When I think about gifts that I have received and even gifts that I have given that have meant a great deal to me, a ribbon of vignettes flow through my mind - from a favorite doll that I received for Christmas as a child that my grandchildren still play with and love today to letters I have written through the years to my children during the holidays that express the love of an entire year. Some of them still make tears well in my eyes as I remember each of them at a certain age or have specific memories of specific events in their young lives. Childhood, especially looking back, whether it's your own or that of your children is such a special gift that you hold in your heart forever.
But if I had to narrow it down to one gift to write about, it would be the memories of a Christmas when the children were very small. Jimmy and I were both teaching, but I had taken a few years off to be a stay-at-home mom and money was especially tight - I mean TIGHT! We hadn't really planned for me to stay home and we had truly sacrificed for me to spend a few years at home while the children were very young. We didn't have a Christmas savings or a piggy bank that we could open for the season so Jimmy had taken a second job after school was out for the holiday - I think working at a jewelry store. We were going to use that meager extra income to pay for Christmas for the kids. I remember as Wes wrote his letter to Santa I tried to make sure that he asked for very modest things because I knew there wouldn't be that much money. Courtney was just a toddler so I knew she would be happy with the wrapping paper and a roll of tape to play with! I also remember not letting Wes watch much TV that holiday season because I didn't want him to see the very persuasive commercials of the season so he wouldn't be mesmerized by some certain toy that I wouldn't be able to afford or wouldn't be able to find at the last minute. Jimmy worked all day and late into the evenings during his Christmas "vacation", as so many teachers are forced to do. I met him during lunch on Christmas Eve to get his check so I could do the kids' Christmas shopping. I remember going to a toy store and the shelves being practically empty. There were parents there who looked haggard and as hopeless as I felt. I think that picture in my mind of feeling so empty in that moment and seeing the desperation in the eyes of other parents - some who were desperately looking for a certain toy or doll - will be seared into my mind forever. I bought what I could find, really just buying what was left. I arranged all of the toys that night from Santa but I worried that Wes would be disappointed. As the sun came up, he and Courtney rushed into the room with the tree and were as excited as if they had received the jewels of the kingdom. I have asked Wes since he has become an adult if that Christmas stands out, if he felt like he received less as he compared what he received with friends' lists or went over to his cousins' house to see their limitless gifts, but he remembers it as a great Christmas and simply blends it into all of the other family Christmases that we spent together.
As I have reflected on that Christmas, I have remembered what I should have known all along - it's not the money that you spend, but the strength of connection that is the enduring feeling of the season. Of course, every Christmas since them, I get a pit in my stomach remembering how, as parents, we want so much for our loved ones and how devastated we can be when we think we are disappointing our children or that we aren't living up to their expectations, when really, it will never be about the things. It will always be about the depth of emotion - the smiles that pass between us as we sing a familiar carol, hugging each other in the reflection of the Christmas lights, the smells of the season. That's the gift I wish I could give all parents - to know that you can't really buy those kind of intangible gifts - they only come through time together, delight in the season, and loving with abandon. May this season bring the gift of joy and of knowing love in its purest form!