The Challenge of Giving

The Challenge of Giving

When I was 6 years old, my mother gave me $5 to buy Christmas presents for my four older brothers. It was 1955, so $5 was big money for a first grader. The first thing I did was walk around the house with Lincoln in one pocket, then in the other; I hid the bill, retrieved it, and showed it to my best friend Willie. He claimed he'd had a sawbuck once. I thought $5 was as high as you could go.

Soon enough it was time to go shopping with Mom. I was more than a wee bit sad. I was going to miss old Abe. Besides, I wasn't much of a shopper then, or now for that matter.

We hit the hot retail spots in town in Huntington, Long Island: Woolworths, W.T. Grant, the Party Lounge, where they sold fake puke and other essentials. That took care of my oldest brother, who was in high school and learning how to binge drink. But if memory serves, the price of bogus barf was nearly $2. That left me about $3 for my other three brothers. Do you see where this is headed?

By the time I reached Steve, who is three years my senior, I was tapped out, broke. In fact, I was already in debt to Mom for Dicky's present. I couldn't screw up the courage to tell her that I had one more sibling to go. For all I knew, she was broker than I was.

All of a sudden, Christmas took on a whole new aspect. I was dreading it. Sure, sure, I knew the Big Day was about more than tinsel and presents. I was going to be attending Midnight Mass that year for the first time. I'd been going to Mass for months already; they had started taking me the Sunday after Easter. That was the holiday when — unintentionally — I set the house on fire. My family was coming home from St. Patrick's Church and followed the firetrucks right into our driveway, eyes wide and white as communion wafers, I imagine. I was hiding in the woods at the time.

But back to Steve: I was and remain most fond of him; however, we've had our ups and downs. He and his hoodie friends once threatened to strip Willie and me naked in front of their girlfriends — hardly the behavior of a true Christian, I think you'll agree. Another time we got to fighting and mom was nowhere to be found, so I had to lock myself in the upstairs bathroom. As I was resting peacefully on the commode, Stephen crept onto the shed roof and tried to climb through the window. I slammed it shut just in time.

That first Christmas of my gift-giving must have been during a low period in our relationship. I didn't put a lot of thought or effort into his alleged present. Frankly, Christmas itself was wearing me out. Until that year, all I'd had to do was show up on that glorious December morn and receive. This giving stuff was a whole new kettle of fish.

I suppose I could have made something for him. I'd made a doorstop in Cub Scouts: but even I knew that a painted rock wouldn't fly as a present. On Christmas Eve, with the gloom thickening, I went rummaging about in the attic, and found a mess of his old toys he'd outgrown. Heck, I'd outgrown them. There were defective trucks, cars with missing wheels and whatnot, and a Robin Hood fort with little plastic men. Someone had melted Little John down into a gelatinous blob.

The fort was too big to wrap, and the men were too little. One of his surplus trucks was just right.

I can't wrap worth a damn today, so you can imagine what this "present" looked like: Sasquatch could have done a better job. Bro Steve was suspicious before he laid a hand on it.

By the time the enormity of the re-gifting was revealed, I was deep in the woods.