This is a rewrite on “The Gift”, the clarifying of message in these words is worth the edits taken … enjoy.
Mom and dad moved to Rochester from our little town after their wedding and as all young couples did at the time they struck out on their own and did so with little to no help from anyone else. It was a matter of pride to them that they were to be fully independent and the masters of their combined destiny no matter the end result it was theirs and theirs alone.
That generally means years of struggling and building a life through those difficulties and they did so with wit, fun and grace not at all unlike the story dad would tell at times when he was in the mood for a funny story, which he often was (ableit a tall scotch and water with lots of ice led to many stories).
Mom had been in college when they decided to get married, but left school when it was clear they could not have the wedding after she graduated due to my grandfather Thure being terminally ill. After his sad and untimely death they moved to start anew. Mom had taken a job at the local community college in order to be in a better place financially to finish her degree. Dad was working as a water bottle delivery man and while they both had jobs, they also were living check to check and struggling financially. Even to the point of having to decide on groceries or a Christmas tree during their first year in the small apartment they called home.
Dad had been saving his pennies for months to surprise mom with a tree the week before Christmas. This holiday was a huge deal for her and her family and in her parents home they went all out on decorating the tree with family ornaments, some Sicilian and some Swedish. These ornaments were part of the wedding gifts given to my mom from her parents, but she had already accepted the fact that their first tree would have to wait a year or two. If you have read any of my other writings you would now know that being as my mother was, she fully resigned herself to that fact, set the emotions aside and moved forward. That was her nature, not to dwell on things that you had no control over, to put your emotions in a box, close it tightly and bury it in your mind.
It is a both a blessing and a curse to have inherited this ability, albeit leaves you seemingly emotionless and cold. People see you that way, treat you that way and feel certain freedoms to act in ways towards you that they would not with others that may express emotions freely. Truth is that you still feel, it still eats at you, it still defines you, but it goes in a box rather than expressed because in our world showing emotions at any level beyond either a half smile or half frown is indulgent at best.
This mindset certainly makes getting thru rough times easier, but those boxes yet remain and on occasion without control open up and slap you in the face with the same freshness as when the box first sealed.
As I said, it is blessing and curse but many of the things in life that make us strong seem to carry both those traits.
So, dad took all those coins he had been secretly saving and went to the church parking lot where the boy scouts were selling trees. Finally finding one he could afford it ended up not much of a tree and he would proudly say it was a bit on the mangled side. He loaded the tree on the roof of his old car, drove it to the small apartment they lived in and parking around the corner so mom couldn’t see him, as quietly as he could he carried it up the stairs and held it in front of the door.
After all as this to surprise her, so he knocked on the door and stood behind the tree. Which must have been quite the sight as dad was a powerlifter and a big man. Just the vision of him attempting to hide behind a sad, bare, mangled tree like a gorilla hiding behind a single shaft of bamboo to this day puts a smile on my face!
Mom opened the door to the tree and my father gave the most joy filled “HO HO HO!!” he could muster (for anyone else to witness it would likely have been seen as bellowing intimidation, his stature did not lend itself to being loudly joyful) which was met almost immediately with my mother suddenly crying, and that was highly unusual for her.
“Oh Terry, thank you!! How .. how did you manage this??”
Dad replied with his usual type answer to anything like this “Honey, it is Christmas, our first Christmas and there is no way in hell I would let you go without … ever”
I can never express in words how deeply my fathers personal honor ran in regards to the taking care of his own. It is something that follows me to this day. Even decades after he left this earth the incredible sense of knowing that no matter what, he would do right by me even if that meant kicking my ass a bit, when needed and often in my youth it was!
He carried the tree into the apartment set it against a wall, moved furniture around and mom ran to get the small box of ornaments. In the midst of his task, he saw his bride suddenly looking sad. When he asked what was wrong she did not want to answer him, but dad being dad he pressed the issue until she opened up.
He could see the tears in her eyes as she informed him that they had no tree stand for the incredible gift he had brought her, and they both knew that they had no money to buy one.
Knowing mom and the value she placed on the giving of a gift rather than the gift itself, she was devastated as her not having a stand was almost an insult to dad’s gift. It took her a second to understand why dad was suddenly holding her tight and laughing. He then held her at arms length for a few moments and said “Ann, I did not even think of that! But you organize the ornaments and decide where you want the tree and I will be right back, I have this all figured out!”
He was the only man she would be led by, aside from her beloved late father and she did just as he asked. The truth is dad had no idea how to fix it all and make everything perfect at this point but as he walked down stairs to the car he was totally confident he would figure it out. Once he popped the trunk and started digging around, he found just how he would make it all work out.
