Tuesday, December 25, 2012

THE GIFT OF UNGIVING by Peter Nolan Smith

Most of my landlord's friends are married couples with kids. His wife and AP regularly invited them over to the Fort Greene Observatory for weekend lunches and evening drinks. I keep my distance from his guests, since my marital status is an enigma and after a few glasses I tend to recite a litany of my tales from around the world. AP and his wife have heard enough of these to last them a lifetime, so whenever I do join them at the kitchen table, I am mindful to only speak when spoken to. Silence is golden in children, but in older men reticence was a platinum hit to be rewarded with another glass of wine.

Last week AP, his wife and another couple were discussing their favorite toys.

"I would give anything to see my old toy boat." I had lost it in the early 60s. "It's probably in the Closet of Lost Things."

"What's that?" asked our neighbor's young wife.

"My 6th grade nun had comforted our sorrow over lost toys by saying that a closet of lost things awaited us in heaven." I had been too old to believe in miracles, but young enough to still expect miracles from the unknown.

"I have something like that in Chicago." The wife filled my glass with a clear Pinot Grigio. The woman was a doctor. Her husband worked for the NY Times. AP had smart friends. "Every Christmas my mother would put all the gifts under the tree. One each present had the contents written on the wrapping along with our names."

"Did your mother do that to keep you from opening the gifts?" I drank half the glass in one go. My kids were on the other side of the world. I missed them more than words could explain. This was going to be a sad Christmas.

"Let her tell the story." AP's wife scowled at my interruption with disapproval. In her eyes I would never change and she didn't want me to change too. We liked each other just the way we were.

"No, my mother wasn't that kind of woman. Christmas morning would come and she'd give out all the presents one by one. We had to read out our names and the contents. Halfway through the distribution she would give us a gift and then take it back saying, "You're not getting this one this year."


AP, his wife and I flabbergasted by this maternal Indian-giving. Her husband said nothing. They had been married over ten years.

"She'd take the gifts and put them in a closet with all the other gifts that she hadn't given us from previous Christmases."

"Did she say why?" AP's wife poured everyone some more wine. I had a thirst.

"No explanation. Just put them in the closet and locked the door."

"Were they empty?" AP was stunned by this admission.

"No, they felt like whatever she had written on the wrapping was inside the box."

"Wow." I was speechless until I sipped my wine. "And does your mother do that to your children?"

"The tradition lives on to this day."

"And your husbands don't say anything?" AP was looking at the NY Times editor. He was a big man in media.

"You don't mess with tradition." He must have tried to break the string of ungiven gifts without any success. Any man in his right mind would have tried to free the teddy bears and dolls. "Mother-in-laws are a world onto their own."

The three males at the table had at least one mother-in-law and we lifted our glasses to toast our wives' mothers. I excused myself from the gathering. It was morning in Thailand. My kids would be waking for school. Later in the day I would sent money for gifts. After all it was the season of giving and my toy boat had to be somewhere.

If not in this world, then the next.

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