New London, Connecticut. I WAS 18 years old and Christmas had no lessons to teach me.
I knew all about the values of giving. I had, after all, grown up in a family of six children. I knew, certainly, that gifts given and received were not always those found under the Christmas tree, but those which steal silently into the heart while listening to Handel's Messiah or laughing on the way to midnight Mass.
I was old enough to consider some things traditional and young enough to believe that they would always stay that way; and I knew Christmas, more than any other time of year, was truly a season of song and celebration.
But not so for my mother. She had been divorced for several
years and ill with the heart trouble that was imperceptibly becoming worse. Money didn't go far under the best of circumstances.
It was true that Christmas was a time for wrapping presents: it was also true that the same bills had to be paid, and no matter how low she dared turn down the thermostat to save on heat, there was less and less money with which to buy gifts.
My brothers and sisters and I were blithely unaware of Mother's plight. We didn't have the sensitivity to sense what was wrong and she was too proud to tell us. Mother was an optimist and may have hoped that some last-minute reprieve would occur to make this Christmas the one she had always dreamed of giving her children. It loomed, instead, as the poorest ever.
As Christmas approached, my brothers and sisters put our gifts on the mantel about the gas fireplace in the living room, as we always had. We only put gifts under the tree if there was no room left on the mantel, and that was almost unheard of.
By Christmas week, the only person who had put no gifts on the mantel was mother. We teased her about waiting so long to shop. She smiled and said nothing.
Finally, Christmas Eve Mom went to her bedroom and closed the door. For some time only the sound of wrapping paper and cutting ribbons was heard from the room. When she emerged, her arms were filled with presents -- a large, flat package for Claudia; a tiny box for Ellen; one wrapped in blue tissue paper for me. She placed them on the mantel gently, one by one.
The time had come to exchange gifts. I reached for the one I knew was from mother and opened it. It was a small marble statue she had bought in an antique store once. She kept it on a table in her bedroom. I had admired it often.
The room became quieter as my siblings opened their presents. Ellen's tiny box revealed a ring my mother had owned for years. Claudia got a painting that mother had had since she was small. It was the same with the others.
With no money to buy presents she could be proud of, my mother had opted to give us gifts she could be proud of anyway -- even if it meant giving away things she cherished.
She told me later, a little wistfully, that she dreamed of giving us thick sweaters, bright scarves and things that glistened from shopping-mall windows. She said she hoped we liked her gifts, even if she didn't buy them. Listening to her, I noticed for the first time how thin she had become. Even walking up stairs would leave her gasping for breath. I couldn't change that. But I could see to it that next Christmas would be different.
And it was. I saved money from my job as a nurses aide to give her enough so she could buy those gifts she saw in shopping-mall windows. The next Christmas she was proud of what she could wrap for her children. It was a joyous holiday.
And yet I don't remember much of what she gave that Christmas. I don't remember what she gave my brothers and sisters either. The thick sweaters have long since worn; other gifts are lost or gather dust in the attic.
But we all still have the gifts of the Christmas before. Ellen wears her ring. Claudia has her painting hanging on the wall. And I still have my marble statue. I hold it sometimes, and remember.
Maura Casey is an editorial writer for The Day.