Memories: The Christmas Present

Sorry, one more before I get back to the snow.  I was trying to explain about winter being magic, and realized it was missing context: not-magic.

Matt is less than two years younger than I am; I think he has the exact number of months and days memorized, which, really demonstrates the whole concept of privilege:  I don’t have to give a crap.  The younger kid sees the power that the older one has; the older one sees the freedom that the younger one has (that brat).  The only people who benefit off the system are the parents, who now have their work cut in half:  a) free babysitting, and b) a chain of command, which means you always know the appropriate person to blame.  Parents perpetuate it on their kids without thinking: Will this make my kids more or less able to tolerate each other at our funerals?  Will this help them support each other through their various childhood hells?  Will this help them when they form their own families, and discover that they have to work out how to have actual, non-regimented, non-required fun with each other?

But it’s the way it’s always been done around the farm, so of course my parents did it.

Ha-ha, it’s so funny when the kids argue with each other.  Someday they’ll learn that they really love each other.  Yuck-yuck.  Never mind that the love always comes in spite of being hounded for decades over your birth order, never because of it.

One of the strange ways that the birth-order conspiracy carries itself out is in pure villainy.

I didn’t understand this later, until I had re-met my cousin Celina, the eldest of my Uncle Howard’s kids, as an adult.  I thought she was the most awful of people as a kid.  A real witch.

Items of evidence:

A) Eyes were rolled.

B) Snorts were given.

C) Sarcastic things were said.

D) Doors were slammed.

E) She would chase us around the house cackling and sticking out her fingernails, which I think were chewed off anyway.  (She has an excellent evil laugh.)

In conclusion, I think she was a teenager.  Later, I found out she was overweight.  This was not a concept that I easily grasped:  nobody called Chris overweight (okay, nobody dared), and Celina wasn’t as big as Chris; therefore, the fights between Celina and her mother Claire (which I would occasionally catch the edges of) seemed ludicrous.  I found out later from my mother that lines were drawn, points of negotiation were shrieked, and quite possibly things were thrown.  Why can’t you just be skinny like me?

I never really got it. A lot of my relatives are overweight, not because they are horrible people, but because there are a limited number of models of Knippling available:  brown-haired/skinny/tall (me), blond- or strawberry-blond-haired/skinny/tall (both of these models have a metabolic collapse around age 50 or upon retiring from cowboydom), mumble-mumble from their non-Knippling parent, and almost black-haired/tall/brick shithouse.  My model has a risk of hyperthyroidism, I found out later.  Fortunately, my mom’s side of the family has a brown model as well, and my bits and pieces sorted themselves out in a relatively cohesive if not terribly imaginative fashion.  I used to think my nose was ugly, but when you’re a teenager and subject to bullying on a more-or-less constant basis, you have to find something about your appearance to explain what’s going on, because otherwise it’s pure madness, which it is, but you’ll kill yourself if you dwell on that too long.

Celina the villain.

Now I get it.

Someone had to be the bad guy, the evil witch. She was, while not actually that big a meanie, perfectly okay having a roomful of kids shriek at her for her unspeakable evillness.  What evillness, I don’t know, unless it was stealing candy.  None of Howard’s kids ever got sugar at home, which meant they were the raving lunatics that picked the dusty, fused lump of hard candies out of Chris’s candy dishes (crystal, laid out on a Christmas towel on a desk/sewing table/buffet at one end of the dining room) whenever they were over.  Some more desirable candy may have been stolen.  Some bossiness due to the constraints of being an eldest child may have occurred.  But no actual evil, no murdering of kittens.*

Rather than being upset at things that were actually upsetting, she let us be mad at her.  I don’t think she was trying to be nice, but it was.  Nice.  Fun, actually.

Which takes me back to Christmas, which is supposed to be the pinnacle of every child’s year.  Because presents.

My parents basically suck at presents.  Now that their kids are grown up, they often give gift cards and/or boxes of food, and I think they find that a relief.  They often send my daughter care packages full of a) clothes and b) daily newspaper comics, and/or c) craft projects done with my nephew Liam and niece Jillian.  Perfect: repeatable, known to be enjoyed, low stress.  Plus, they’re no longer broke-ass farmers, so it’s not actually a kick in the guts to have to come up with this stuff anymore.

As an adult, I can appreciate these factors, but they are not my factors.  I like shopping for presents (although hell will probably freeze over before I get them sent on time).  I like obsessing over the perfect gift.  That moment when you get a gift epiphany:  it is so very sweet.

