Wrapping Presents Behind the Bed
Ah, the 1950s and early 1960s. What a time. Christmas was kind of low-tech, back then: nobody had dancing snowflakes or motion-activated Santa Clauses. The only 'electronics' you got under the tree were, maybe, a record player that could handle 45s and 78s1. Most of the goodies were pretty cheap, or homemade. But still, there were people bleating about our losing 'the true meaning of Christmas', mostly because of songs like 'Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer'. Loewenstein's (pronounced 'LOW-in-steens'), the fancy department store, had a puppet show in its window, 'Mr Jingle', which changed every day. They even put it on TV, after the local news. The Loewenstein family were Jewish, but they had the Christmas spirit.
Where I came from, Christmas was not a particularly religious holiday. Santas, etc, weren't part of the canon. Oh, we'd sing the more religious carols in church on the day, but that was about it. Christmas trees, greenery, etc, however, belonged at home. We weren't against it, you understand: we just didn't connect it with what we did on Sunday. In other words, it would never have occurred to us to go beating our differently-faithed neighbours over the heads with our holiday tchotchkes. We had ours, they had theirs.
We didn't spend a lot, either. When December rolled around, we got the carefully-saved decorations out of the attic, and trimmed the tree. My mom put cool stuff around the house, like beautiful candles she kept in the freezer the rest of the year, arranged on top of the piano on a 'snowscape' she made out of cotton batting. Hymnbooks were hidden underneath to make hills. There was a Santa, and a sleigh, but there was also a plastic crêche and some angel and chorister candles. I don't think my mother could spell 'syncretism', but she practised it pretty well.
My mother also made lots of things: cookies and candies, mostly, which she wrapped in leftover boxes and gave to friends, neighbours, sick people, the paper boy. . . these goodie packets were every bit as fine as those you'd purchase from an upscale department store, and much appreciated by the recipients. I remember the taste of her fudge, and divinity (with nuts!), and the cute wreath cookies made of green-dyed cornflakes and Red Hots for holly berries.
When I was eight and my baby sister Bug was six, we were allowed to do our own Christmas shopping. We had a dollar each, which we pooled to buy presents, keeping a quarter apiece to buy a gift for one another. We got my dad some handkerchiefs, and my mom some bubble bath, which she loved, a book for my aunt and something for my grandparents, though I don't remember what.
I do remember what I bought for Bug – a pencil sharpener shaped like a globe. It turned, and everything. No, no – it wasn't electric, just one of those manual sharpeners where you rotated the pencil against the blade. I think I was just fascinated by the turning Earth. I wanted to give her a world, you see. I'm sure this had nothing to do with the fact that she grew up to be a physicist. Not at all.
I remember that first gift I bought for Bug. And I'll never forget what she bought me. You'll see why in a minute.
That year, we began a tradition: wrapping presents on the day after Thanksgiving. I got out all our presents and put them on the bed, keeping my gift for Bug in a drawer. Then I spread out the wrapping paper, ribbon, tape and scissors – blunted ones, my parents were careful. Bug had figured out how to wrap rectangular things, so I let her loose on Cooter's book and the box of handkechiefs, while I tackled the odd objects, such as the cylindrical bubble bath bottle. We sat on opposite sides of the bed, using the floor for work surface and reaching up for scissors, tape, paper and ribbon. We wrapped happily along, singing in harmony. Bug sang a song for me that she'd learned in school
Five fat turkeys are we,
We slept all night in a tree,
When the cook came around, we couldn't be found,
And that's why we're here, you see.
Five fat turkeys are we,
We know you all will agree
That it certainly pays on Thanksgiving Days
To sleep in the highest tree!
As I tackled the 'hard stuff', I was occasionally interrupted to help Bug with a difficult corner or a knot-tying trick. Still, she was pretty good for six. I got to work on Bug's pencil sharpener, picking the brightest paper we had. How do you wrap a planet? I thought whimsically. I was lost in eight-year-old abstraction when a voice called from the other side of the bed.
'Hey, D, how do you wrap this?' I went over to examine the problem.
'Ah, I see,' I replied. 'It's mostly rectangular, but you've got this bit sticking up. I have an idea.' I helped her to wrap the gift, which was a small plastic clipboard. 'This is nice,' I said. 'Who's it for?'
Bug and I are both old folks now. But to this day, I have never forgotten the expression on her face as her hand flew to her mouth – just before she burst into tears.
'Oh. . .oh. . . it's for you!'
I didn't laugh. I couldn't, because Bug looked so disconsolate. I patted her back to comfort her.
'Don't worry,' I said. 'It's a wonderful present, and just what I wanted. Tell you what: we'll wrap it up and put it under the tree. Nobody will know but us.'
She dried her eyes and looked hopefully at me. 'You'll be sure to act surprised when you open it?'
I nodded solemnly. 'I'll act real surprised.'
And that's just what I did.