Sunday, December 2, 2012

Santa's Little Helper

By Terri Lively

I unwrapped the box. Seeing the picture, I was confused. Was my gift really what the picture was on the box? Or was this box repurposed from one of my brother’s presents in years past? 

As I popped the tape on the box that looked suspiciously like it was done at the factory and not with the Scotch tape on my parent’s desk, I peered in the box looking for telltale signs of substitute stuffing, like newspaper or crumpled tissue paper in red or green. All I saw was solid Styrofoam.

Even so, I was still not convinced that I was truly unwrapping a star ship intended for me, a little girl who liked to play dress up princess in the backyard, who sang Olivia Newton John’s Hopelessly Devoted to You into her hairbrush and who took her Barbies with her in the pool. But it was. And I was confused.

This was it...I can't believe I found it on Google!

“Is this…for me?” I asked, puzzled.

“Yup!” Dad smiled at me.

“Okay…” I pulled the whole ship out of the box, Styrofoam screeching in protest as I liberated it from the cardboard confines of the box. I lifted it up into the air. My older brother let out a wolf-whistle. He thought she was a beautiful little space ship.  Maybe it was for him after all.

“Push the buttons. It makes noise,” My dad said, encouraging me by gesturing with his hands.

I pushed the red button on the spaceship’s neck. It started with a rumbling sound that sounded like a jet engine, rising to a tight hum that indicated the ship was taking off.  I pressed the button again, and it roared again back down as if the ship were landing. I had to admit, it was kind of cool.

“But it’s a boy’s toy.” I said, almost like a question.

“Why do you think that?” dad asked, looking genuinely surprised that I would assign this toy to the “boy” category.

“Because…it’s a spaceship?” This was an actual question. Come to think of it, I didn’t know why I said it was a boy’s toy.

“I don’t see why just because it’s a spaceship that it means only boys can play with it.” Dad reasoned.

The Christmas frenzy moved on to one of my siblings opening another gift and I was left looking at the spaceship in my hands. Sure, why couldn’t I play with a spaceship? I stood up, smoothed the tulle of my big pink Christmas tutu, yanked the panties out of my rump, and started to fly my space ship around the room. I really kind of liked it.

My dad loves Christmas. He is very generous and jolly on Christmas morning, like Santa’s little helper. He loves shopping and wrapping and watching us all open our gifts. He puts a lot of time and energy in to selecting gifts for us.

As a result of his love affair with Christmas and his on-again, off-again relationship with stereotypes and expectations, my dad has always pushed the envelop with creative gifts. We give him a really hard time about it but when I reflect back on my Christmases’ past, these gifts made some of my favorite Christmas memories.

For instance, there was the year that we all got the same gift in our stockings called “Harpin’ It Easy: A Complete Harmonica Instruction Package. It came with a harmonica and a book about the size of a postcard. There was also a cassette that taught you what was in the book (and Google is AMAZING, because I found a picture of it, one that is available on eBay, and two you tube clips that feature lessons from the cassette).

Now the thing you gotta understand about a harmonica is that real harmonica players do not call it a harmonica. Real blues players call it a harp. That’s short for mouth-harp. See you didn’t even need to get the gift and you learned something. Pretty cool, huh?

But we thought that was the silliest gift ever. It wasn’t really. It was an opportunity. An opportunity missed by all of us, that’s for sure, since I don’t think any of us ever took the time to actually learn the blues harmonica. Opportunity knocked and we turned off the porch light and told it to move on to the next doorstep.

Too bad, because right in the intro of Harpin’ it Easy it tells you that if you work hard and “listen” you can be as good as the Ozark Mountain Daredevils.  I like to think your newfound musical skills could have also made you the featured act on C block after lights out in prison.

This clip on you tube just proved what jerks we are and what could have been:

Sigh. That coulda been me...

The source of our mirth was also the source of the harmonica lesson kit. The store my father shopped at with a frequency that may have needed a 12 –step program was the REO Salvage and Freight. But we didn’t call it that. We called it the Gettin’ Place.

We are a family of bargain hunters. We take pride as a family in getting a good deal on our goods and services.  We think paying full retail is for suckers. We were taught at a young age about the value of a dollar and working with a budget. Me less so than my older siblings, but I still got it, more or less.

