Around the holidays I always rediscover how ambivalent I am on the subject of gifts. I enjoy giving gifts, however, I feel embarrassed to receive them. When people ask me what I want for any occasion, I usually answer, “World peace.”
My trouble with gifts started the Christmas I turned eight. That year my teacher read Misty of Chincoteague aloud to my third grade class. I fell in love with the story of John, Maureen and the wild ponies from Assateague Island. That year, a copy of Misty was the only thing on the Christmas list I gave to my mother.
The gifts started to accumulate under the Christmas tree and as they did I scrutinized them carefully. Soon a rectangular package appeared with my name on it. It seemed the right weight and size for a copy of Misty. It was solid along one side and dipped in on the other three. It made no noise when it was shaken. I would sit there for hours petting the package, anxiously awaiting the magic hour when I could open it and begin to read.
On Christmas Eve, I bounced around too eager to eat dinner. When the dishes were cleared away, I sat down under the brightly lit tree and grabbed the rectangular package. I squirmed while the adults took their places. The rest of the gifts were distributed and everyone ripped in. The first tear in the red and green paper revealed the rear dust cover of a book. I turned the package over.
My heart sank. Instead of the picture of a grey pony on the beach, there was brown horse and a man in a funny hat. “Justin Morgan Had a Horse”, I read silently to myself. I lowered the book to my lap. The rest of my gifts lay ignored.
Later, I dawdled as Mom and I dressed for midnight mass. “Are you sick?” she asked.
“No,” I said as I pulled at the neck of the stiff new Christmas dress.
“Well, then what’s wrong? You have been pretty quiet.” She applied her bright red lipstick in the bathroom mirror.
“I asked you for Misty of Chincoteague.”
“Well, Sears didn’t have it, so I got the other one. It’s about a horse, isn’t it?”
The unshed tears where tight in my throat. “But I wanted Misty.”
She never turned around but saw her narrowed eyes reflected in the mirror. “Why do you have to be such a brat? It is Christmas for Christ’s sake.”
After New Years, the Justin Morgan book was put on the shelf unread and I stopped making Christmas lists.
A few years later, while home from college, my mother asked me what I wanted for Christmas.
“Nothing,” I replied in a surly tone.
She continued to badger me for several more days. Finally she demanded, “Just tell me what you want.” When I again replied, “Nothing,” she threw down her dust rag, “Why do you have to be such a brat?”
Something exploded in my brain. I was a brat if I asked for something and I was a brat if I didn’t. "World peace!” I screamed at her as I stomped out of the house.
Years have passed and I have spent a lot of time and money on therapy. One day, while looking through some old books with my grandson, I found that copy of Justin Morgan. I turned it over in my hand detesting it. That day, I took the book to donation bin and hurled it in. I relished the bang as it hit the metal wall of the bin. It was the sound of chains falling away. I got back in my car and drove to a bookstore. I bought myself a copy of Misty of Chincoteague.
This Christmas, I decided to take a chance. I asked for presents instead of world peace. I was very specific when I told people what I wanted. I told them where they could purchase the item, and what size and color I wanted. This year there were no surprises under my Christmas tree, nor were there any disappointments.