by Jean Zorn
This is the season of presents. Of thinking generous thoughts, like whether Uncle Harry needs another tie, and if so, should it be the one with purple stripes.
But the very act of giving produces paradox and tension. Giving, after all, requires there be somebody receiving. And for that somebody to be grateful – or – depending on the gift – not, for we are the people who invented re-gifting. To give a present, to even think about giving a present, is to be suddenly awash in fear and worry: is this shirt too small? Too large? Too expensive? Not expensive enough? What if I get a gift for him, and he doesn’t get a gift for me? What if he does get a gift for me, and I didn’t get something for him?
And this giving thing is all so much work. Slogging through the mall, juggling shopping bags, elbowing through the crowd, choosing between scarves or mittens, picture frames or trivets. Legos? Batman tees? Ohmigod, talking Barbie. No wonder, exhausted, footsore, we give in to the urge to gift Uncle Harry with that sad little pennant of a purple tie.
Which brings me to the single greatest paradox of the season. All our munificence, our generosity, our urge to give, freely and openhandedly, our wreaths and stars and Christmas caroling, are, in the end, all about shopping. About spending money. About stores that open at midnight on Thanksgiving – no, at 7:00 – hey, over here, we’re open at noon. (And about the people who work in them.) About advertising, packaging, commercials, money. No season makes capitalism gladder.
There are bigger tensions, too. Here, there are big box stores and pop up boutiques overflowing with plenitude, while much of the world wakes to another day of drought or famine, poverty and war. We give purple ties as presents, when what we’d like to be able to give is another day of life or health or safety. The gift to a refugee child of a home, a welcome. The gift to a mother of the return, unharmed, of a son gunned down on the streets of Ferguson or Raqqah, a daughter killed in San Bernardino or Colorado Springs.
Our Short Takes authors have captured brilliantly these and other paradoxes of presents. We trust you will enjoy their offerings in the spirit of the season.
Waiting for Santa
by Adina Sara
On the eve of the Christ Child’s birth, so much hoo-hah and excitement going on. Chimneys swept clean, sugar cookies and sticky fruit, the scent of pine and cinnamon sweetening the air.
I’m just pretending to know all about this stuff. My family didn’t do Christmas. It was the other people’s big day, not ours. I didn’t even suffer Christmas envy. I got eight presents for eight straight nights and was firmly and safely insulated against that other kind of magic.
So it was strange to find myself on one particular Christmas eve, tucked together with my three-year-old granddaughter like a couple of stray elves, waiting for something big to happen.
Something big was happening. In the time between lunch and the hour set aside for wrapping presents, my daughter-in-law started labor. Her first contraction interrupted the festivities. “Damn it,” she said, because the last thing she wanted was to have her baby’s birthday land on Christmas day. As if any of this were up to her.
So there we were, my son and daughter-in-law having taken off to the hospital – a Jewish grandmother and a not so Jewish granddaughter, she eagerly awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus, and I, eagerly awaiting the birth of a grandson.
What a disappointment I must have been. I couldn’t answer a single one of my granddaughter’s breathless questions: When is Santa going to be here? What’s he going to bring me? Do you think he’ll remember what I asked for? When’s he gonna come?
How unfortunate for her that it fell on me to keep all those mysteries alive and urgent. It’s all a crock, I wanted to tell her. We celebrate Chanukah, I wanted to tell her, but in truth, that holiday always felt more like a gift-off competition – the Jews leading eight to one. With half a heart I tried to interest her in the miracle of lights, but it was an awfully hard sell considering all the aisles in the supermarket, all the decorations in the schoolyard screaming MERRY CHRISTMAS. Besides, according to rabbinic law, even with a Jewish father, my granddaughter’s Christian mother assured her a place in the world of Santa and holly and all that spine-chillingly gorgeous music.
It was only a few generations ago that my parents, her great-grandparents, suffered over splashed latke oil, reveled in the spinning of little wooden tops to win pennies. The memories were still with me, but they had dissolved into faint traces, like oil left too long unattended. And here is the proof of my ethnic negligence: my one beautiful grandchild beseeching me, When is Santa coming?