I remember once, later in life, telling my dad that I found an apartment that had everything I wanted--a pool, a gym, a tennis court, crown molding, in-unit laundry--but it was really expensive.  His response to me was “Well that isn’t hard!” I was annoyed at the time but really he was right. That’s like lesson one in the whole bargain hunting philosophy: It’s easy to get what you want if you pay a lot of money for it. Finding it cheap is the skill (and thrill) of bargain hunting.

The Gettin’ Place illustrated a more advanced concept of bargain hunting. This was where you could find all the things you never knew you wanted at a good price. The store was about a ten-minute drive from my parent’s home and had an odd assortment of inventory that changed on a regular basis. One day they might have radiator caps and the next day they had tubs of dog biscuits and because they were salvaged from the wreckage of various calamities, they were cheap.

It was the nature of the changing of the inventory that drew my father there. It was his hobby to find value in things that other people would overlook. So sifting through the stock at the Gettin’ Place was one of the many stops on his running of the traps that he did to provide for his family. I’m not sure which warehouse fire yielded it, but we were pretty certain that Harpin’ It Easy was provided to us by the Gettin’ Place.

But the best presents that ever “fell off a jack-knifed rig on the East Bound 40 in West Texas” were the rings. That was the Great Ring Swap Christmas.

Each of us girls got a ring as a present. It came in a little red box. They were little pretty rings with costume jewels on them, the kind you can buy at Claire’s Boutique or whatever the popular trinket store is these days.  My ring had two ivory pearls on a gold band.

When all the girls had opened their rings, dad asked if we liked them. We all smiled and said “Sure.” Or “Yes, it’s lovely” or whatever else. He looked a little disappointed, so he asked again.

“Are you sure you like your ring?” he asked again, leading us to another answer.

“Why?” we asked, not sure where he was going with this.

“Because…” he said, raising a finger beside his face, pausing for effect so he had all of our attention… then turned around and left the room.  Each of us was looking at each other wondering what on earth was going on. We could hear rummaging in the closet of his office.  Then, mom groaned. Clearly she knew what was up. He returned to the family room where we all were waiting, intrigued by what he was doing in the closet that made mom cringe and hide her face in her hands. His hands were carrying something behind his back.

“…I have more rings to choose from!” he announced, as if he hadn’t just left the room for 3 solid minutes with no explanation or even a “just a sec.” beforehand. He has a flair for drama.

From behind his back, he pulled out a grey foam trey with about 30 to 50 rings on it. It looked like what the dentist has for you when you leave the office and didn’t bite him when you were in the chair. There were rings with costume sapphires and emeralds, and even cubic zirconia, which is the sparkling “diamond” of fake rings.

Then in his best snake-oil salesman voice, he said, “You can trade the ring you have for two of these rings, or one of these rings.” He drew circles in the air above the various rings indicating which ones were worth two for one of our rings and which were an even trade.

We all gathered around the rings, trying them on and comparing them. We all laughed and joked about how silly it was, but the truth is, we loved it. I still love it. The Great Ring Swap was one of the most fun Christmas mornings we had.

Christmas with my own family has just begun to be frenzied and fun. The kids are just old enough to get really excited about opening presents and Santa coming.

I do most of the shopping but I have the kids help.  I had them go through the Target catalog and circle everything they wanted, like a registry. And starting on Black Friday and it’s cousin Cyber Monday, I have started purchasing it. Soon all the best that China has to offer will be arriving via UPS and FEDEX. It’s a cool system and fairly hassle-free.

But I am missing the eccentric and unusual gifts my dad procured from the Gettin’ Place. There will be no unusual and comical gifts that my kids didn’t even know they wanted. There will be no shopping and swapping of accessories. It will be fun, just not the kind of fun my dad would have had in store for us.

I opted to stay in California for Christmas this year.  Travelling on the high-holidays with little kids sucks at a level so intensely that it is hard to crack jokes about it without sounding grouchy and bitter. But even so, I regret it. I miss my dad’s jovial cackle as we discover what treasures he picked out for us. His originality, and theatricality, made our Christmases more special and memorable than any “registry” ever would.

Maybe someday I will find the left coast equivalent of the Gettin’ Place where I will find the gifts that my kids didn’t expect. And I hope when I do that they will reflect back on their Christmases of their childhood and feel as loved as I do by my dad.