Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Gift of Time

There have been many memorable gifts, like the easel, brush, canvas board and oil paints and the Shirley Temple doll with teeth locked in her characteristic smile, but I would have to say the year my brother turned the tables on me gift wise was the most memorable, even more so than the year my brand new husband bought me a black turtleneck collar and gave it to me wrapped in a big balloon filled with air and shiny mauve tinsel. He got it Christmas Eve just before the stores closed.

I usually manage to give gifts I am sure the recipient will love and I give the gifts with flair, like the year I gave my sister-in-law nothing lavishly wrapped in succeedingly smaller boxes. My brother took a page from my notebook and gave me a gift I still treasure -- paper. It wasn't as simple as that. There's more to the story.

Christmas Eve is the traditional big family gift exchange in our family. Everyone gathers at Mom and Dad's house with their kids, contributions to the feast and the bags of gifts. I usually attend alone since I'm single and my children are grown with their own families and do not live in Ohio (neither do I now).

One Christmas Eve about twelve years ago, I sensed something in the air and it wasn't the surprise I had planned for my father. It was something someone else had arranged and I could feel the tension, everyone's eyes on me. I tried to catch them staring, but everyone pointedly ignored me when I looked at them and much giggling ensued. Something was definitely up. I sat quietly watching everyone open their gifts and the children ooh-ing and aah-ing and squealing with delight as they opened the hills of wrapped packages in front of them. I got a gift from my parents, something my mother picked out and which i have now blocked out to retain my sanity and holiday spirit. It was usually something gaudy, something I would never buy for myself or even look longingly at in the catalogs that constant bombard me in the mail all year long.

When the tension was taut enough to walk across the room three feet above the carpeting, someone cracked. I think it was one of my brother's kids, probably Alisha since she has the secret keeping ability of a true tattletale. "Daaaaaad!" she wailed. "Now. Do it now!"

My brother and his wife locked eyes. His wife Bobbie shrugged her shoulders and Jimmy got up and walked into the dining room, appearing with a large and very heavy box and a mischievous gleam in his eyes. Something was definitely up and I was about to get it.

Jimmy drew my name at Thanksgiving and I, wanting to avoid more gaudy and horrid gifts, gave him a list of things I would like and need. To anyone but me, they didn't seem festive or Christmas gift-like enough, but they were what I wanted--and needed. With any luck, the box he hefted toward me and dumped with an ominous thud at my feet would not contain an anvil or yet another exercise machine I would put together, use for thirty minutes and then ignore until it was home to dusty cobwebs and dried out insect carcasses. I crossed my fingers and opened the box, careful not to jiggle or otherwise set off the holiday bomb I was certain waited inside.

With a sigh of relief, I uncovered a large box of paper just right for my computer. I said thank you and waited for everyone else to continue opening their gift while I mulled the logistics of getting the box from the trunk of my car and into my house without a hernia or worse.

"Go on. Open it," J.C. urged. I never noticed that his eyes gleamed with the same mischievous light that my brother's often held.

"I did. I love it. I was almost out of paper."

"No, open the box."

Oh, no. It is something gaudy and horrible. I'll just leave it in the garage and shove it in a corner. "All right. All right."

I lifted the lid and pulled back the tissue paper. Tissue paper? This is getting interesting. There was a piece of paper written with a calligraphic font and underneath were stacks and stacks of money. Fives, tens, twenties, and... oh, yes, it is . . .FIFTIES. Each neat bundle was wrapped with a banking band stating the amount of each. I was afraid to look any further. My brother wasn't rich, so he had to have robbed a bank and shared it with me. Bless his pale, hairy hide.

I picked up a stack and fanned through them, turning sideways so as not to ignite the flames of lust that surely burned in each and every one of my family members' greedy hearts. That's when I caught on. Each bundle was fronted by a Xeroxed copy of a bill and beneath were blank pieces of paper cut to size. I quickly checked the other stacks and they were the same. Not only that, they were only two stacks of bills deep. Beneath was the paper I needed and had put on my list.

"Read the note."

Since I can't afford to give you money, here's a box full of paper to make your own. I've started it for you.

I laughed until I cried. Jimmy's kids talked over each other, explaining how their dad had gone to the bank for the wrappers, used his new color printer to copy the bills and measured and cut each stack to perfection. He wouldn't allow anyone to help and he went through a few reams of his own paper to get the stacks and the Xeroxed bills just right. He had even pulled the magnetic strips from some of his own money to sandwich between the copied bills so they would seem real. It was a labor of love and time that I will never forget.

The stacks of bills are safely hidden in a locked metal box along with the note and the reams of paper became stories and novels long ago. The memory, however, remains fresh and bright and I bring it out every Christmas Eve to hang on my memory tree.

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