THE CHRISTMAS LIST
As I drove my twelve-year-old son Chris home from his hockey game tonight, he asked what I wanted for Christmas. I always have a tough time answering that question because I usually buy myself whatever I need.
"Let me think about it," I said.
Chris was sitting in the passenger seat with my laptop computer balanced on his knees. As we made our way down the highway, he was busy typing the list of things that he wanted for Christmas. His hair was still wet from sweating, but was now covered with a baseball cap sitting backwards on his head, instead of the large black helmet he wore on the ice.
"I'm up to page three of my Christmas list," he said. "I'm doing it in Excel and I've added a column so you'll know what the priorities are."
"I see. That'll help," I said. "What are the things that you want most?"
He started by reading off his top priorities. He wanted the new Nintendo 64 system, his own laptop computer, a 30 gallon fish tank with stand, a pool table, a home theater speaker system, a mini refrigerator for his bedroom, a new snowboard, a motor scooter, snowmobile clothing, eight different CDs, a .22 caliber Winchester rifle, and his very own restaurant quality cotton candy maker.
As I listened to him read his list, I wasn't sure whether it was laughter or tears that I was trying to stifle in my chest.
Chris’s dad and I had always tried to give him everything we thought he dreamed of. Our hope was that his Christmases and birthdays would bring him joy and the feeling of being loved. He was six months old on his first Christmas and oblivious to the whole concept of wrapping paper, bows and the hopeful expectation of receiving the perfect gift. His dad and I spent more time opening his gifts than our own. By his second birthday, his pile of gifts had grown so large that we had to take a break in the gift opening because he was completely bored. Chris was seven-years-old when his dad and I divorced. Every year after, additional gifts were wrapped in an attempt to make up for all the emotional damage we were sure we were inflicting on him by our inability to live together.
"Can you talk to my Dad?" Chris asked. "Let him know the things you're going to get me, so I don't get two of anything."
"Oh, yeah," I said. "Don't worry. I'll definitely be talking with your dad."
I looked out at the traffic in front of me and thought back to the Christmas, more than twenty-five years earlier, when I was nine years old.
It was three weeks before Christmas and I was sitting at the kitchen table dutifully making out my wish list for Santa. Chewing on the pink eraser at the end of the pencil until it was slippery wet, I dreamed of all the toys and new clothes that I would ask for that year. I wanted board games that could be played with my brother, party clothes and accessories for my Barbie doll, dresses and tights like the ones worn by the stuck-up girls at school, and an easy-bake oven with all the little boxed cake mixes. I flipped through the tattered Sears and J.C. Penny's Christmas catalogs looking for anything new that I might not have seen on the commercials of the Saturday morning cartoons.
I thought carefully before writing each item down on the sheet of notebook paper my mother had given me. Was I being too greedy to ask for something that I knew I didn't really need? Did I really deserve to ask for the Easy-Bake oven when I still hadn't confessed to breaking the praying hands holy-water holder that was just inside the door to Mom and Dad's bedroom?
After being certain that I had included everything that I had the right to ask for, I set my list on the kitchen counter right underneath the phone. I joined my older brother David who was watching afternoon TV in the living room. I went over my Christmas list in my head while laying on the floor with my head propped in my hands. I wondered which of the things would be under the tree on Christmas morning.
Mom came up from the basement carrying a basket that was overflowing with clean clothes, and dropped it on the floor as she sat on the couch to fold the pile of towels we had used that week. I turned away from Speedy Gonzales and told her that my list was done and laying on the kitchen counter. She continued to fold each towel, making sure that the corners always matched.
"It's okay if I don't get everything I asked for,” I told her. “I'll understand."
She held a towel in her lap and looked at me and then David before staring off at no one in particular. When she glanced back at me, she smiled, picked up the worn towel and continued folding.
Christmas morning finally came after weeks of waiting and an endless Christmas night of tossing, turning and watching the clock. The rule was that we couldn’t come out of our bedroom until the specified time. At exactly seven o'clock, we opened our door and ran down the hall to the living room. We stopped dead in our tracks as we reached the end of the hall and looked at the multi-colored packages that covered the whole corner of the room where the tree stood shining bright.
We weren't allowed to open any of the presents until after Mom and Dad woke up, but Santa always left a few that he didn't have time to wrap. They were fair game. There were two rolled sleeping bags; a Minnesota Vikings one for David and a pink, blue, and green patchwork one for me. There was also a Monopoly game, two red plastic sleds that were rolled into large tubes, and a puzzle with a picture of a castle in Europe.
