Last night, my Mister and I talked across our nightly distance. We told each other stories of gifts. What had we received that had really knocked our socks off? What were we proud to have given? Both of us had to reach far back for the most shivery memories. A brother’s model aircraft carrier. A first double-cassette stereo materializing in the bedroom on Christmas morning.
The specifics of most of what we had given others were hard to recall. Small recollections bubbled up of warming open some light in our beloved or kin. Also slashed across the arc of memory were those blistery scenes of our efforts missing the mark and landing (massage chair? bunny slippers?) with a splat. We’d seen the pinched mask of gratitude slip down over our dear one’s disappointed face before the box was even all the way open.
Mornings into years into decades. We sort of remember making someone really happy. We try to call up exactly who, or even if. Those are the gifts we hang onto, the ones we keep close. We make silent promises that we’ll give with more of ourselves. That we’ll find a way to make the next offering — the content or the way — light up in the hands of the one who receives it.
Tonight, Bug abandons dinner before he’s even taken three bites. Claiming homesickness, he pads over to curl up on the couch under our blue fleece blanket. We read together a book he adores, a saccharine holiday story called Santa Paws. My boy’s creased brow softens against my shoulder. Then he tells me he is still hungry.
“Can we have a picnic by the tree?” He asks.
We drag the blanket across the room and shake it out on the floor under twinkling lights. I re-heat broccoli and spaghetti and we work as a team to transfer forks and sparkly drinks to our quasi al fresco purlieus.
The cadence is different down low in the company of a blue-silver gleam. Bug lolls on his belly slurping up whole wheat pasta as I rub the dog’s woolen neck. The question that carried my Mister and me down last night’s wintry path meanders back around to now.
“Buddy, do you remember any of the Christmas gifts you’ve gotten before?”
“Yeah.” He rolls a little, hair falling back from his face. “The ring cat.”
I pause and try to connect this image to some toy or game in his collection. “The ring cat? What was that?”
“Mom!” He gives me a sideways grin. “The one where you put your rings on the tail. You know.”
Then it comes. I’d said “the gifts you’ve gotten” and he heard gotten for others not received. I say a little quiet thanks for imprecise vocabulary. “Of course I know,” I tell him. “That guy is the best.” It’s a small, green moulded cat that stands near the jewelry box on my dresser and holds up my stack of rings. “What else?” I ask
Bug proceeds to catalog all the items he remembers giving over the past few years. I listen in stunned silence as my seven-year-old prattles on. He remembers the football keychain he gave his granddaddy. The matching basketball fob he gave Tee. The earrings he chose for his gramma two years back and the gemstone ring he chose for her the next.
Bug picked out every one of these treasures at a country store children’s market held every December at a local park. Either Tee or I have taken him for the past three years. You give your kids a list and some money. The parents are sent off to entertain themselves for half an hour or so. The little ones go in with a volunteer and come out with wrapped gifts. Just like everyone else, you have to wait until Christmas morning to find out what the kiddos have picked out.
Bug continues down his list. He tells me this: “I gave you something you really like to do. Remember?”
I don’t, but I take a stab. “Writing?”
“Yep. You remember that pen?”
A vague image resolves into a sparkling shape. Beads. “Was that the one all covered in shiny pink?” He nods. Then he kind of drifts off for a minute and says, “Maybe — no, I gave that to Gramma.”
“Remember how you helped Gramma pick out journals for me one year?” I ask.
“Yeah. I went with her to the book store. You like to write in those.”
Bug rolls over and takes a bite of the giant chocolate cookie I’ve brought him from work. I gaze at him, crumb fingered and lit in purple. In his perpetual motion he’s wriggled over next to the small pile of gifts waiting for our pre-departure family gathering next weekend. I think back on seven Christmas mornings. Heaps of gifts for Bug pile up higher every year. I remember the Thomas train set. The wooden blocks Tee made by hand. The play kitchen they assembled together. The carved sled with its smooth ash body and metal runners perfect for Colorado snow. The rocking horse, ukulele, easel, puzzles. The tractors, board games, baskbetball hoop, pillow pet. The legos legos legos and more legos.
We are closing in on our eighth festival of excess. Every gift is chosen to light him up. Every gift is filled with loving care in the hopes this child will shine with pleasure or wonder or maybe even gratitude.
“Baby, do you remember any of the gifts you’ve been given for Christmas?”
He gazes into his chewy treat and thinks.
Lights are on the tree. They are under the tree, too, and even inside the packages bearing my son’s name. It just never occurred to me that what matters is not the “To” but the “From.” In all these heaps of stuff, the most valuable gift we’ve given Bug may have been to hand him $40 and his list of names, and then to send him on his merry way.
My boy’s face gleams as he gazes into the twinkling branches. His voice is drifty now. “Remember I got that necklace for you?”
I smile. “For sure. The silver one with the mama bird and baby bird. I love that necklace.”
“Yeah,” he says. “You do.” He touches one of the low ornaments, watching his reflection ripple and arc.