The Perfect Gift

by Margaret Renkl

The Perfect Gift

I started hating the holidays the year my oldest child, Sam, was 5 and so pumped with pre-Santa anticipation he couldn't fall asleep without two hours of soothing every night for weeks. That was also the year my second child, Henry, was 17 months old and so intent on devouring the low-hanging ornaments on the tree that my husband had to move it outdoors to the other side of our living room windows. (Good thing we live in the South.)

And, it was the year I was four months into another pregnancy, with Joe, and relentlessly nauseous. Every time I'd try to do some shopping, I'd end up running for the bathroom with Sam careening beside me, pushing Henry in his stroller and terrifying the old ladies in their path. And thanks to our mammoth extended family, all of whom share the conviction that the best part of Christmas is a bonanza of presents, I was spending a lot of time at the mall.

Over the past five years, my frustration with the shopping part of the holidays has only increased. Every Christmas I aspire to be like patient Donna Reed in It's a Wonderful Life, smiling serenely amid the bows and tinsel. Instead I'm crazy Jimmy Stewart, grumbling, "You call this a happy family?"

Our own It's Not Such a Wonderful Life scene occurred at the dinner table last December. That day, I'd made 12 phone calls trying to find the exact kind of tart pan someone wanted, then spent an hour navigating the packed mall in search of the specific underpants my teenage nieces had requested in size Extra Small. Those teeny-tiny panties were the final straw: I could not get my mind around the fact I was spending 50 bucks on six pairs of underwear that combined wouldn't cover my own butt.

So I was in a nasty mood when I slapped yet another take-out supper on the table, and all my picky eaters took turns pointing out the parts of the store-bought casserole they had no intention of eating, and my husband said, in that bright, oblivious, happy voice of his that drives me nuts when I'm crabby: "So, hon, how'd your day go?"

"I hate Christmas," I said.

The clatter of forks and spoons ceased. Stunned silence lay like a crest of new-fallen snow.

More Than Money Can Buy

Henry immediately began to cry. "Dad," he said incredulously, "did you hear what Mom just said? She said she hates Christmas!"

Haywood looked untroubled. "Don't worry, bud," he said. "Mom doesn't hate Christmas; she just hates shopping."

"And wrapping," piped up Sam.

"And the post office," added 4-year-old Joe, who, because he goes to school only half a day is always the one standing beside me in line.

"No problem," Haywood enthused. "We'll help her! Won't we, guys? We'll help Mom do all the stuff she hates to do at Christmas!"

The "guys" looked skeptical. "We can't drive," said Henry. "And we don't have any money," said Joe. "And you're not very good at that stuff, Dad," said Sam. "Remember when Mom had the flu on my birthday and you bought me a shirt that didn't fit and two toys I already had?"

My husband had to concede that he's shopping-impaired. Although an enlightened, domestically resourceful man otherwise, he turns into a Cro-Magnon the second he sets foot into the mall, blindly grabbing any item that belongs to the vague category "gift" and lunging out the nearest door. The year we got married, he bought his 93-year-old grandmother an appointment calendar. After that, I took over the shopping.

"Okay," Haywood said, undeterred in his conviction that Christmas could be simple and beautiful and full of love once more. "We'll just stop."

"Stop what, Dad?" asked Sam.

"We'll stop exchanging all these presents!"

"No more presents?!" The outrage was tangible.

"Don't worry—Santa will still come on Christmas Eve. But we'll call everyone else and tell them not to send us anything this year because we're scaling down, returning real joy to the holidays." He looked at me. "We won't even give each other presents: I'll write you a love letter, and you can bake me an apple pie. To be honest, there's nothing else that I want, and you always take back the presents I give you anyway."

I thought of my sister, who actually enjoys the search for just the right gift for everyone on her list. I thought of my sweet nieces counting on their pretty new underwear. I said to my husband, "The people we love are going to be mad."

But Haywood had already warmed to having a less materialistic Christmas. "Oh, they'll get over it. They're family, and they love us."

I had to admire the simplicity of the solution, the way my husband had sliced cleanly through the seasonal snarl of obligation and resentment. In the place of all that misery and hassle, he was holding out a perfect, shining gift: an unfrantic Christmas.

It was without a doubt the best present he'd given me in 14 years of marriage. I could feel the knots in my shoulders loosen. "Okay," I said, still anxious about our extended family's reaction but giddy at the thought of a new kind of Christmas—one that wasn't about getting and spending, but about reveling in the gifts we already have in one another. "Okay!"

This year, the parking lot outside the mall is packed, the SUVs circling like sharks. At the post office, the line of cars is backed into the street, and people are honking irritably. None of this causes me the least bit of tension. I steer past it all, humming. I'm on my way to the farmer's market—I've got apples to buy.