Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Gift -- A Christmas Essay

This is a Christmas essay I wrote, and I offer it for your reading pleasure. I told it as part of an evening of storytelling that was recently put on by the Bucks County Playhouse.

By John McDonnell
Until seventh grade there was still a part of me that believed in Santa Claus. Oh, I would never have admitted that to my schoolmates, but there was still a secret part of my heart that wouldn’t give up the belief in a jolly, red-suited man who brought presents every year at Christmas. If you asked, I would have said it was because I had younger siblings, and I had to keep up appearances for their sake. And it was still fun to dream about what would be waiting for me under the Christmas tree each year, so I had a vested interest in not looking at Santa Claus and his gifts too cynically.In 1964, though, it all changed. I had discovered girls, and the fact that just because you liked a girl, it didn’t mean she liked you back. Actually, it was more likely that she would ignore you, which made you doubt your very existence.
As that Christmas approached I had received my first heartbreak, when a girl I liked made it clear that I was the last person on Earth she was interested in. On top of that, I was developing acne, I was in the middle of a growth spurt that made me feel like my body had been taken over by a lurching monster from a B grade horror movie, and I was hopelessly lost in Math class. All in all, it was not a good time.So, I was already in a depressed state when Christmas morning arrived. When I went downstairs and saw what was under the tree, it left me cold.
There was a pile of new clothes, some books, and a bike. It was a three speed bike with skinny tires, hand brakes, and those curved racing handlebars like European bikes. It was everything my old Schwinn was not -- sleek, lightweight, fast.
But I hated it.
It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate getting a bike from my parents, it was that I didn’t want a bike in the first place. The reason I didn’t ride my clunky old Schwinn bicycle anymore was that I had realized something: nobody my age rode bikes. Well, none of the cool guys did. The girls had stopped riding bikes the year before, and the cool guys had stopped with them. The only boys who still rode bikes were the ones who wore big round glasses, and accidentally spit when they talked, and had scrapes on their knees from falling off their bikes.
Things had changed overnight, and in the ruthless world of seventh grade you had to adapt or you would permanently be tagged as a loser.So, I gave a weak smile, mumbled “Thanks,” to my parents, and went upstairs to my room, where I laid on my bed listening to my transistor radio and thinking about the cruel march of Time. I heard the excited babbling of my little brothers downstairs and I realized I would never have that kind of youthful enthusiasm again.
I was old, there was no doubt. My childhood was forever gone.
It didn’t take long for my father to come upstairs and ask me what was wrong. I told him I just didn’t feel much like Christmas this year.
He figured out pretty quickly that I didn’t like the bike. “You ungrateful child,” he said. “That’s a great bike, and it cost me a lot” (he whispered this so the kids downstairs wouldn’t hear). “Spoiled, that’s what you are, spoiled! When I was your age it was the Depression, and we didn’t have Christmases like this! My father was only working ten hours a week at his job, and that year we only got one present each. You don’t appreciate what you have here. You probably wanted some bigger, fancier bike, right? Well, the hell with it, I’m taking that bike back to the store tomorrow!” He slammed the door and went downstairs and ranted to my mother for awhile about how ungrateful I was.He never took the bike back. My little brothers begged to be allowed to use it, and my father let them ride it after much pleading, mostly because he hated to not get his money’s worth out of something he’d bought. There were times when I actually rode it, too, although that was not till years later, when being cool didn’t matter to me anymore.
I should have known better, but I did the same thing when I was a parent. When my son was in seventh grade he was a great soccer player. I used to love to watch him race down the field and shoot the ball from any angle, and see it go rocketing into the goal. I lived for those soccer games, and that year at Christmas I bought a full-size professional soccer goal from a Web site. It had a metal frame and a mesh net, and although I didn’t put it together on Christmas Eve I had the box and a picture of it under the tree for him.
He seemed excited, but not as much as I thought he’d be.
“It’s great, Dad,” he said. “Really great.”
The weather was warm that year, and I was able to assemble the goal and put it up in the backyard on Christmas afternoon. My son put his soccer cleats on and I played goalkeeper and he took shots for an hour while I dove every which way trying to deflect them. He rocketed one ball after another past me into the net, and I was gleeful at his skill.
But that was the only time we did that. The cold and snowy weather came, and he wasn’t able to use the goal for several months. When Spring came he didn’t seem as interested in soccer, and he hardly ever practiced in the backyard. By the next year he had quit soccer to concentrate on basketball. Basketball was the game the cool guys in his school played.
I had to take that goal down five years later when we moved to another house. By then the net was torn and the metal frame was rusted. It had been a long time since anybody shot a soccer ball at it. I spent an afternoon taking it apart, and then I threw the pieces into a big dumpster we had rented for cleaning out our house.
“Damn spoiled kids,” I said to myself. “All the money I paid for that thing, and he didn’t appreciate it.”
Then I thought of my Dad buying me that bike, and how I always felt bad about not showing enough appreciation for it. I realized he’d probably done the same thing to his Dad. Maybe that year in the Depression when they didn’t have hardly anything for Christmas? Maybe the one thing he got he didn’t appreciate, and he made that fact clear to his Dad. Maybe he always felt bad about that, and it was the real reason he bought that expensive bike for me.Because maybe we buy these gifts not for our children, but for our parents. As a way of saying we’re sorry for never telling you we appreciated what you did for us.