Friday, December 23, 2011
A Christmas Gift
It actually was the night before Christmas and the two boys were running out of both time and money. With just a few dollars in their pockets, they walked the length of the shopping center, looking into any number of stores, but they couldn’t find a present for their grandmother.
They had never imagined that they might fail. After all, on the morning after Thanksgiving Santa’s helicopter landed in the parking lot of this shopping center to start the holiday season. Elvis Presley’s Rolls Royce had been displayed there, with 16 coats of gold paint flecked with real gold and leather seats in the back and a little bar you could see from the other side of the velvet rope. This shopping center had everything. Surely there was a present for their grandmother.
But she was not easy to buy for. She kept gumdrops in a dish for her grandchildren but she also owned a French poodle with a frantic, yapping disposition that only an old person could love. She believed that the Coca-Cola in six ounce bottles tasted better than the Coca-Cola in larger bottles. She made fresh applesauce. They knew her narrowly, the way kids do, and were unable to recognize her in the black and white photograph of the dashing 1920s couple. She was recently widowed and she didn’t drive and it was too far to walk to the grocery store or the church. She lived life almost completely in the kitchen and living room of her little house, they thought.
In the last hour before closing time, customers thinned out and the boys retraced their steps. The bookstore. She was their warm, familiar grandmother, but they had no idea what she might read there on the other side of the long divide between youth and age. The refreshment stand. They didn’t dare buy themselves a fresh pretzel to share, as their funds were so low. The gift carts were stacked with odd cheeses and meats that required no refrigeration and boxes of novelty crackers and sweets that felt half-empty when lifted for a closer look. They considered a number of strange knickknacks likely to be tucked out of sight in a closet forever. In the holiday spirit shopkeepers had conspired somehow to fill the whole place with junk. Taunted a little by joyous Christmas music, the boys pressed on. Their time grew very short.
By rehearsing what they knew of her circumscribed life, they ended up at last, nearly in desperation, in the housewares department of one of the larger stores. But a cooking spoon or a potholder seemed an embarrassingly bland present for their grandmother. The boys couldn’t have put it into so many words, but buying her housewares felt somehow like a cruel accusation that she was just an old woman living alone with her poodle dog in her little house.
But in housewares the boys found a white, quilted toaster cover with a happy poodle on the side. There was a loose thread, a Made in China label, and a price of three dollars, which they could still afford. A gift is a hunch about another person, a clue about how deeply the receiver of the gift is known. She did love her dog Mitzi. The white fabric was bright and the image of the dog was cheerful and vivid. They were out of time. Maybe this gift was okay. It would have to be.
So they bought it in the last half hour of Christmas shopping and wrapped it that night and handed it over dutifully the next morning. Later they heard that she loved it because it was so unexpected and so well chosen. And there on the tidy counter in her narrow, sunny kitchen that sometimes smelled of chicken roasting or apples stewing, she covered her toaster with the cloth image of that bouncing poodle for the remaining few months of her life.
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