The Christmas Present
This story is from a book I wrote in the 1990s. It’s my most vivid childhood memory of Christmas.
I couldn’t forget the look on my mother’s face when I opened my Christmas present from my grandfather. I was about 12 years old. My mother’s father lived in California; we now lived in Georgia. Gifts and letters had replaced lively visits to his apartment.
He was generous, funny and unbearably proud of his four granddaughters. We were the apple of his eye, the cream of the crop, the smartest and the best. He decorated his long typed letters with dancing stick figures and messages congratulating each of us on our latest accomplishments and adventures. In his eyes we could do no wrong.
That Christmas he sent us flannel pajamas. Not the same version in various sizes and colors, but a different style for each of us. I’d never seen flannel pajamas as feminine as the pair he’d chosen for me. They didn’t have the usual straight-hem button-front top and elastic waistband bottoms.
Instead, the top was a short, graceful gown with a small ruffle repeated at the neck, on the long sleeves and around the long shirttail hem. The same ruffle decorated the bottom of each leg, which reached about mid-calf. Powder-blue flowers were scattered across the warm white background. Every time I put them on I felt elegant and grown-up, like the young woman I was becoming.
But I couldn’t forget the look on my mother’s face when I took them out of the box. I determined in my heart to buy a pair for her. The noisy steam radiators in the drafty mid-nineteenth-century house we occupied rent-free weren’t very efficient. I wanted my mother to be as cozy at night as I was, and to love the way she looked and felt when she passed by a mirror. But these were California pajamas, not for sale in Savannah, Georgia.
Right after Christmas I wrote the usual thank-you note to my grandfather. My parents had strict rules about thank-you notes, especially to him. More than once I’d rewritten notes that hadn’t passed inspection. We weren’t to mention amounts of money he’d sent but what we had purchased with the money. Though we were overjoyed to receive cash, we weren’t to tell him so or hint in any way that we’d needed or hoped for cash. If he sent expensive gifts, we weren’t to be too effusive about them. It was important not to sound fixated on money, on the cash value of things or on him as the source of unusually grand gifts.
Now I needed my grandfather’s help. I tried to find out casually from my mother how much the pajamas might have cost. I counted the money I’d saved up over the weeks, including a little I’d gotten for Christmas. I needed at least two more dollars.
My father owed me allowance money at 25 cents a week. Without explaining why I wanted it, I requested what was owed and offered to do extra work around the house to earn the rest. When he questioned me, I said it was for a good cause; he would understand later. He said he was sorry, but he couldn’t give me the money right now. He didn’t have it, and even if I worked to earn more he wouldn’t be able to pay me.
I waited several days and asked again. He still didn’t have the money. He seemed upset, especially since I wouldn’t tell him why I wanted it. I felt awkward and guilty for putting him on the spot.
I decided not to wait. I wrote my grandfather a letter. I said I wanted to surprise my mother with a pair of pajamas just like the pair he’d sent me for Christmas, but I couldn’t find them in Savannah. I told him her size and asked him please to buy a pair for her and send them in the mail. It was January, and she needed them as soon as possible. I sent the money I had and told him I would send the rest when he let me know exactly how much they cost.
He replied immediately. He was thrilled to be part of the plan. The pajamas were in the mail and the bill had been paid in full. I was overjoyed.
When the package finally arrived, my scheme was quickly uncovered. My mother loved her new pajamas with their powder-pink flowers. She was also caught off guard by my initiative. Perhaps she didn’t want her father to think she wasn’t being properly taken care of.
My own father seemed torn between gratitude and distress. I’d broken the rules about what I could say in letters to my grandfather. But how could he punish generosity? I was glad the complicated negotiations were finally over and I hadn’t gotten into trouble.
This is my first memory of speaking in my own voice. Sadly, it was a major exception to the rule. Most of my life I’ve been afraid to talk about my plans or dreams, afraid to take initiative about things that matter to me, afraid of putting my thoughts and feelings into words. My family and the churches I attended as a child and teenager were more interested in outward conformity than in encouraging me to find my own voice. I survived by retreating behind strategic silence and strategic speech.
Becoming a theologian is about giving up this kind of silence and speech. It’s about letting others in on what I’m thinking about and how I’m responding to what I see, hear or read. It’s about not being afraid to speak with my own voice. It’s about accepting God’s invitation to be myself, not someone else real or imagined.
From Confessions of a Beginning Theologian, pp 106-109
© 1998 by Elouise Renich Fraser, published by InterVarsity Press 1998
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 15 December 2014