alaska wasn’t the fiftieth state," said Scott, "Hawaii was."

"Alaska was too the fiftieth state! I should know; my dad was born there, Mr. Know-it-all."

"Yes, you should know, and as usual, you’re teaching our daughter the wrong thing."

"I resent that!" said Cheryl, her voice rising, "I’m doing my best here to teach her something and you have to go and criticize me, as usual. I may not have a college degree, but at least I know Alaska was the fiftieth state! This time Daddy’s the wrong one, isn’t he, Jackie?"

"Yes!" said the five-year-old. "Daddy’s wrong!"

Scott rolled his eyes. "I can’t believe this. Do you want me to get the encyclopedia out and prove it to you? I’ll bet the thought of looking up a fact never even occurred to you."

"Oh, go ahead, smarty pants, look it up! Then finally, once and for all, you’ll know what it feels like to be wrong!"

Jackie laughed. "Dad-dy’s a smarty pants! Dad-dy’s a smarty pants!" she chanted, with her mom joining in.

Scott brought out the encyclopedia volume from his study, opened it with great confidence, pointed to a paragraph, and proved beyond all doubt that Hawaii was indeed the last state admitted to the Union. Cheryl, in one sweeping motion, grabbed the book and threw it in the fireplace as tears welled up in her eyes.

"How dare you!" he cried. "Are you insane?!"

His wife stood, shaking her head, watching the flames engulf the paper. "Why couldn’t you just let Alaska be the fiftieth?" she said timidly. "Why couldn’t you just let me be right for once?"

Scott sighed in frustration. "Because you weren’t, Cheryl. It was Hawaii. Don’t you get it? Hawaii was last!"

His wife, now sobbing, stomped up to the bedroom and slammed the door, leaving their bewildered child to cry on her own.

She wouldn’t speak to him on Christmas Day despite his feeble attempts to apologize. And there was poor little Jackie, not enjoying her new toys very much.

He’d gone over it a million times since. It was such a dumb, stupid thing; how could they have made such a fuss over it? His cheeks grew hot with shame now, as he recalled that event, watching his innocent daughter wipe her mouth with a napkin.

"What?" she said.

"‘What’ what?"

"Your face is all red."

"Oh, that. I’m burning up in here. It must be the coffee."

"Oh. I was thinking I want to get Grampa something interesting this year, not some boring old shirt or tie or golf balls. Maybe a video or a puzzle or something."

"Okay, that does sound more interesting," said Scott.

As he listened to her babble on about other gift ideas, he saw before him the most beautiful, precious gift he’d ever received, still unfolding, and at last, once more, his heart was pounding with joy and vitality.

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The Gifts Unknown
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A father learns from the wisdom of his toddler.

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