Every year, there it was. As right as rain. Pop’s gift for me, propped among the branches of our Christmas tree. Always the same rectangular envelope crafted from heavy paper with dainty red curlicues printed on the corners. It reflected the brilliant glow of our incandescent Christmas bulbs in red, green, orange, blue and gold.
After all the boxes were opened, I’d pluck it from between my family’s eclectic collection of ornaments — silvered balls, yarn and popsicle stick creations, glittery musical instruments, and feathered birds. I’d fish it from the tangle of tinsel, careful to not touch the hot lights. I’d slide a finger under the envelope’s sturdy flap, bend it back until I could see Abraham Lincoln’s waxy portrait staring at me through the little oval window. And I would smile.
Pop never forgot to give each one of his four grandchildren five dollars for Christmas. It was something we all counted on, looked forward to and trusted, from before I can remember, until he couldn’t remember due to old age and dementia.
The complete lack of surprise was part of the gift’s charm. The envelope always held five bucks. Nothing more, nothing less. The fun was in deciding how to spend it each year.
In the 70s and 80s, I used Pop’s annual gifts to finance a myriad of typical childhood indulgences. When I was small, it might have been one of those shrink-wrapped dress up sets that included a tiara, plastic high heels, elbow-length gloves and a parasol. Later, maybe a Magic 8 Ball. A movie ticket to see Escape to Witch Mountain. A Bonnie Bell lip gloss and some frosted purple eyeshadow. A Squeeze cassette tape. A pair of rainbow suspenders. A new curling iron. Shared chimichangas and fried ice cream with my high school friends at ChiChi’s Restaurant.
It didn’t matter that Pop’s five dollar bill didn’t go very far, never increased for inflation and wasn’t picked out at a store just for me. Regardless of its plainness, Pop’s gift was a reliable communication of his love.
On his modest income, Pop, a widower, would have had to put forth considerable effort to send gifts to his grandchildren. After an economical lunch of fried baloney and Veg-All, he would have put on his signature bow tie and a newsboy cap, to make the trip to his local bank. After flirting with the tellers, he would have withdrawn a wad of crisp five dollar bills. With a wink and a wave, he would have driven his big sedan to the stationary store to buy the special envelopes with the little oval windows. At home, he would have stuffed one for each of my cousins, my brother, and me.
Decades later, as Pop lies alongside my grandmother in a cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky, holiday gift giving has undergone a dramatic transformation.
Nowadays, gift lists are long and require subsets, contingencies, and sometimes, spreadsheets. We buy for everyone from Aunt Millie to the school janitor. We troll the internet in search of discounts, coupon codes, and free shipping. We browse for just the right gift until our eyes cross and our fingers bleed. When online shopping fails us, we are swept into the swirling sea of retail consumerism at malls and superstores. We read the fine print of the sales flyers. We elbow our fellow shoppers to grab the best bargains. We stand in infuriating check out lines, only to be told by the irritated salesperson that the “buy-one-get-one-half-off deal only applies to last season’s merchandise.”
And when the holiday rolls around, these gifts that were acquired under extreme duress are given, appreciated briefly, then soon forgotten, their meaning lost in the gift-giving frenzy.
Pop had it right. Ironically, his annual present stood out among the heaps of boxes under our tree, because it was simple, given without fanfare, glitter or bows. To me, that envelope contained not only Abraham Lincoln but also, dreams and possibilities. The cost to Pop was only five dollars, but the value of his gift of dependable love was always priceless to me.