If you are inclined this time of year to reminiscing about Christmases past, like so many of us of a certain age, you might linger on memories of treasured gifts you received as a child. Perhaps there was a favorite toy, a bicycle, or maybe a special outfit you wanted desperately and never thought your parents could afford.
For me, the most precious memories of Christmas gifts in my youth are tied not to things I received, but to the presents that my father gave to my mother. That’s not to suggest we were deprived as kids; we had much of what we wanted and surely more than we rascals deserved, especially at Christmas. But in our house, there also was magic that didn’t depend on Santa Claus or children.
In some respects—though not all—my parents played the roles of man and wife in the traditional ways of their time. At Christmas, she shopped for everyone else, and he shopped for her. He bragged on his timing (often not until Christmas Eve) and his selections, and he spared no effort in presenting them with theatrical flair.
The gifts ranged from the practical, to the fashionable, to the risque. One year she wanted new pots and pans, and he procured a large set. On Christmas morning she opened a package that contained one pot, with a note announcing that the remaining pieces were hidden around the house. It was a Christmas adventure for our family of six to undertake the search; ultimately, one of the lids never turned up, and whether that joke was his intent, I can’t say to this day. Mom has always loved gardening, and one year he bought her a combination rolling gardener’s seat and tool caddy, with fat wheels enabling the rider to propel herself around the garden. During the height of the Christmas morning chaos, he rode it into the living room, prouder and happier than anyone when my mother howled with unstoppable laughter.
In the era of Jackie Kennedy’s stunning style, Dad loved to buy Mom elegant clothes. He brought home her first mink, a “stole” the color of warm caramel, when we were all very small. It must have been a tremendous stretch on the salary of a salesman supporting four children. I can still hear her high-pitched squeal when she wrapped herself in it.
My parents met as young teens, and he couldn’t take his eyes off her for nearly 70 years. He openly admired her looks whether she was fashionably dressed—or not. One year, in the era when classy sleepwear was just part of a nice wardrobe, she asked for a nightgown. That Christmas morning she opened a beautifully wrapped box that was empty—except for a note that read, “My kind of nightgown.”
Dad didn’t make it to Christmas in the last year of his life, but as he lay in the hospital for weeks in late fall, he dispensed instructions to his daughters about acquiring Mom’s gifts. He sent my sister to the jewelry store with his credit card, while I searched online for a stunning white coat we knew Mom hankered for. Sadly, the coat was out of stock, so I pondered alternatives and brought those ideas to his bedside for direction. I could try this one, I suggested, and here are a couple of other options. Yes, yes, and yes, he said to all of them. The answer to all questions involving your mother is yes.
I’ve thought about that answer many times in the two years since he left us, thought about how it symbolized a bond that had no ceiling or floor, how it illustrated 62 years of marriage in which, even when life’s inevitable deep shadows intruded, the delights of spontaneity and the desire to please never faded. I briefly wondered if we should concoct some outrageous surprise for Mom this year, to try to continue the custom. At heart, I knew it wasn’t something that can be replicated by others. But knowing the intent behind the act, keeping that sentiment alive, the privilege of witnessing love that lasts a lifetime—those were his gifts not just to her, but to all of us.
Some say that Christmas is for children, and of course that’s true, in a way, because it began with the story of a child. But watching my parents, I learned that the simple pleasure of giving, the joy of surprise, the wonder of the unknown, these are treasures that have no age limit.
Merry Christmas. When the question is love, Give us all the faith to answer Yes.
This story first appeared in the Chronicles four Christmases ago. I’m sharing it again to honor the anniversary of my Dad’s passing, which was six years ago today.