28. The Message Behind the Gift

28. The Message Behind the Gift

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Merry Christmas!

The Message Behind the Gift

The heart of a father is the masterpiece of nature.

~Antoine-François, Abbé Prévost d’Exiles

I never wanted a gift more in my life. It was a simple gift, really — a record player. It was before the era of component stereo systems, and as a fourteen-year-old I wanted total control of my music. I was still riding the boom of the Beatles and the British Invasion and was tired of painfully waiting for the radio to randomly play my favorite songs. If I owned a record player, specifically the model I pinpointed in the Sunday newspaper sales circulars, I could listen to “my music” any time — in the privacy of my bedroom. That is, in whatever privacy exists in a bedroom shared with two brothers.

I was one of six children in a single-parent home. My mother had died two years earlier after a short but brutal bout with cancer. We were an average middle class family before that. But now, although my father was a successful accountant for a major automobile manufacturer, six hungry mouths to feed on one income changed everything. We weren’t scraping by but there weren’t many extras. Hand-me-down clothes were a way of life. Yet, we were a solid family run by a disciplined man with rigid schedules, strict rules, and daily routines that kept life organized, efficient and predictable.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I pored over the sales circulars every Sunday to ensure my record player was still being advertised. If it went on sale, I would have one more reason to pitch my father on why I needed that record player.

Looking back, my father must have felt overwhelmed, or worse, inadequate, doing the Christmas shopping alone for three sons and three daughters. I wonder if he asked himself: How will I ever make everyone happy? How can I make each gift equitable? Will this Christmas be meaningful? And most importantly, will the finances stretch far enough?

This particular Christmas he asked my aunt and uncle to help him shop. And on that Sunday afternoon I showed my aunt that my record player was advertised in the newspaper again. Maybe she would lobby on my behalf.

I had great expectations for Christmas that year, despite my father’s noncommittal reaction to my entreaties. After church, we assembled around the tree in the living room in our quaint Cape Cod home. I don’t remember which one of the six of us was selected to hand out the gifts while the rest of us watched and waited — I was too busy surveying every package under the tree. There was good news. Plenty of gifts for everyone. And bad news. No gift large enough to be a record player.

I enjoyed watching my brothers and sisters receive what they hoped for on what was probably our first Christmas of significant healing after our mother’s death. Still, we felt her absence—none more than my father. For me, the thought of receiving my special gift was a healthy diversion from the pain of what remained our family’s greatest loss.

As I watched the presents quickly disappear and it became clear I would not receive my coveted gift, I felt the rejection you feel when you’re the last one chosen for a team. I guess I knew it was simply too much to ask. Yet, I wondered how to question my father.

I looked over at him. “Dad, I think something is missing,” I said.

“Really, what?” he replied.

“Well, I was hoping for…” my voice trailed off.

“Have you checked under the tree?” he suggested.

“Yes, but.”

“Have you checked in the tree?” he added.

“In the tree?”

I rifled through the branches, careful not to disturb the ornaments. In the back of the tree near the bottom I found a sealed envelope with my name on it. I ripped it open. There was one sentence scrawled across the middle of the page. “Look in the basement near the clothes dryer.” I ran to the basement and looked around the dryer. Nothing. I popped the door open and looked inside the dryer. Another envelope. I opened it. “Look in the closet in Mary and Joanie’s bedroom.” I ran back upstairs to my sisters’ bedroom closet. I found another note with the next clue. This process continued until my father had me run all over the house. The thrill of the hunt intensified with every note. At last, I discovered the final note. “Look under your bed.” I raced upstairs to my room and looked under my bed. There, wrapped in newspapers, was a large gift.

I shredded the newspapers. Beneath this crude wrapping paper was the gift — a record player. I paused. It was not the one I wanted. It was better than the one I asked for. Far better. I was stunned. I knew I didn’t deserve it. It was a major name brand. It even carried the two words that symbolized quality in that era: Solid State. I excitedly plugged it in and spent the afternoon with my siblings listening to our favorite records.

My father would never know the full impact of what he did for me that Christmas. I used this cherished gift all through high school and college. In fact, I used it long after technology had passed it by. I’m sure my father would’ve been satisfied if I had gotten just a few years of use out of it. I used it for ten years. Eventually, I replaced it and carefully put it in storage. It survived numerous spring cleanings, rummage sales and moving days.

In the end, I kept it for thirty-seven years. This Christmas, it’s been forty-seven years since I opened the gift. It remains the most memorable gift I’ve ever received.

Why did I keep it so long? I suppose it’s because of the powerful message behind the gift that my father unknowingly sent me: The value of a gift is not what it’s worth; it’s what it says about your worth to the giver.

~James C. Magruder

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