Sine Qua Non
When I was somewhere around 11, the brother closest to me in age (he’d have been 12 at the time), who was not allowed in my room (I was the only girl; I needed my own quiet sanctuary of solitude), used to like to test my patience by wandering into my room to look for trouble while I was hanging out by myself… usually reading. He’d burst open my door with great bravado and saunter around aimlessly, whistling, watching me, to see if he’d achieved maximum irritation. I’d raise an eyebrow at him, but continue reading. I’d know he was just trying to get a rise out of me. Some days it worked, some days not so much... It all depended on what kind of a mood I was in, how involved in my book I was, or how inclined I was to either play, or pick a fight.
On one particular occasion, he was having trouble getting any response from me (which was really the only point - long summer days can get boring for a 12-yr-old socially oriented boy not nearly as into books as his nerdy sister, and any interaction is better than none), so he began snooping. My room was very small (an oddly shaped, not quite 10’ x 8’ broom closet, barely large enough for a twin bed, a miniature bedside table, and a tiny chest of drawers), and had recently been cleaned, so, unfortunately, this didn’t bother me quite nearly as much as he’d hoped. When a peek in the closet got no reaction, he moved on to my dresser, starting with the top drawer, which was both for unmentionables, as well as those odd catch-all items that one doesn’t quite have an appropriate place for. He sniffed the cachet, put rolled up socks down his shirt, underwear on his head, and generally rifled through whatever he could find, all the while keeping a watchful eye on me to gauge my interest level. I was entirely too amused to have continued reading by that point, but I’d stubbornly remained glued to the same page I’d been on when he walked in, having no intention of letting him know that he was having any sort of effect. Eventually, he made a big show of taking a handful of things, holding them each up and out with a grand gesture, flourishing them about like a magician waves a wand, and then left, I imagine with the expectation that I would follow, in order to retrieve my pinched belongings.
I was three quarters through The Horse and His Boy, probably for the eighth time that week, and I wasn’t going anywhere. I put his antics out of my mind, and didn’t think of it again.
Some part of this story resulted in one of the most ridiculous costumed capers I’ve ever participated in, complete with pictures, but, that portion of the tale I’ll save for another time.
The next reminder of this occurrence didn’t show up until that Christmas.
A couple weeks or so before the holiday, as gifts were finding their way under the tree in increasing numbers by the day, this brother proudly brought down a sizable package he’d wrapped himself in a brown paper bag with a giant red crepe bow, addressed to me, and he challenged me to guess what was in it. I had no idea, and couldn’t fathom a response. But he insisted I hazard a stab at it.
Just take a random shot a dark.
I threw out some incidental speculation.
He was still excited, encouraging me to pick it up, shake it, feel it, touch it, taste it.
Well, you know what I mean.
Three more postulations.
No, uhn-uh, Nyet.
Okay, I give up. Not gonna tell me?
Why would he tell me? Guess I’d just have to wait until Christmas.
Of course, he couldn’t just let it go at that. I’d NEVER guess what it was, he assured me. He hassled me for days, right up until Christmas Eve.
On Christmas Eve, it’s a family tradition that everyone gets to open ONE present before turning in to wait for the big day. Naturally, I chose his. Not because I was super excited about it (though, I imagine I was, by that point), but because I wanted to put an end to the Chinese water torture that was his constant harassment for me to deduce the contents on conjecture. When it came time for my turn, I reached for the plainest wrapping with the greatest enthusiasm, and all the hopeful anticipation of Ralphie decoding Annie’s secret message.
Still more paper.
…and a brick.
My brother was rolled over on his back, holding his sides, kicking his legs in the air, he was laughing so hard. I nodded in resigned appreciation. This was my brother, after all. I was accustomed to being the brunt of his jokes.
Lovely. Thanks. Thanks a lot.
He wiped tears of laughter from his eyes, but promised that wasn’t all there was. He really did get me a gift, I just had to keep digging. With renewed, albeit somewhat diffused fervor, I began displacing random “packing contents” from the box, and eventually discovered, halfway through, a thimble. I collected thimbles at the time, and although I can’t now remember where this one came from, or what was on it, I appreciated the addition to my shadow box, and a thought that was specifically for and about me.
But that’s not all! There’s more! My brother wanted me to know. Apparently, the joke wasn’t over. I should keep digging, to get to the best part.
Another round of digging, emptying the box, turning it upside down and shaking it, wondering if all the extra work was the joke, and there was only a mess on the floor to be cleaned up (Surprise! - Merry Christmas!), seeing his concern – What? No! It’s in there, I promise – then rifling back through the papers until finally…
A pin. A Strawberry Shortcake pin.
A used Strawb-
…wait a minute…
This is MY pin! You took my pin out of my room and wrapped it up for me for Christmas???!
More riotous laughter.
I can’t remember anything else I got for Christmas that year. The material desires of 12-yr-old me don’t stand out quite as much as the memories of special moments shared with the family that raised me, and the messages of love that they passed on to me. But that gift has remained firmly implanted in my mind for decades, because of what my brother said to me without words:
I like having fun with you.
