Is Christmas about giving or receiving? Sometimes we learn the hard way.
That Christmas was my first with money in my pocket, and I wanted to spend it. My sisters were married and gone now, and my mother was in the middle of some heavy empty nest depression. Over the last couple of months she’d called me several times, begging me to move home. “You can enroll at USCS,” she said. “You won’t have to work, I’ll pay for everything. Please, I’m so lonely.”
That was the first time I realized just how my much mother invested in me. For half of her life her children were everything, and then we turned our pretty heads and walked away. All those years of groggily talking me through my nightmares, slipping Tooth Fairy quarters under my pillow, and late night Santa raids on the Christmas tree. Between the three of us kids, my mother didn’t sleep for eighteen years.
And all those years playing diplomat while my father and I battled. And what about him? In the final analysis the old man had done his best. He held down a steady job to pay for all those Santa presents. He tried, maybe it was time to forgive him.
I couldn’t move home, but maybe I could repay some of their kindness. I knew their stories of Christmas gifts that never arrived, and I knew their current interests. I was all over Savannah the week before Christmas, filling the wish list that my parents never wrote.
Tradition holds that Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, is the busiest day in retail, but my experience was the Christmas Eve was busier. This is the day that all of the asshole boyfriends and husbands rush to any open store to buy anything that might get them off the hook for forgetting about Christmas.
My record store’s 12″ wall was stripped bare by the end of the day, as if ravaged by DJ Locust. We sold all of the incense and the tape head cleaners, and almost every popular tape that was on sale. We jammed CDs, albums, 45s, and posters into Starship Records bags as quickly as we could and wished the poor bastards a merry Christmas as they hurried out the door. Anything that had any the slightest chance of conveying some sort of sentiment was gone by the time we locked the front door at 6:00. Also, Rockwell.
The Quincymobile was gassed up and loaded, so I pointed the beast North on I-95 and headed home. I arrived at my parents’ house around 11:00 in the evening, and we had a brief chat in the living room. My mother nodded in and out on her end of the couch and my father and I made small talk about the Quincymobile’s gas mileage. “Well, I better get your mother to bed,” he said. “Don’t stay up too late.”
I waited until the belching and nose blowing and other aural signs of the end of the day stopped echoing down the hall, and then I tiptoed on little Grinch feet out to the car. Then I quietly circled my parents’ Christmas tree with my father’s new choo-choo train tracks. This wasn’t just any train, though: this was a steam engine that actually smoked, just like he always wanted. On its way around the track it would pass my mother’s new doll, a stack of Shel Silverstein books, and a vintage Erector set in a lithographed tin. The only nods to modernity were a few cassettes and a device that promised to enable my TV-addicted father to watch his VCR from the televisions in both the living room and the bedroom.
I placed cookies on a plate and ate half of one, and I left the rest next to a dirty milk glass. All that remained was to draft a note:
How are you? I’m good. I hope you haven’t lost any elves to polar bears this year. Once they get the taste of elf meat they just can’t stop themselves. Maybe it’s the minty aftertaste.
Anyway, I was thinking about it and you’ve always been really good to me. Remember that time you brought me a pinball machine? Man, I bet the reindeer were ticked off about hauling that.
How come you never bring my Mom and Dad anything? This year instead of bringing me stuff, what I want for Christmas is for you to treat them for a change.
That’s all, hope you liked the cookies.
I went to my old bedroom and nestled all snug in my bed while visions of elf meat danced in my head.
When I came upstairs the next morning my father was already seated on his end of the couch, television blaring. My mother busied herself in the kitchen. The gifts were unwrapped but remained under the tree. I sat down and stared at the war documentary on television.
“Those VCR duplicators are pretty neat,” my father said.
“I thought you’d like that.”
“Did you keep the receipt?”
“I bought one last week.”
We watched the Germans dig in against the harsh Russian winter. They looked miserable.
“Where did you get that Erector set?” my father asked.
“At an antique store down in Savannah.”
“It’s missing a lot of parts. Can’t really build anything with half the parts missing.”
“It was the best I could find,” I said.
“This one’s a little past my time, looks like maybe early sixties. That’s about ten years too late.”
On screen German tanks failed to start in the extreme Russian weather. The narrator described how many soldiers died that winter, frozen and starved, because Hitler was too stubborn to retreat.
“That steam engine is mostly plastic.”
“Yeah, that’s how they’re made all right,” I said.
“Not when I was a kid. The one I always wanted was all metal. That sucker was heavy. When you held that thing you knew you were holding something.”
“These plastic ones don’t last. I bet half of them break the day they leave the package.” I stood up. “Where are you going?” he said.
“I’m going over to Lee G.’s.”
“Can’t spend any time with your family, huh? Your mother is making breakfast.”
“I’ll be back in a little bit,” I said.
“That’s a little rude, don’t you think? You come to visit us and you run off with your friends.”
My mother stopped me at the kitchen door. “Thank you, Jim. That was very thoughtful,” she said.
“Thanks, Ma,” I said. “Merry Christmas.”
Originally published as “The Barbarossa Express” at Litro.
—photo public domain / Wikimedia Commons