I tried to interest her in the other big news. Mommy and Daddy are in the hospital waiting for your baby brother to be born. Your baby brother, he’s going to be here soon. Maybe tomorrow. I tempted her with forced enthusiasm, because the child who had been practicing her Christmas songs for weeks was not even modestly interested in the arrival of some unnamed sibling.
When is Santa coming, she continued to drill me, so I unwrapped my ancestral cloak, poured the steamy hot chocolate, and settled into bed beside her, giving her the best assurances a Jewish grandmother could possibly muster.
He’ll be here while you sleep, I promised. He’ll come in the night when nobody’s watching. When you open your eyes he will be here, I whispered, beginning to believe it myself.
And so she slept the fidgety sleep of anticipation, while I kept an eye and ear open, both of us committed to the inevitability of miracles.
by Linda Silver
My mother was not an ungenerous person, but by the late 1940s – after surviving the War in a cold-water flat in London – she had become a woman who looked out for herself and her family. She had adapted to the scarcities of post-war existence, a life of gathering in rather than handing out. So one Christmas, when she wrapped a giant bar of Cadbury’s chocolate in shiny red paper and told me to take it to school and give it to Robert Blacklock, I was astonished – and resentful.
Robert Blacklock was a dirty-looking boy with holes in his school sweater and socks always bunched at his ankles. Shadows circled his dark eyes like smudges on his sallow face.
The morning before my mother’s puzzling act of generosity, our teacher Miss Flynn had stood with her arms folded as we trailed into the classroom. When we were all seated, she removed her glasses, letting them dangle from a gold chain around her neck as she crossed the room and closed the door. She told us then that Robert Blacklock had been caught stealing presents from under the Christmas tree. Appalled (yet smug that it was the dirty outsider who had done this) I couldn’t wait to race home and tell my mother.
But my mother baffled me by being sympathetic towards the boy – the thief, as Miss Flynn had called him. She’d wrapped up the bar of dark chocolate – one that would have been shared by our whole family – and instructed me to give it to Robert. “I remember that family during the War,” she said.
The next day, Miss Flynn and Robert remained at their desks while children filed out of the classroom for recess. I waited until the last child had left before walking over to where Robert sat miserably alone and thrust the red package onto his desk.
He raised his head. His eyes met mine for the briefest moment before I turned away. Miss Flynn said, “That’s very nice of you,” and I ran from the room bewildered by the undeserved compliment.
I’m not sure how my mother knew Mrs. Blacklock and her family, but perhaps the two women took shelter together during the air raids that were an almost nightly occurrence over London in 1942. An air-raid shelter had been constructed in the basement of the Town Hall nearby. Supplies were scarce, and women shared what they had: blankets, diapers, milk for their babies. Perhaps Robert Blacklock and I lay side by side in makeshift cribs while our mothers talked quietly, fearfully, listening to planes droning overhead.
I have no idea how well or badly Robert Blacklock’s life turned out. What has stayed with me is the memory of my mother’s unexpected generosity and the look I’d seen on Robert’s face as he accepted the present. It was a look of relief, more than gratitude. It was as if, in that moment, he saw the possibility of being whole again.
A Gift of Faith
by Elizabeth Van Zandt
There I was, going on 40 and about to embark on a solo adventure into the unknown. Well, almost solo, as I had Cheyenne, my black Labrador, along. We were in Salmon, Idaho, and that morning I had said goodbye to the last person I knew in those parts. The next stop was going to be Grand Teton National Park, where I planned to camp for a few days, then move on, traveling until either my money ran out or my VW bus broke down, whichever came first, as my friends had joked before I left home. But I was stuck in Salmon, terrified into immobility by the thought of that unknown.
I spent the morning pacing along the banks of the Salmon River while Cheyenne, carefree as always, gamboled in and out of the water. I was so wrapped up in my fear and depression that when two young men came walking along the river bank I retreated to the middle of the river rather than have to talk to them. Cheyenne, that traitor, had no such qualms, and was rewarded with pats and ear rubs.