Our excitement woke Mom and Dad and they stood with their arms around each other, watching us from the doorway. Mom went into the kitchen to open a tube of refrigerator breakfast rolls while Dad placed a stack of Christmas albums on the record player. The first album dropped onto the turn table and the needle arm slid over to the edge of the record and gently set itself into the groove. Dad sat down next to David and I and helped us examine the gifts that had mysteriously appeared while we were all sleeping. He was as amazed as we were at how generous Santa had been. After examining the cover of the puzzle box, Dad told us that he would set up a card table for us in the basement that afternoon. We could all work on the puzzle together.
The aroma of coffee and caramel was drifting into the living room. I left Dad and David at the tree and went into the kitchen to see if Mom needed any help.
"Well, let's see," she said. "You can pour the orange juice into the juice glasses. That would really help me out."
As I carefully poured equal amounts into each glass, I watched her flip the pan of rolls onto a plate that had been covered with a sheet of wax paper. She was careful not to let any of the caramel covered pecans drop away from the plate.
David and Dad joined us at the kitchen table and we quickly ate our Christmas breakfast. Just as the second album dropped into place on the turn table, we moved into the living room. Each one of us positioned ourselves far enough away from each other to allow for the wads of ripped wrapping paper and all of our new gifts.
We opened each present, one at a time, with everyone else looking on and watching to see not only what was in each box, but also the expression on the face of the one that was opening the gift.
David smiled proudly as he handed Dad a box wrapped in red paper with white polka dots. It was from me and David. We had disguised our gift to Dad by wrapping it in one of the old boxes we found under the basement stairs. He ripped the paper off and examined the cover of the torn and battered box.
"Oh! Thank you," Dad said. "A new toaster. That's great!"
He set the old toaster box on top of the pile of gifts he had already opened and thanked us again. David and I rolled on the floor laughing. Dad looked at each of us very innocently as if he was confused. "What? I love it. Who wouldn't need a second toaster?"
We persuaded him to open the box so that he could find his new scarf hidden underneath a wad of bunched up newspaper.
As David crawled under the tree to get the last gift that was against the wall, I looked at all of my new presents. I had received a clear plastic bank with four quarters already inserted, two new pairs of double-knit pants with matching striped tops still wrapped in plastic, a flower-covered diary, a package of tiny plastic Barbie shoes, a paint-by-numbers kit with a picture of three kittens, two paper-back books, and a pair of red mittens.
David handed the large green and red striped box to me. It was our tradition that the youngest should be the last to open a present and it always seemed to work out perfectly for me. I tried very hard to control my expectation as I carefully peeled the paper back.
The one thing I had hoped for each Christmas since I had been five, was a baby doll. My friend Mary Ellen Doyle was very rich and she had two of them. One of the department stores downtown had a selection of them lying in a glass case in their fourth floor toy section. Each doll was exactly the same size of a real baby and was made out of a plastic so soft it felt like skin. You could buy real baby clothes for it and wrap it up in a blanket to keep it warm. I was certain my parents had gotten one for me this year and had placed it at the back of the tree to save it for the end.
I set the wrapping paper on the floor and stared at the brown cardboard box. When I lifted the lid, I tried not to let anyone see how disappointed I was. Out popped a navy blue parka with a zipper and gray fur around the hood.
"Thanks," I said. "This is just what I needed."
I stood up and walked over to my parents and kissed each of them on the cheek and thanked them for the wonderful gifts.
I never did receive that doll. Now, at the age of thirty-four, I understood that it was well out of the price range for what my parents could afford. I hoped that I had never stressed them with my desires. As a parent, I understood about wanting to fill the dreams of your child. But I was beginning to understand that learning to accept unmet expectations is also a gift that can be given.
As I continued to drive down the highway I glanced at Chris sitting in the seat next to me. The blue-gray glare of the computer screen lit up his face.
"I'm done," he said. "Can you print my list out for me when you're at work tomorrow and then fax a copy of it to my dad?"
"Sure," I said. I wondered if his dad would be as frustrated as I was with the expectations we had created in our son.
The computer whirred as Chris saved his file to the hard disk. He closed the screen onto the keyboard, clicking it into place, and set the computer in the back seat.
"Hey Mom, you never answered me before."
"What was the question?"
"What do you want for Christmas this year?"
A pickup truck was following me too closely and the headlights were reflecting into my eyes from my rearview mirror. I passed the mini-van that was next to me and turned into the right lane to let the truck pass.
"I want a life-sized baby doll," I said, "with soft skin and life-like blond hair."
Chris switched radio stations until he found one with the right amount of thumping rap to satisfy himself.
"Seriously, what do you want?" He asked.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him turn and look at me when I didn't answer. He must have seen the tear that was slowly making its way down my cheek.
"Whatever," he said. "I hope it's under ten bucks."
I made a mental note to buy myself a doll.