Greatest gift was the one he didn't get

Real Life

December 25, 2005|By STEPHEN G. HENDERSON

Of all the character-building maxims that parents try to teach -- "waste not, want not," "practice makes perfect," etc. -- none is more initially incomprehensible than "it's better to give than to receive." Just try reasoning this out with a child younger than 10; you might as well be speaking Urdu. Yeah, right. And one scoop of ice cream is better than two.

We're natural-born consumers. It's famously a challenge to wean a baby from the breast, even more so to convince a child that others have wants and needs, too. Learning to share is a shock, and my first jolt occurred on Christmas morning of 1966.

Eight years old, the youngest of five, I was a little savage fighting for my spot at the family trough, with leftovers my mainstay. I read previously owned books, wore my brother Douglas' old clothes, and played with cast-off toys and sports equipment. My siblings still chuckle when recalling a ski trip one spring when I hit a patch of mud, stopped cold, and went flying right out of my boots, which were still several sizes too big. (I fail to see the humor.)

Not poor exactly, we sure weren't rich. Dad was a Baptist preacher, far from a lucrative profession, so we lived Sunday to Sunday on what dropped into the offering plate. Dickensian? Hardly. Our needs were provided for and there was even the occasional restaurant outing, or, yes, a ski trip. Such a splurge, though, was most likely to happen around Christmas, when the congregation collected a supplemental "love offering" for our family.

It probably never totaled much, yet this annual windfall brought out my greediest, grubbiest instincts about what was, for me, the true meaning of Christmas. Getting gifts! Not second- or third-hand things, mind you, but shiny new ones, all for me, just me! Months before the love offering, I'd be half-narcotized with expectant lust for whatever was then my object of adoration: a sweater, perhaps, or a skateboard.

In 1966, it was definitely Davy, as in Davy Jones, the lead singer of The Monkees. Their television show premiered that September on NBC and, by year's end, I was a Davy slave. On Christmas Eve, I slept fitfully. Forget sugar plums. Visions of Davy were dancing through my head, as I soon would be, too, while listening to my new Monkees record or swinging my Monkees lunchbox.

Santa was scarcely mentioned in our religious household. I knew full well where presents came from -- God's generosity as manifested by Mom and Dad. When they gathered us around the tree the next morning, I noticed it had the usual quantity of lights and tinsel, but -- strangely -- not nearly as many packages beneath.

After some ominous throat-clearing, Dad explained that there had been an earthquake in Chile. Or, a mudslide in Honduras. Truthfully, I don't recall what exactly the tragedy was or where it occurred. Maybe I never heard. In my head, I was probably humming a Monkees melody and nearly missed the next news. After much prayer, Mom and Dad decided our family should share the suffering and so they'd donated the "love offering" to buy blankets for those in need. My three sisters blinked. Their mini-skirts and go-go boots gone. Doug swallowed hard. No lacrosse stick for him.

But an 8-year-old doesn't understand a quid pro quo. I didn't know where Honduras (or Chile) was, nor did I care. Blankets? It seemed ridiculous. Everyone has a blanket! And what if they don't ... what does that have to do with me?

Clumsy of Mom and Dad to present things this way. Then again, reality is clumsy. Some kids get to drool over pop-star paraphernalia; others are swallowed up by mud. Years would pass before I could fully comprehend this inequity. When I did, though, it seemed an important gift indeed. And a durable one.

The other day, in fact, I was out shopping and noticed The Monkees television show is now on DVD. How hilarious! I reached out, nearly dumbstruck as I'd been as a child, but my hand froze mid-air. The recent earthquake in Pakistan intruded on my cheer, as did Hurricane Katrina and Darfur. Sorry, Davy. Someone probably needs a blanket.

.....................

Stephen G. Henderson is a freelance writer in New York.

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