After the men had passed, I waded out of the river and followed them at a distance. Then a strange thing happened: they stopped and one of the men turned around and, without speaking, held out his hand, fingers closed around something. I didn’t know what to expect – a bug, perhaps? – but not wanting to appear ridiculous I held out my hand to accept whatever he held. It was a rock, a red rock shaped like a heart. “It’s a heart,” I said, inanely. He only smiled, then turned and walked on. But in that moment, holding that stone, I suddenly and absolutely knew that everything was going to be just fine. This gift of faith, given by an unlikely messenger who somehow divined my need, led me then and has led me many times since into the unknown. Without that gift I would never have had the courage to quit a dead-end job at age 47 and find my niche with the National Park Service, which included a cross-country drive to Washington, DC, for my first interpreter job at C & O Canal National Historic Park.
There was a moment of irony when a cognitive therapist I was seeing pointed out that my rock, turned sideways, could just as easily look like a kidney, and that it was my choice to see it as a heart, to see magic at work. Yes, true, and I’ve never regretted that choice.
A Real Place
by Elaine Terranova
How many times growing up did I really see her, my New England cousin, Jo? Those summer visits, each a gift, lasted for days. She was a schoolteacher, the first in our immigrant family to go to college, and during the Depression, against all odds. I tagged after her, affection-starved, hero-worshipping. I loved the soap that smelled like her skin, that flawless, beautiful complexion she had till she was nearly 100. Avaderma. She gave me a bar.
Jo, who knew children and liked them, so whole a person in herself that she had something left over to give: kindness, warmth. Jo, who was a traveler, as I hoped to be as soon as allowed. Miami or the Caribbean if she could afford it, Philadelphia with us, if not. Philadelphia anyway, alighting here going south, like a butterfly migrating.
Jo’s hair was curly and brown like mine. She wore it shoulder-length, with a side pompadour secured by a hairpin or barrette. Everything about her a little asymmetrical, the peplum on a dress or blouse that pulled a little crimped pouch of the material off to the side. The cast in one of her dark, almond eyes, not so much a distraction as a point of interest. Her disarming remarks. Just after my first period, for instance, she took me aside and said, “Now you must never let a boy pull your pants down.”
Jo’s visits always came with presents – the family gift, chocolates or glazed dried fruit, which, little glutton that I was, I couldn’t keep my hands off. And for me alone – jewelry, bubble bath and powder; treasured if sometimes unread books, Alice in Wonderland, Huckleberry Finn. Then the gift that surpassed all others – a pendant set in mother of pearl, a desert island scene, one palm tree swaying under a dark turquoise sky, the smile of a moon. A convex glass cap added a dimension. I dreamed of the place – it had to exist somewhere, where Jo had bought it – and the mustached men she might have danced with there.
The pendant dangled from a delicate chain and could also be worn as a pin. But I was a careless child. When the chain broke, I pinned the thing to a blouse, just at the side of the peter-pan collar. Then the pin mechanism snapped off in my clumsy haste to put it on. I saved the little scene just to hold and look at. My brother Sidney, who was known to be “handy,” offered to fix it for me. “I’ll solder it,” he told me. I gave it over gratefully. Half an hour later, he came up from the basement with a lead slug in his hand, that nervous laugh of his telling me before I saw that something had gone horribly wrong. “It melted,” he said.
I cried for a long time. Now, not to have the pretty thing, even to hold and look at, like losing a real place I could never go to again.
What a joy to read these shorts!
All wonderful! Wish I could write so beautifully and concisely enough to do a “short take”.
I truly enjoyed reading the Short Takes. I felt the real spirit of Christmas while I read.
These stories are all so wonderful. I’m going to hold onto, for a while at least, “the inevitability of miracles,” and think a lot about that little Blackburn boy and the chocolate, as well as the heart shaped rock that might just as easily have been seen as a kidney. There is so much we don’t know about one another’s pain, and it is lovely to think about ways to give others a chance to be whole. Thank you all for these gifts.
Thanks to the gift of writing, there are places we can and do go to again.