On my first Christmas with Homebuddy, we’d both been invited to my folks’ house for Christmas dinner. He’d never met them, so he didn’t know quite what to expect, or what we should bring as gifts. I tried to prepare him for my family as much as possible, though, it was tough, because, I wasn’t sure I was completely ready to face them myself. We’d been estranged for a number of years previously, though we’d been working on reconciling for the last couple, since they’d moved back to the state, and this would be only the second Christmas I’d spent with them in the last twelve… it was still a bit… surreal for me. But I told him not to worry too much about gifts, that my family had never really thought of themselves as that great at gift-giving, so every parcel passed around always comes with the loudly proclaimed pre-warning: "You will NOT hurt my feelings AT ALL if you end up having to take this back." My folks always made sure that everyone had plenty to open, and at least one item that each person really especially wanted. And then there were a lot of packages of socks, stockings filled with pecans, and other miscellaneous “filler” items.
I’d actually joked to Homebuddy, watch my mom get me something ridiculous like earrings because she hasn’t noticed that I’ve been wearing the same set of matched pairs for the last two decades.
The next day, I had to pinch Homebuddy and bite my tongue ’til I was fighting back tears of pain to keep us both from busting out in fits of giggles when I opened one of the most gaudy, obnoxious set of fake jewel encrusted bauble hoop earrings I’ve seen in quite some time.
But I thanked my Mom, graciously, and I meant it. Because, I remember a time in my teens when she would have never have allowed me to wear something like that out of the house. Some of the most vicious fights we’d had were over my sense of “style” and how she felt I was not presenting myself in a fashion appropriate for an upstanding Christian young lady. Despite her best intentions, I continued to be drawn to the types of accessories that were popular for young girls in the 80s, and, she continued to try and control my appearance. It was a losing battle for everyone involved.
Mom either hadn’t really noticed that age had mellowed my wardrobe habits quite a bit, or perhaps just wasn’t thinking about it when she bought those earrings. She’d just remembered that I used to like that sort of thing, but, more to the point, age had mellowed her perspective, too, as well as what battles she thought were worth fighting, and which could just be let go, enough to be able to give me a gift that would say, without saying:
I’ve learned to accept you… just the way you are.
In the decade that I wasn’t connected with my family, holidays could be tough. Thanksgiving and Christmas were the roughest, because they’re pretty much all about being with family, and, practically everyone you encounter has something special going on. Plus, with all the buildup, hubbub and hype everywhere you go, they’re pretty hard to ignore; not like a birthday, which only you would notice getting missed if you didn’t tell anyone. You’d think this would turn me into a regular Scrooge, but, no… I’m just not that guy. My upbringing had been entrenched in such holiday tradition so ingrained in my sense of self that I was never willing to let go of the spirit of the season. I came to appreciate the holidays on a much deeper, almost metaphysical level. I rejoiced (and still do) that there is a period of a few weeks every year when most of the world, from many cultures, backgrounds, and religions slow down long enough to take stock of life, and celebrate what more or less amounts to the same message in most any language. Ramadan, Samhain, Hanukkah, Solstice, Pancha Ganapati, Festivus, Christmas, Signature, Kwanzaa….. However you say it, it still comes across:
Peace on Earth. Good will to all mankind.
Because I knew any year that I might not – and probably wouldn’t – be opening up any Christmas gifts for myself, to me, it was all that much more important then to make sure that I could still give them, because, that really had always been the most fun part of the entire season to me, and, I just wasn’t willing to give it up, with or without family to spend time with on the actual celebration day. I could always find someone to buy presents for, even if that meant stocking up at the dollar store something special for each of my employees. I would never just get multiple versions of the same thing and hand them out to everyone. No, each person got to have me take a few moments carefully thinking about how I related to who they are, and how much I appreciate the contribution they make. I’d spend hours up late at night cutting and taping and pretty-fying, to bring in dozens of small, individually wrapped and distinctively marked packages, all of which were different, but, each of which, in their own way, said without saying:
I’m glad you’re on my team.
I realize the concept that “it’s the thought that counts” may seem cliché, or even trite, but it’s never quite as in-your-face as when there’s no thought to even be taken into consideration. At all. It’s a harsh reality to have to admit to yourself that there’s not a soul in the world thinking enough about you to give you something to open – anything – on a day of giving that’s practically universal. It’s hard not to ask yourself, really, how much of a total loser must I be?
Me, I'd never want anyone to have to feel that way. Nobody should ever have to get through Christmas with bupkis to open.
Because, the reward that one cherishes as the true treasure from receiving a gift is never about what’s in the package that the present comes wrapped in. It’s about what just getting the box says to the person who receives it, from the person who gives it. It could be saying a number of different things, depending on the nature of the relationship between the two, and the circumstances of the giving, but, if you listen hard enough, you can hear it saying, in perhaps not so many words:
You are connected.
You are valued.
You are loved.
But most importantly, it always says,
That’s a message that everyone needs to be reminded from time to time, because it’s so easy to forget.
It IS the thought that counts, and, sometimes, it's the thought that's what's needed most.
This season, hold off on your rant over commercialism, the appropriate seasonal greeting, or if Uncle John's had one too many pickles. Set aside the fruitcake and mistletoe. Forget about making a list and checking it twice. Don't worry about spending a lot of time or money. Just find some small way to make sure the people in your life know you found room in all the hustle and bustle and craziness to pause for a moment to think of them, and show them that means something to you. It might mean more to them than you may ever know.
Happy Holidays, everyone.
LJ Idol | Season 8 • Week 7 - Topic: BUPKIS
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