The date circled on the calendar for so long is now just a couple of days away – the day that commands attention: for many of us the final celebration of any calendar year is the pinnacle in terms of our families, our traditions, our beliefs.
Usually central to our festivities is the custom of gifts. Hoping for, planning for, searching for, perhaps creating, presenting to wide eyes, broad smiles, boisterous whoops, quiet tears – the exchange of gifts plays out each year with new deposits to our bank of memories. With so many recollections to consider, however, it would be a daunting task to determine which of a lifetime of gifts – given and received – might be designated the best one ever.
I initially headed to the dictionary for a standard meaning of “gift” applicable to all situations. Each definition was as thoroughly uninspiring as this one: something voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation.
Still searching for a viable description – a reference point at least – I turned to classic stories of famously-memorable gifts. Tis the season to first refer to wise men – kings from the Orient – bearing luxurious gifts suitable for presentation to the Christ Child. They carried the best items available: gold, the most precious of metals, and two aromatic resins, used in expensive oils and perfumes, in the form of frankincense and myrrh. Clearly, a guiding principle in determining the best gift: it must be an item of great value.
These visitors from afar led me to reread O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, the exquisitely-delicate love story in which Della sells her glorious hair to buy a gold fob chain for her darling Jim’s dearest possession, his pocket watch. Unbeknownst to her, however, her husband has sold his precious timepiece to afford a set of bejeweled tortoise shell combs to adorn his wife’s crowning glory. And I understood anew that the value of the best gift is not measured monetarily but in terms of its significance to the giver and the receiver.
Uncomfortably trying to apply such lofty guidelines to the life of just another girl from just another family directed me to a better course of action: carefully examining personal gift-giving examples in my search for the best gift ever.
Indelibly imprinted on my mind, is the description of gifts I never actually saw except through the eyes of my teenaged father during the darkest Christmas of the Great Depression. He told us kids his story simply and without sadness or regret, when he and his several siblings were thrilled by the orange each received from the landlord – and the rubber ball and tin cup Santa left for each of them under the tree.
Twenty years, a world war, and a couple of kids later, that same man bestowed an impossibly-beautiful gift that took my unsuspecting mother’s breath away. This no-nonsense farmer, who could discipline us by merely clearing his throat, placed a wooden crate at the feet of his young wife. She found there, buried in scraggly packing material, the complete set of “good” china they had never been able to afford, plates and bowls she would use for holiday company during all the rest of her days. My father, that gift…
My mother had her own ways in the gift department. In comparison to a practical dad who was incredibly difficult to buy for – regularly purchasing items for himself the week before Christmas and seldom using new, gifted wallets and gloves until the old ones fell completely apart – Mother was deliberate and methodical, particularly when it came to gift receiving. With her birthday falling on the day after Christmas, at family gatherings she sat engulfed in gifts, their unwrapping continuing long after all other ribbony debris had been discarded.
But her gift to me years ago occupies a top spot on my short list of the best gift ever. It lies across the chair next to my recliner – an original afghan knit in response to my snarky remark that the only way to get one of her blankets was to give birth. She excused my lippiness and created a one-of-kind coverlet designed just for me – and cherished more each year of her absence.
And speaking of mothers, does not every one of them have stashed in the attic or basement a box of gifts made by her children in the long-ago days before they themselves became parents with their own boxes…treasures cut and colored and pasted by little hands especially for Mommy…
At the very time I was writing this article, The Sound of Music rolled across my television screen. Ironically, this classic film actually was a wonderful gift from my mother the year we moved away from River Road. During that very thin Christmas, a trip to the cinema in Springfield was our major gift. What fun, what memories, what a special time together with our mom…
And now I know. The best gifts are only physically represented by an object, outwardly expensive or beautiful or dear in some way. The actual gift is in the touching of hearts between giver and receiver. There can be no better gift than the reciprocal connection of one heart with another in the unbounded joy of giving and receiving. That, dear friends, is the best gift ever – in any age, in any setting, on any occasion, for any heart…
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.