I really only developed this skill as an adult, though.  As a kid, I think I bought the fifty cheapest of all possible necklaces for my mother, and I can’t even remember what I got my father or Matt.  I think I got Matt action figures or Matchbox cars at least a couple of times.  We were always playing the damn things together.  Star Wars (Ewoks being the toy of choice), He-Man, Ninja Turtles…Transformers.


You could have gotten him sixty of the same Transformer and said, “They didn’t have anything you didn’t have, so I got you extra backups of the one you like best,” and he would have been fine with that, I think.  Because Transformers.

Whatever it was that he was getting that year, it wasn’t Transformers.

I knew one of his presents.  I don’t remember what it was.  But it wasn’t Transformers.

He knew one of mine.

We went into the bathroom at the trailer house (the second one) and closed the doors.  That bathroom was where all secret business occurred if you had to be in the house, as far as we were concerned: even parents would knock before walking in on you. I think we went so far as to stand in the shower.

We agreed that we would tell each other what the presents were.

He went first.

I was getting a puzzle.

This was, I felt, lame.  A puzzle.  Yet another thing that was not on my Christmas list, which we had both, as we did every year, painstakingly assembled from the latest Sears and Montgomery-Ward catalogs and submitted to Santa, parents, and the world.  A puzzle.

As always, I was not going to get what I wanted, I was going to get what Mom and Dad and everybody decided I should have.  Christmas, I was discovering, was not in the least about getting what you wanted, it was about behaving.  They told you and told you that you had to be good or you’d get nothing for Christmas, and then they made you fill out this stupid list, and then…a puzzle.  And getting dragged around to seventy bajillion Christmas parties where, if you were lucky, you’d be ignored the entire time, because the cousins your age weren’t coming this year, and if you weren’t lucky, you’d have to babysit.

I think I was seven or eight or nine.  It was before Grandpa died, that whole drama.

All right, sometimes my parents got it right, like the year I got a whole jar of olives or the year Dad made us stilts, or Barbie doll clothes, which was one of those “don’t know what you got until it’s gone” situations.  But mostly it was stuff like a pink electric shaver in your stocking, because Matt was growing facial hair, and logically I should probably stop shaving my legs with Mom’s razors.  Oranges.  Who freaking gets stuff you have to get nagged to eat in your freaking stocking?  Us, that’s who.  Cardboard puzzles.  Candles.  Things that are not books.

By the time I was dating Lee, I had no idea how to give anyone anything anymore.  I gave him a towel.  Or maybe he gave me a towel and I gave him something similarly lame.  We were a pair, let me tell you.

But, as I explained previously, a) South Dakota = a necessary sour grapes mentality in order to survive harsh conditions, and b) my parents suck at this kind of thing.  Which is okay.  And I’ve given up on obligatory presents and Christmas festivities, which, honestly, they couldn’t, and so had to laboriously coordinate, assemble, deliver all kinds of things they couldn’t give a shit about, which has got to wear you down.  And I don’t have seventy bajillion Christmas parties to go to, and most of the ones I do go to are after Christmas anyway, and post after-Christmas sales.  And, even so, I’m still working on getting it right.

Plus, food.  Food’s always perfect.  Even when it’s terrible you can hand it ’round:  “Here!  This is horrible!  Try some!”  It’s hilarious.***

Matt said, “So what am I getting?”

For years I’ve wondered why the hell I did it.

“I’m not going to tell you,” I said.  And I did.  I refused to tell him.  It wasn’t Transformers.  It was never going to be what he wanted.  Christmas was lame, he was two years–sorry, less than two years but I forget the exact number–younger than I was and still believed in Santa Claus, and it wasn’t going to be what he wanted, it was never going to be what he wanted.

Man, he was pissed.

All I knew then was that I could not do it.  I could not tell him what he was getting.  He’d find out soon enough.

I think, ironically, he liked it, whatever it was.




*I saw that once, by the way.  One of the kids at the country school who was always bullying me–I think?  Or possibly the equivalent at the other relatively close country school to the north**–picked up a kitten and slammed it against a barn wall.  It barfed white foam and died.  No punishment, as far as I was ever aware, ever occurred: but we were yelled at for tattling.

**There’s always one little psychopath in every group past like eight or so, isn’t there?

***Jackie and Scott had hard root beer for Zwolfnacht this year.  It was horrible.  And so, so funny.



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