Track 9: The Perfect Gift – J J Heller
Given By Josi S. Kilpack
A Christmas story.
A true Christmas story.
Maybe even inspiring.
I draw a blank.
I remember moments and details, good and bad, but enough for a story?
I call on my husband for help and explain the parameters. “I can’t think of anything. Do you have a story I can retell? I’ll give you full credit, I swear.”
He remembers moments and details of his childhood Christmases too, mostly good, because that’s how his memory works, and it’s one of the many reasons I love him. But he can’t remember a good story either.
We go back and forth until, finally, he comes up with an idea. “What about that year you made the homemade gift? When you told me about that, it seemed pretty powerful.”
And in an instant, I’m there again. Nineteen eighty-seven or so. I was fourteen.
With eight kids (number nine came a couple years later) and a school teacher’s salary, our family’s Christmases were never extravagant. But that year, Dad had taught enough community education classes to put us in a higher tax bracket, and the money Mom had saved each month in the Christmas account at the credit union went to pay the IRS just before Thanksgiving. Happy holidays.
What had been “never extravagant” my whole life suddenly became “shoestring.”
“Dad and I will give you each ten dollars,” Mom told us after explaining what tax bracket meant. Mostly, we just understood that Dad would have made more money if he’d done less work. “To keep it fair, even you older girls need to stick to the ten dollars, okay? You can’t use babysitting money to buy something bigger.”
So, in the name of fairness, we had exactly ten dollars to spend. We drew names. I got Jeni, my big sister—the oldest—a senior in high school. She was a straight-A student. Sophisticated. Steady. Going to BYU next fall.
I was fourteen. I had a sewing class that term in junior high, and I decided I could sew a gift and use it as one of my term projects. Double points.
Mom took me to the fabric store. I picked out white flannel with red hearts on it, along with some glossy red heart buttons, to make pajamas. Even in 1987, ten dollars didn’t go very far. I don’t remember where the pattern came from. I cut it out at home and sewed it together in class. I got an A, even though I didn’t have the buttons sewn on yet when school got out for Christmas break. I sewed them on a few days before Christmas all by myself. I didn’t think about actually lining the buttons up with the button holes my teacher had sewn for me.
I found out close to Christmas that Mike had drawn my name. Shoot. Mike was eight. He picked his belly button and sucked his fingers. He was a boy. He wouldn’t have a clue what to get for me, his older, wiser, and pathetically self-conscious sister. My hopes were thin. It would basically be the worst Christmas ever.
Christmas morning arrived. Mom and Dad managed to get a couple of gifts for each of us. Not Atari games. Or Cabbage Patch dolls. Or rollerblades. I can’t remember what the gifts actually were, but I know what they were not. And I know that the eagerness with which we watched each other open our packages—oldest to youngest, one gift at a time—was in anticipation of our siblings’ gifts. But not because we wondered what we would get. No. The eagerness was all about how our gift would be received.
What would our brothers and sisters say about the way we used their ten dollars?
I was holding my breath when Jeni opened hers. She smiled. I could breathe again. She held the pajamas up for everyone to see before leaving and putting them on. That’s when I realized the buttons didn’t line up. I think Mom fixed them later. I was too cool (fourteen, remember) to act relieved that she didn’t hate them, but I was secretly very, very relieved. I was also proud. I’d taken ten dollars and created a gift my sister liked. I’d done it. Mostly by myself.
I wish I could remember the other gifts, but I can’t. I do remember what Mike gave me though.
Mom had taken him to the thrift shop, and he’d picked the clothes out himself. A pinkish-purple sweatshirt and a black velvet shirt. My fourteen-year-old self was horrified when I ripped off the wrapping paper. My mom let him choose clothes for me? Seriously? And yet, because I knew how hard I had worked on Jeni’s mismatched-button-pajamas, I knew how hard Mike had worked on choosing my gift. I looked up at him and saw his bright blue eyes and brilliant smile—I can still see them today.
“I knew you really liked clothes, Josi, and when I saw these, I knew you would love ’em.”
Take in the eyes. Take in the smile. Remember the relief and pride you felt when Jeni liked your gift.
I smiled. I even hugged the little belly-button picker. “I love them, Mike. They’re perfect.”
They weren’t perfect.
I could see right away that the black velvet shirt was too small, not that I’d have ever worn it in a bazillion years even if it had fit. The sweatshirt was my size, but it wasn’t right. I told him again how much I liked it, though, and he flashed that brilliant smile at Mom as if to say, “I told you so.”
Sometime over the next few days, my mom pulled me aside to tell me how excited Mike had been to buy the gifts. She told me she knew they weren’t really my style, but Mike had been certain I would love them. He was wrong, of course, but did that make the gift any less given?
Did my getting the buttons wrong, not to mention the fact that high-school seniors don’t really go for red hearts on white flannel jammies, make my gift any less given?
The pinkish-purple sweatshirt actually turned out quite serviceable. I cut off the ribbing at the wrists, neck and waist, turning it into a slouchy, off-the-shoulder sweatshirt, kind of like the ones Jennifer Beals wore in Flashdance, which would have been my favourite movie if my mom had ever let me watch it. I’m not sure if Mike realized I’d altered it, but I have a very distinct memory of him seeing me wear it a few weeks after school was back in and saying, “That’s the shirt I got you. I knew you’d love it.”
I put the black velvet shirt in my “trunk,” the locked box where I kept my treasures, with the vague idea that I might make it into a pillow or stuffed animal one day—the velvet was fun to run my hand over. I never made a pillow. When I was packing up my youth in the days before I got married, I sent it back to the thrift store it had come from several years before. Little did I know that Mike would be dead within two years. Dang, I wish I’d kept that shirt.
As a mother, I have not had the self-discipline to create the moment my parents would never have wished for us. I can look back now and see how hard that year must have been for them. I can admire the brave faces they put on and the “This will be fun!” brush they’d used to paint the trial they were facing. I’m not sure my children have learned to receive the way I did from that Christmas, but I hope that somewhere amid my limitations, the black velvet shirts of their childhood will plant the seeds they need to one day look back and see beyond the moment.
I hope they learn to receive. Only then will they ever know what it is they’ve been given.