Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Drawing Names

As the kids got older they started buying Christmas presents with their own money. Not only did they buy for Mark and I, they'd also buy gifts for each other. They went on to get real jobs and one got a husband, and while we would always buy gifts for them I thought that the rest of the gift giving needed to be reined in. That's when our Secret Santa started and for many years it has been the highlight of the season for me.

Because Maggie and Nate usually travel to see his parents for Christmas, Secret Santa has been held before they left town.  It is an exuberant celebration, usually after a Sunday dinner that includes real napkins and lit candles seeing as how it is a special occasion. Like the exchanging of gifts, the name picking done weeks beforehand is equally exuberant.  The two married couples in the group cannot pick their spouse, you obviously can't pick your own name, and a toss back is allowed if you had the same name as last year's pick.

You would think that the drawing of six names would not be so difficult but draft day is one long drawn out affair - sometimes taking a dozen tries before it is settled.

Last year our celebration was on a Sunday morning as my nephew and his girlfriend were spending the night on their way to Illinois.  Doing Secret Santa in front of them would have been awkward and so the timing of our annual tradition got moved.

Maybe that's why things went awry. Or maybe it was because I didn't light any candles.

We gathered in the living room and like years before there was much excitement on Secret Santa Sunday. Who had whom? What did they get? Did they go off the list or go rogue? Was there going to be a shocker gift? The kind that makes the giftee squeal and jump and yell "HOW DID YOU KNOW I WANTED THIS????"

As the passing and opening and thanking went along we were down to two people - Maggie and Mallory. My son-in-law stood up, faked a move towards Maggie and then walked over to Mallory with his gift. Before he got to her I stood up and said, "NO NO NO NO NO NO. THAT'S IMPOSSIBLE!!! I HAVE MALLORY!!  YOU CANNOT HAVE HER! SOMETHING'S WRONG HERE, PEOPLE. PEOPLE, DO YOU HEAR ME?? WE'VE GOT A PROBLEM." We all looked at each other and then at Maggie, who by then realized she had no gift from Secret Santa to open, and I wanted to fall on the floor and have the kind of meltdown my kids often had on Christmas day when they were toddlers. But I kept my tartan together and clenched a smile so tight I thought my porcelain covered molars were going to shatter in my mouth.

Maggie, stoic and six months along (the Mary so to speak) said, "It's okay. I don't need anything anyways."  To which I replied, "Well if this were about needs we wouldn't even be doing this because none of us needs anything," which is exactly the kind of Christmas downer you would expect from someone who had suddenly misplaced her ho.

As is our habit around here when shit hits the fan, we couldn't let it go.  No, we had to pick this cluster apart and analyze it to death. Both my son-in-law and I swore we had the right name. Could Mallory's name have been put in twice by mistake? Were we thinking of draw #8 or #9 instead of the final draw? Who the heck knew but by then the only person without a gift kept saying it was okay over and over until she started to cry which made me cry. Will, in an effort to lighten the mood, said, "You guys, just think, next year we'll be doing Secret Santa with a baby." Then he started crying and with that the Secret Santa train made its final descent.

After Maggie and Nate had gathered their things (which didn't take long considering...) and left, I stood up and said, "I don't care what anybody has to do this afternoon. I don't care if you are sick of shopping, sick of lines, sick of spending money, and sick of mall parking lots. I don't care if you have other plans, a football game to watch or Elf for the twentieth time. Everybody is going out and getting Maggie a present TODAY so that when those guys come back for dinner tonight with the cousins there will be gifts for her to open. Anybody got any questions?"

And there were no questions because the remaining Secret Santas were terrified of me.

We scattered to all points retail and that night when the blessed mother and her husband arrived on their donkey there were four gifts for her to open which really embarrassed her but we didn't care. We had made it right.

This year nobody screwed up thanks to Will (the official chair of Secret Santa and finder of drawingnames.com). There were squeals and surprises, and a few rogue gifts.

And there was a baby.






Sunday, December 4, 2016

Junior Great Books

In the grade school I attended was a program called Junior Great Books.  It was the earliest of book clubs when there wasn't even a thing called book clubs, and my parents, more specifically my dad, thought this would be a good thing for me to join.  Junior Great Books catered to Smartypants and High Achievers - two groups that up until that point I neither belonged to nor was included in. Ever. My dad signed up to be a group leader and so I had an *in* when I would have much preferred an *out*.   Dad, however, knew I loved to read and I'm pretty certain that he hadn't agreed to be a leader unless his daughter was part of the package.

In an era when Mom would dig in her purse and magically come up with a dusty Kleenex to bobby pin to the heads of her daughters to wear inside God's house, the likes of Harry Potter or The Fault in Our Stars would be far into the future as the books of choice for middle-school readers.

No, Junior Great Books was about the classics and from day one this book club was a struggle for me.  Like it or not, though, that is where I was once a month on a Thursday night with a few of my classmates beside me (none of whom were my friends) and my dad to discuss my skimmed over knowledge of a Junior Great Book.  Added to this coming-of-age-anxiety-cocktail was a generous helping of a yet to be diagnosed speech impediment.

One month our book was Treasure Island - a book I found myself even more uninterested in than the others. Pirates, buried gold, a boy named Jim?  This adventure story wasn't even close to being in the dreams of my thirteen year old self.  My dad started off the discussion questions and the usual extroverts jumped in with their thoughts and opinions, but after a few minutes Dad asked a question and said, "All of you put your hands down and let's give Kathy and Betsy a chance to answer this one."

Kathy and Betsy?

The silence was deafening as me and Betsy, with every pair of eyes in the room on us, kept our heads down and our mouths clamped shut for what seemed like an eternity. I don't know about Betsy but the earth swallowing me up at that moment would have been a welcome sight.

"Nothing?  Neither of you have anything you want to say," Dad asked in the gentlest of ways and I couldn't look up and I couldn't open my mouth.  I shook my head and tried not to cry and Betsy did the same and I knew then what it was like to disappoint your dad with a dozen other kids looking on.

In the front seat of our station wagon driving home in the dark Dad said, "I think you're a smart girl and I know you love to read.  What you think is just as important as anyone else at that table." And for just a minute I thought that maybe, just maybe, I didn't disappoint him as much as I thought.

It would be many years before my voice didn't shake when I voiced an opinion in front of a group of people, but I kept reading and I kept thinking and what I will always remember from that night, besides my burning eyes and my red face and the stare of classmates whose names I can't even recall save one, is the gift his words were to me.

One voice does matter.  One voice can be the treasure that everyone is seeking.


My current stack