Family Matters

Learning from Memory

Sometimes the True Value of a Gift Can Only Be Appreciated Later

Magazine Issue
November/December 2007
Learning from Memory

It’s Christmas and I’m really missing my father. He died 18 years ago, but I long for him almost as much as I did those first years after his death. This new wave of grief for him is probably the result of my mother’s death in April. Now that she’s gone, the funny little thread that still connected me to my father feels like it’s been severed. It’s like he’s died all over again.

Because it’s Christmas, I feel the sting of being parentless. It’s an experience more startling than I could have anticipated. A friend who’s also lost both parents tells me she feels like an orphan. That’s not quite how I feel. I don’t feel abandoned; I feel alone. I really miss them.

My parents were polar opposites when it came to Christmas. My mother was cynical about it, and the holidays often brought out a dark, frantic side of her. But my father was a different story. Unlike many men, he enjoyed shopping. He loved negotiating the crowded stores, and always came home with the same report: he’d seen Santa, who’d personally asked about my sisters and me. When I was very young, he could convince me that Santa had told him exactly what he was bringing us. It intrigued and excited me beyond words.

My father loved to drink, and he always drank too much during the holidays, making my mother’s Christmas moods even edgier. He played Christmas music continually. There was Bing Crosby, of course. Gene Autrey. The Ray Coniff Singers. Alvin and the Chipmunks. His music collection was vast, but his favorite never wavered: “White Christmas.” Until I was well into adulthood, he’d get me to sing “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” imitating the shaky, little-boy voice in which it was recorded. He never tired of hearing me sing it—even in my adolescent arrogance when I sang it as quickly and dourly as possible. To his credit and my relief, he never asked me to sing it for friends or family. It was a silly little private Christmas ritual, just for the two of us.

I still remember the stockings of my youth, stuffed with small toys and knickknacks, and later cosmetics and cheap earrings. Every year, beneath these little treasures, I’d find an orange or tangerine, some nuts and candy, which I’d immediately brush aside. For all these years, I’ve wondered why my parents continued to put fruit and nuts in our stockings as if they were exotic gifts. It must have been clear to them that, as stocking stuffers went, they were just taking up space that could be given to a more deserving toy or bottle of nail polish.

It’s taken me a long time to understand. My father grew up poor, and in the ’20s, oranges and tangerines weren’t nearly as easy to come by as they are now. The fruits and nuts in his Christmas stocking must have been meager but wonderful surprises for him and his three siblings. In describing the Christmases of his childhood, he often made a statement I never fully understood, “We were poor,” he’d say, “but we always had enough.” What was it like for him to look on while I silently dismissed, year after year, the gift that may have made up his entire childhood Christmas?

Whatever disappointment he might have felt was covered up by his joy in giving us abundant Christmases. I suspect it was he who chose my treasured cowgirl outfit with the little fake guns. It was he who chose my bike, my Beatles albums, and my stereo.

How I wish I could go back in time to those Christmases in the early ’60s. In my aching imagination, I see a tinsel-covered tree with multicolored, gumdrop-shaped bulbs blinking in the corner. My mother and my sisters are still asleep. It’s just Daddy and I downstairs in the living room. I reach deep into my red-felt stocking and find the orange waiting for me at the bottom.

I laugh as I peel and eat it on the spot. I pull out the walnuts and pecans and ask my father to crush them with his pliers. Together, we pick the meat from the shells and relish each bite.

He’s as happy now as he was with the treasured Christmas fruits and nuts of his childhood, the same gifts I cast aside for all those years. My father smiles at me and I feel that he understands.

Now I know what he meant when he said he was poor, but always had “enough.” In the background, Bing Crosby croons “White Christmas” again and again and again.

Marilyn Wolf

Marilyn Wolf is a psychotherapist in private practice in Greensboro, North Carolina. She has written for various journals and magazines, including The Satir Journal and Psychotherapy Networker. Marilyn is currently working on her first book.