My friend, Janis Collins, recently told this story at the Beaverton Story Slam. I asked her permission to share it on my blog.
I’m not sure what woke me up first that Christmas night – the creak of my older brother’s footsteps on the wood floor or my own adrenaline. But when I padded into the large cold living room, Gary was already standing in the dark chewing his fingernails. Staring at it.
In the dim light, I could see that Santa had come through with the expected presents. That was not what drew our attention. It was the monster: a gargantuan mass that now spread from the far end of the room to just a foot from where we stood.
“Geeze.” Gary said. “It’s bigger than yesterday. Bigger than last night even.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Way bigger.” I took a step toward it. Gary grabbed my arm. “Don’t.
Go back to bed.”
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
This story really begins in Sweden in 1905. A little orphan girl named Anna and her brother were about to embark on the journey of their lives. A journey across the Atlantic that would take them to new homes where they would be raised by strangers in America.
Anna was destined for a farm in Minnesota, where an uncle and his wife joyfully awaited her arrival. Or so she had been told.
When she and brother Nels arrived in New York, they met a man who had been paid to accompany them on the cross-country train. The ner-do-well simply pinned a sign on them stating their destinations and abandoned them as they boarded the train.
Anna’s fate did not improve when she arrived in Minnesota.
It seems that the original aunt who wanted a child had died. Since then, the uncle had married a woman who already had children and did not want another. She made that obvious. It was truly a Cinderella story – but without the ball, the glass slipper or the prince. She was given tough chores and no love.
At Christmas, all the children got gifts. Except for her. One year was an exception. She got a single thimble to protect her thumb when she was mending their garments.
From what I can gather that wounded girl gave herself a Scarlet O’Hara pledge when she became a young adult. I will never be poor again, she must have said. And she made sure of that.
Anna gave birth to my mother – her only child – at age 20. And from the time she worked as the sole cook for 40 men in a horse-powered logging camp, till the time she and her husband ran a mom and pop grocery in Missoula, she always sacrificed and saved.
She wore shoes with holes in the toes. She mended her sheets, handkerchiefs, and socks. She never went to a restaurant on her own free will. And when she did, she ordered the cheapest thing on the menu and never left a tip. Heavens no! She was stingy to the core.
But not when it came to presents. I don’t know what the woman would have thought about Black Friday if she’d lived to see it – but I think she would put those black belt shoppers to shame. She started shopping for Christmas the day after. And my mother told stories of Grandma Anna being the last customer ushered out of the Missoula Mercantile on Christmas Eve.
Consequently, we got lots of presents. I mean lots of presents. Grandpa Bob ordered industrial rolls of Christmas paper. They hung on an actual butcher paper roller with a cutting blade.
The present delivery began about two weeks before Christmas, each day Grandpa Bob arriving with a station wagon full. The mass of presents grew daily and took on a life of its own as it swallowed up the living room one bow at a time: the Christmas monster.
The living room was so full of presents that the group gathering at 9 on Christmas morning all tore into their presents at the same time. No one watched each other. We barely finished in time for noon brunch as it was.
As young adult, I had inherited my grandmother’s tight-fisted tendencies. And like her, I did love to shop for Christmas presents. But my take was different than Grandma’s. I did not go for quantity. My biggest quest was the present for Grandma. I remember walking the streets of downtown Eugene after my last college final looking for the prefect blouse. I would return to stores two and three times before I made my selection. Every year, I gave her a blouse. And every year I bought her one just a bit better than the year before.
My grandmother died in 1982. I returned home for the funeral and to help my mother pack Grandma’s belongings. Imagine my shock when I cleaned out her closet. On the top shelf were three piles of white retail boxes with tissue paper inside. In each one lay a Christmas blouse – tags on. She had never worn a single one of them
Somehow I thought my giving the perfect blouse was a way to pay her back. But clearly my efforts had failed. I sat on the edge of her bed fighting back tears.
Over time I was able to put this present thing in perspective. None of this was about me at all. Maybe buying all those presents were really about a little girl who grew up with nothing and tried in some tangible way to even the score. And maybe, just maybe, no matter how much wealth she acquired or how much she bought, deep down she never could convince herself she deserved more than a thimble.
This story reminds me of a card I received from a client several years ago. It read: “The most important things in life aren’t things.”
As the holiday hustle and bustle continues, I invite you to take a breath and reflect on Janis’s story.
Then, I encourage you to reflect on whether your holiday energy is going into the things in your life that are most important to you!