After he walked back in with an old well used tool bag, they placed the tree where mom wanted it and as dad asked mom to hold it in place. She asked “Terry, now what?” to which dad simply said “Honey, just hold the tree” as he knelt down and dragged the heavy canvas tool bag to him.
Know that the tools he had were from my mothers childhood house, filled with grandpas carpentry tools, and on this first Christmas as a married couple and mom’s first Christmas without her father her new husband pulled out the hammer her father had swung every day of his working life. With three 6 inch spike nails …. dad then nailed that tree straight to the floor without out hesitation to the floor or the repercussions from the landlord. Nothing in mind but his precious brides happiness.
And that Christmas they had their tree, haphazard, frugal, and spiked with purpose to the floor of their apartment. To their much too early deathbeds, they both claimed it to be the best Christmas of their lives. No gifts, no fancy dinner, no trappings of wealth or meaning that either had known growing up, just a mangled tree and their love. In their own amazing ways, turning what others would cry over and lament for years to come, into the finest day of their lives.
This is one of so many stories I will share with you, but in that sharing it is important to also share with you the effect it had on myself. Truly a sweet story, although not all will be in these writings, but then again that is what life brings us in its merciless manner.
My early responses to this and many other stories were pretty uncaring and left me wondering why I must endure them time and again. What I learned early on is it is not until you too have had to live through similar moments in your life that the full depth of what occurred before you here hits you.
For me it came during the time that I too was just starting out in my married life, again like theirs it was not in the least an ideal start …. and honestly not one that I had ever envisioned for myself. It too was rushed and it too was fraught with complications. What made my parents and my life story in that regard so dramatically different is that they were forced into their situation from outside circumstances but for me it was due simply to self centric choices I had made long before, during and after my marriage.
Nonetheless, the struggling and the doing what was right after the cards were dealt was all that mattered. In the midst of my own struggles, I was constantly falling back on this and many other remembrances, family history, and advice my dad shared with me freely. These truly shaped the choices I made for years to come.
Early on in my struggles I could have simply walked away from the situation without any consequences but that was not something I felt capable of doing. In retrospect two people may have been able to lead separate lives that were more fulfilled and happier in the end, but once you claim someone for you own and love them and that is that … you take care of your own.
I took that story during those moments and realized what it truly was, not simply some sweet story about two people making the best of a first Christmas but it was a story of love, honor, and taking care of your own at any cost. I remember the first time I realized that truth during a really bad episode where I had to make a choice to stay or leave, I chose to stay and I was angry, hurt and ready to explode with rage but then I suddenly felt total solace in KNOWING that I did the right thing. Pride, a sense of honor, an incredible knowledge that right is right and at the end of my days those were the only things I could claim as mine and mine alone.
Now I suppose that we can all read this and find in some retrospect that the decision to stay was not the best, but being pragmatic is certainly not always a part of doing the right thing. There were experiences that shaped myself, my former wife and most especially our children that far outweigh the fleeting moments of being happy or living different lives.
That sense of knowing you did the right thing and the effect it has on the world today is clearly missing, in this day and age the ends always justify the means. Pragmatism has replaced honor and that is perhaps the one explicit facet of our culture that will one day destroy it.
Being pragmatic means doing what is necessary to get what you want, regardless of the consequence. It is entirely self centric and in a world where we all matter, relying on a world view that concerns itself with only personal satisfaction and sating of self does nothing but tear it all apart.
Honor on the other hand, means doing things that matter to the whole … it means not putting self first and it means standing in front of a mirror able to say “I did this thing, it hurt me to do, it did nothing to increase my position or my possessions but I did what was right for all concerned and I WILL carry this weight of the results with dignity and without self pity”
That is an incredible place to be when you learn to experience it in the full honesty and truth of it all.
My father could have simply neglected the tree, he knew that mom did not expect it, nor did she believe he could even afford one. He sacrificed to buy it, he showed his caring through the sacrifice, and when the gift was suddenly realized to be only half a gift due to there being no tree stand he never once backed down. In doing so he added to the gift by not showing a second of self pity but simply handled it in a devoted silence increasing the gift to such an extent that mom never got over it.
It wasn’t just a gift from her husband, but it was a gift from beyond the grave that her father had prepared the way for using a good man as his proxy. That sad tree stood due to my dads efforts and due to the tools her father hands held for years with pride. A final gift to a daughter, and a first gift to a bride and that is what I finally was able to take from it all once I was man enough to see through the cuteness of the story.