From Chicken Soup for the Father & Daughter Soul

Daddy’s Gift

It is the will and not the gift that makes the giver.

Gotthold Lessing

I sat glumly on the living-room couch, thinking back to Mother’s call the night before for a family meeting. Beside me, the Christmas tree lights sparkled brightly, dancing joyfully off the windows and onto the mirror. There was no joy in my heart, however, because for the first time in my fourteen years, there would be no Christmas this year.

I was raised in a big family in eastern Montana. In summer, there was always someone to slide down the creek bank with and grab tadpoles in the water. With nine kids, we could split up into teams and play “anty over” the roof of our house or call in a few friends for a softball game.

Winters brought us “crack the whip” on the pond Daddy had iced over with water from the hose for the cow’s trough. My twin sister and I joined our brothers and sisters swooshing down the hills on tin-bottomed sleds Daddy designed and built for us.

But Christmas was the best. Each year, Daddy selected one or two of the oldest kids to go with him on a Christmas tree hunt, a hundred miles away where the Badlands cedar grew. There they tromped the coulees until they found the perfect tree, invariably one ten feet tall that had to be sawed off to fit under the living-room ceiling. Then we kids decorated it with construction paper chains of red and green and cranberry strings we threaded from cotton spools fished out of the drawer of Mother’s old Singer sewing machine.

After school, we crowded around the kitchen table as Mother sprinkled tiny red and green candies on leaping reindeer and stars cut out of soft cookie dough. Presents covered the floor beneath the tree, just waiting for Christmas morning.

All that changed in 1960 when my father suffered a heart attack that nearly killed him. The tall, handsome cowboy, who had chased wild horses and won track meets single-handedly, slumped over behind the wheel of his well-drilling truck and plunged us into a world of poverty and loss. With one shrill phone call, our carefree days were over.

With Daddy weak and sick for the next two years, an invisible cloak of darkness settled over us, stifling our natural gaiety and culminating in the somber words Mother had spoken the night before. “Kids,” she said, “we don’t have enough money for presents this year, so why don’t we draw names for Christmas instead?”

Draw names? We’d never drawn names! Christmas had always meant stacks of presents heaped under the tree, paper and ribbons spilling onto the floor, while baby dolls, Chinese checkers and paint-by-number sets burst out of their wrappings. Now Mother was asking us to forgo all of that, pare our expectations down to one gift. The request was so outrageous we knew it must be serious. Without argument, we miserably nodded our heads and agreed.

Taking a sheet of paper from a tablet, Mother tore it up into strips and handed them to my sister. One by one, we each took a piece and wrote our name on it in pencil, then dropped it into the crown of Daddy’s black Stetson hat. Stirring them up, Mother silently passed the hat to my brother, my sister and my other brother. I watched while they withdrew a name, checked quickly to make sure it wasn’t their own and secreted it away in their pants pockets. When my turn came, I closed my eyes, stuck my hand into the satin lining and felt for one ragged edge. As old as I was, I could hardly keep from bawling.

Christmas morning we arose glum and silent. Instead of rushing loudly down the stairs to tear into presents, we silently filed into the living room and settled around the lonely, store-bought tree. Mother and Daddy took their seats behind us while my brother knelt down and began sorting through the gifts. Reading each tag aloud, he handed the box to its owner and then turned to get another.

Mine wasn’t even a box, just an envelope with its flap licked shut.

What is this? I wondered. This isn’t even a present; it’s just a card.

I could hardly keep my disappointment from showing as I slipped my finger under the edge, slit it open and pulled out a Christmas card showing a church lit up at evening. Bits of red and yellow light spilled out on the snow through the stained-glass windows, and buggies stood tied up beside the big evergreen trees.

Inside was a golden coin. A little bit bigger than a quarter, it profiled a Grecian woman with her hair pulled back in a knot and tendrils escaping beneath a crown labeled “LIBERTY.” Tiny stars encircled her head, thirteen in all, ending at the number 1853, which was stamped across the bottom.

Boldly written across the page in Daddy’s barely legible scrawl was my name and this note:

Dear Wanda:

This coin was minted with gold dug by your Uncle Hulva, your grandmother’s uncle. It is the last one I have, and I wanted you to have it for Christmas.

Merry Christmas,

I looked up. He was watching me to see what my reaction would be. As young as I was, I knew instantly this coin was of great value to him and that it had taken a lot for him to give it up.

“Thank you, Daddy,” I said.

A slight incline of his head acknowledged my thanks, and we turned to watch the next gift being opened.

Late that afternoon, I found myself drifting down the stairway to the basement. There was Daddy, standing alone by the old oil burner, almost as if he was waiting for me.

I went up to him and said once more, “Thank you so much for the golden coin, Daddy.”

He looked at me quietly, then began to speak. “When you twins were born, Mommy had a really hard time. Rita was born first and she didn’t have any trouble, but then you started to come. I was sitting in the waiting room when the doctor came out and said to me, ‘We’re having trouble with Marilee, and I have to know—which one do you want me to save, your wife or your child?’”

Long wet tears started to slide down his face; this, from my father whom I had never seen cry. Anguish pierced the sapphire blue eyes Mother had fallen in love with over twenty years before.

“Do you know what it is like,” he wrenched, “to have to choose between your wife and your child?”

Great sobs wracked his body as he wept louder. I stood astonished, at my father, broken before me, and the startling news that my mother had almost died giving birth to me. I could not bear to see him hurting so, and I stepped forward and took him in my arms to comfort him. “It’s all right, Daddy,” I said, pressing my cheek into the dampened wool of his Pendleton shirt. His arms tightened around me, anchoring me to the steady kerthump-kerthump of his weakened heart.

“I told him, ‘My wife,’ and then I sat down in my chair and I began to pray. I asked God to let you live.” Like rain pouring off a windowpane, the tears streamed down his face as he held me back from his chest and said, “It was the first time in my life I ever prayed.”

In stunned surprise, I absorbed those words. My father, who lived his life separate from God, who never acknowledged his being, had prayed for me. My father, when forced to make the most awful decision a man could ever make, had turned away from me.

I struggled with the choice he made. At the time of my birth, he had six children less than five years of age, and now my twin sister had just been born. Without a wife, how could he take care of them? Who would feed them, bathe them, put shoes on their feet? Who would change their diapers and nurse them through colds and the chicken pox? How could he leave them to go to his work drilling water wells far from his home?

Without a child, his family would survive. Without his wife, they would not. But he could not bear to give me up. So on that day, just four days before Christmas 1949, when his heart was torn with the thought of losing me, his unborn child, my father, the atheist, had begged God for me.

It was a gift worth far more than gold.

Wanda Rosseland

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