At a monthly meeting for Northwest Christian Writers' Association, we have a writing exercise called "The Write Start." One night, they asked us to write steadily for five minutes on our best Christmas memory. As time allowed, we shared our writings around the table.
One cutesy, peppy young blonde writer engaged us with her account of receiving a large, wrapped package that caused her to wonder until she saw the tell-tale small breathing holes punched along the top of the box. Even in retelling the story, her excitement caused her to wriggle in her seat and gesture with great animation. I watched her Barbie perfect face and was thankful for her adorable memory. It seemed to fit her. She seemed like the perfect girl to receive the perfect kitten.
I wondered if people looked at me, the highlights faded out of my once blonde hair, my once smooth skin wrinkled and etched from aging, trials and illness. I wondered if they thought my looks matched the story of my life.
My favorite Christmas memory isn't the year that I got the presents I longed for. I have precious memories of receiving my Sunshine Family AND a Barbie tent one year. Another year, I received the much longed after Barbie Camper Bus. Another year, I coveted and received a Barbie doll that had hair you could curl. Despite their low incomes, my parents loved giving us good gifts and those early years were filled with hopes and wishes wrapped up in bright packages and ribbon expertly curled by my Mom's deft fingers.
But, the best Christmas wasn't the one I cherish for receiving the best gift. In the 8th grade, my family moved from Montana to North Dakota, bought a farmstead out in the country, and began to live a new life as my Dad went back to teaching high school. My Mom worked at the local hospital, but we learned that even with two frugal, hard-working parents, the demands of an old house and six growing kids couldn't stretch the dollars far enough.
That year, Christmas was an utter disappointment for me. The presents that stand out in my mind were a white cowl neck sweater that was too small, a curling iron that didn't get very hot and smelled funny when plugged in, and a gold heart necklace my Mom got from a punch card from one of the local businesses. As I brought my gifts to my room, I was vocally bitter, complaining with a disappointed justification. After all, they added up to almost nothing in my immature mind.
After the Christmas Eve gift opening, my mother walked slowly past my room, into her room next door, shut the door quietly, but sobbed loudly. I can still hear the sobs she tried to muffle in her pillow echoing in the corners of my selfish heart. Her sobs spoke what my greed had refused to see. She gave the best she could give. We had moved to a much smaller town without the benefits of thrift stores and big department stores with great clearances and lay-a-way. The few stores in the little town had prices we couldn’t afford. The nearest large town was over two hours away. I knew in her heart she wanted to buy better for her children, she loved giving as much as we loved receiving. She was as disappointed as we were with the gifts, but her reaction to my behavior crushed me.
But, my ungratefulness made her pain worse. I don't know how long I listened before I went in with some sort of apology. I'm sure it was lame and the shame of my selfish heart couldn't be vocalized, and I knew I could never really remove the pain that I had inflicted.
I do know that I plugged in the curling iron and curled my hair and put on the necklace.
My favorite Christmas memory isn't an animated tale of receiving a desired gift, it is a humbling heartache I am willing to revisit, to keep my heart from being so selfish and unthankful.