Another Christmas is looming fast and I see the hordes of last-minute shoppers whenever I drive by the stores – a vision that triggers my agoraphobia. Still, I understand the shoppers’ need to seek out each perfect present. Those presents are for loved ones and each year we want to give them something they want or they need. So, wish lists can really aid a holiday shopper. Still, sometimes it’s the present that’s not on the list that makes the biggest impact.
It was 1972 when we celebrated Christmas in California. My parents drove half way across the continent so we could spend the holidays with my mother’s parents in their San Diego apartment. California was unalloyed good as far as my sister and I were concerned. California meant warmth, and trips to Disneyland, and time with grandparents who would move heaven and earth to gratify our every whim. I was 13 and, in Grandma’s words “too old for toys, too young for boys”, so my wish list was fairly nebulous but my sister was much younger and very specific. She wanted Mattel’s “Barbie Surprise House”, one of the hot-ticket items that year. Since I was “old enough to know”, Mom told me about the hours she and the grandparents spent scouring stores on the hunt for that prized pink box. Unfortunately, forays into every “Toys-R-Us” in two states weren’t successful. My sister’s wonderful gift wouldn’t be available until after Christmas Day.
Mom put us to bed early on Christmas Eve, telling us Santa would avoid the apartment until we were asleep. I closed my eyes and opened my ears, wondering what delights the grownups had cooked up. I heard some odd noises and my dad’s attempt to sing but I couldn’t guess what made them all giggle. Probably a pitcher of my Grandpa’s martinis.
Christmas morning brought it’s usual avalanche of sweaters and socks, hugs and nonsense gifts as well as Mom’s earnest promise that we would pick up the Barbie Surprise House in a few days since Santa “couldn’t fit it on his sleigh”. Mollified, my sister cuddled a little stuffed dog Grandma had pushed in her stocking while I studied the source of last night’s mysterious noises. My family had given me a guitar.
Now, I had not asked for a guitar. I’d never thought about learning to play one. Yes, I liked music (who didn’t?) and, like most girls I knew, I was taking piano lessons. But a guitar? What were they thinking? Did my family want me to become a hippie?
The visit was great and my sister got her Barbie House sometime before New Year. Funny thing, though: Sis would play with the marvelous toy house until she was tired of it, and then walk away, but the stuffed dog with the club foot and belly-button stayed with her wherever she went. The name on his chest was Henry and Henry became a member of the family, and my sister’s dearest companion. At first he followed my sister through the house, then around town on errands. If Henry came up missing, Dad would tease her, saying Henry went to the local bar to drink beer, but he would search with us until the little dog was located and returned. No matter what, Henry always came home again. After a few years, Henry became a family man as relatives came to join him but he remained my sister’s favorite, following her to school and then to camp, college, and into her married life, the most loved gift of her childhood, When he disintegrated this year, we both mourned.
And, after a few false starts and blistered fingers, I taught myself to play the guitar reasonably well. I never became great and the tone of the instrument wasn’t much but that unexpected gift filled a hole in my adolescence. Learning songs and practicing passed some otherwise lonely hours and, even though I still felt awkward and shy around other kids, I finally had a role; I was the one who played the guitar. A few years later, another guitar-playing girl moved into town and I made my first life-long, close friend. The git-fiddle followed me, like Henry followed my sister, and although it disappeared in a burglary, the replacement guitar introduced me to the man I married (another guitar player, of course). None of the best parts of my adult life would have happened the way they did if I hadn’t learned to play that guitar. I wonder if my folks guessed, when they picked out that gift, how far their surprise present would take me.
So I’m glad when friends and relatives tell me what’s on their Christmas list. It makes shopping for them much easier. Still I keep my eye out for the unexpected gift. I’ve learned it’s the items we don’t ask for – the ones we don’t even know that we need – that we’ll use and cherish the most.