This was the year we decided to introduce our kids to the hilarity of A Christmas Story. Our youngest fell asleep, and there were bits of explaining to do with our oldest so she’d get some of the jokes… the ones we wanted her to! ;^) It is of course the story of a childhood Christmas, but told from the perspective of an adult reflecting — and naturally that’s the only way it works. I thought about the late Darren McGavin’s portrayal of The Old Man in the movie. Let’s say he had, er, a crusty exterior. Not quite the model of an exemplary parent given the particular medium of his artistry. Yet there’s something soft about him, deep down. The story arc of the entire movie makes two things fairly clear. First, The Old Man and his sons are relationally distant, and you wonder in fact whether The Old Man knows or sees at all what’s going on with his boys, so easily distracted is he by the newspaper, sports conversations, puzzles, or “major awards.” Second, the unwavering focus on a certain Christmas present that was simply not going to happen, for fear of the loss of an eye.
Late in the movie, an odd turn takes place. Of course Ralphie gets his BB gun for Christmas, but this is a much smaller point to the fact that The Old Man had taken notice of his yearning for this particular present… despite the fact that in the movie — as central as this acquisition is — he only mentions it once in The Old Man’s presence. The Old Man takes it upon himself to procure said rifle, sees to it that it’s all wrapped up and hidden away even from his wife until just the moment when Ralphie is pretty much settled with his disappointment… and then out it all comes. Ralphie’s face lights up — but so does The Old Man’s, who looks almost as eager as his son. You can see his heart looking rather warmed despite the fact he didn’t get any ties for Christmas. The greatest pleasure in his Christmas morning is the joy in his son’s eyes. Crusty indeed.
I’ve written before about the best present I’ve received for Christmas, but I don’t think I’ve written about the best one I’ve given… though I’m sure I must have mentioned it. This year I’m not getting much, and much of it won’t even be a surprise… and I really don’t care. I know enough about what the others in my house are getting to find greater joy in their faces than what the “stuff” I receive will bring. There’s something about those “intangible” moments that far outlasts the tangible things we draw from beneath the tree.
Our first daughter was born in June, so was about six months old her first Christmas. It was obviously a big deal for us, our first year with a child in the house… there had been nine prior Christmases with just the two of us, including the one when we had just gotten engaged. I’ve always done (and still do) what a lot of husbands do when it comes to gift-giving… I let my wife handle it. There had been a good many Christmases go by already where I had only to buy something for her, and most of the other gifts would simply appear when needed (with a few exceptions here and there… a new jigsaw for my father, for example). On this basis, it was a bit of a mental hurdle when I, having been a father for barely six months and having almost no experience of children before that — especially babies — was told by my wife that I was expected to go out and buy a present for my daughter. Without any help.
My parental newbie-ness already had me feeling a little to the inept side of the parental ledger, so this errand seemed to me to only be a way of broadcasting the fact. What kinds of toys does a 6-month-old like to play with? Preferred reading material? I was stumped, a point which the deer-in-the-headlights expression on my face would certainly have betrayed. My wife provided assurances that it in fact really didn’t matter what I bought, as long as I brought something home. I eventually managed to extract a suggestion or two on where to shop. I must have stared at the display in the store for… I don’t even know how long. I just remember the feeling of picking up one stuffed animal and putting it down, then another, and another. Picking up two, wondering which would be better. Wondering if I was on the wrong track completely. If she didn’t like it, my ineptitude would be confirmed for sure. Finally resigning myself to the fact that the rest of how this would play out was inevitable anyway, I picked up a little brown teddy bear, paid the discounted price, and headed home.
That was nine years ago. On every night but one, ever since, my daughter has slept with that bear under her arm, and it’s there now. We’ve had to make return trips to retrieve that stupid bear when it has been left at Grandma and Grandpa’s house and been left in a fabric store. It’s been patched at least three times where its fur was rubbed off completely leaving holes to expose its stuffing. When she broke her arm a month before she started kindergarten, the bear was tucked under her arm for the visit to the hospital. She had an x-ray taken of her arm, of course… and the bear was x-rayed as well. We have the x-ray of the bear safely tucked away with a growing collection of her childhood mementos.
That bear now reminds me of two things. First, it reminds me of the Greek word sometimes translated as “one-and-only” (or “only-begotten”) in John’s gospel (Chapters 1 and 3). It means “uniquely precious,” which this bear has become. Another bear of the same size, color, and type would not be this bear. No point trying to fool anyone: uniquely precious is a one-and-only kind of thing. No substitutes, no matter how equivalent it might look on the surface.
Second, it reminds me of something that keeps me going: even the inept among us can still hit one out of the park every once in a while. And that’s a lesson worth remembering.