23: My Own Life

23: My Own Life

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: It's Christmas!

My Own Life

The excellence of a gift lies in its appropriateness rather than in its value.

~Charles Dudley Warner

Father John was young, handsome, and filled with a desire to change the world. When he joined our parish, everyone was surprised by his energy — he seemed to love life and every challenge it brought. As my parents felt it was their duty to make our parish priests an integral part of the community, Father John often attended our private family functions and shared meals with us almost every week. This regular inclusion made me somewhat of an “insider” amongst my circle of fourth grade friends. Nobody ever got to see the priests out of their robes and collars, but I had actually seen Father John in Bermuda shorts and a golf shirt, having a beer with my dad as they told stories and flipped burgers on the barbeque.

All nine of my brothers and sisters liked Father John. I did too. Besides the obvious fact that he was young and good-looking, it seemed he really liked being with us. He could be sillier than any adult I had ever met — the only time I remember laughing so hard that milk spurted out of my nose was with Father John as he impersonated my dad at the dinner table. As a new priest out of seminary, it had not been that long since he had been one of about a dozen kids in an Irish Catholic family himself, struggling for some sort of individuality in a sea of conformity. I think he recognized that we shared that with him, so he spent time with my siblings and me to get to know each of us. Not just the obvious things, like our favorite sports or subjects in school, but things we weren’t comfortable telling anyone else: our secret fears, what we wanted but felt we couldn’t, or shouldn’t, have.

On the Christmas Eve when I was nine, Father John drove up our driveway in his old rusty Pinto and began to empty the back seat, removing ten extremely large wrapped packages. It reminded me of the circus trick when clown after clown bails out of a tiny Volkswagen bug. He carried each oversized and wildly wrapped box (not Christmas paper — that would be much too conventional for Father John) into the house and placed them under the enormous Christmas tree. By the time he was done delivering his packages, our living room went from a scene in a Dickens novel to unimaginable abundance. The room overflowed. We were even more perplexed upon picking them up — they were light as air — and each shook with a slightly different cadence. Father John just laughed and said he would see us all tomorrow at mass. Speculation as to the contents of those gigantic packages went on for hours, until Dad announced we needed to get to bed or Santa wouldn’t come.

Before dawn the next morning, we ran down the slippery wooden stairs, right past the gifts from Santa, to rip open the mysterious boxes from Father John. Inside each package were three giant boxes of our favorite cereal. My boxes said in heavy black magic marker “Bridget’s Life — Hands Off!” I often have wondered if his message and its double meaning were intentional.

To fully appreciate the import of these gifts, you must understand that my family was strictly a Cheerios and Rice Krispies clan. And not even Cheerios with a capital “C” — I mean the knock-off generic “O-O’s” you find on the bottom shelf of the grocery store aisle, that come in giant re-sealable plastic bags that never really re-seal, so the cereal is stale and tastes like cardboard within hours of opening. Sugar cereal was not allowed. The only time we got to partake of such forbidden fruit was at friends’ houses on the occasional sleepover. So this gift was truly a treasure. Cradling my boxes in my arms, I could already taste the satisfying, sugary crunch of eating my Life right out of the box. This gift meant at least several weeks of reprieve from the sawdust that was our standard morning routine.

It took a minute before it dawned on each of us that these selections were not random. They were the single favorite cereal of each recipient. But how did Father John know? Even I was surprised to learn that my brother’s favorite was Apple Jacks, and my little sister longed for Cocoa Puffs. How could he have known?

My oldest brother burst out laughing, and shouted his secret with delight: “Not one of you suspected!”

Father John had enlisted Leo as his accomplice. He asked him to pretend he was doing a survey on favorite cereals as a class assignment. Under the guise of a school project, weeks before, Leo had collected the data needed for Father John to surprise each of us on Christmas morning.

I’ve never forgotten the thrill of receiving the perfect present. It required cunning and forethought to learn what I would want. It was unexpected. The package was mysterious. The present was delicious. But most importantly, it was a gift that would mean absolutely nothing to anybody else, but to me it said that I was special and deserved a unique gift. It’s everything a nine-year-old would want in a gift.

No, it’s everything anyone, of any age, would want in a gift.

~Bridget McNamara-Fenesy

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