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My kids and I gave each other robotic vacuum cleaners for Christmas this year, the deluxe model with extra capacity for animal hair — golden retriever sheddings in the Colorado house and cat hair in my daughter’s sixth floor walk-up in Brooklyn. We didn’t even try to dress up a gift certificate inside a pretty card or put a bow on an empty box to gussy up the gift; we just agreed verbally to share the cost of the model we could find at the best price on the internet.
In the parade of lifelong gift giving, this functional gift ranks among the most mundane. But out here in the middle distance, among family’s like mine that are far flung across the country, it’s understood that the best gift on holidays is just managing to be together.
I’ve been thinking lately about the time in my life when gift giving was practically an art, a dance, a bit of theater, a feverish orchestration. I was 17, a senior in high school in Memphis, Tennessee, and I was part of a small, inseparable posse of three that included two offbeat boys, Brett and David, and me. Over the fall and winter of that year, we spent as much time together as we could possibly conjure out of every single day. We explored the city. On weekend nights we went midnight bowling.
Brett was two years younger than David and me, endowed with manic enthusiasm and bright blue eyes. Years later, I heard he had a job as one of those big-headed mascots that dance up and down the stadium at professional baseball games, egging on the crowd. When I knew him, his dream was to be a race car driver at the Indianapolis 500.
David was an intellectual with a soft heart and a child’s natural curiosity. I first loved him because he knew all the lyrics on Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” album. We were an odd band, all melody, no percussion.
When Christmas came that year, we secretly schemed in pairs, planning what gifts we would give each other. We all had small, low-paying jobs and that year we saved every penny we made. Brett and I picked out a glowing, baby blue bowling ball for David and kept our plan top secret. David and I somehow managed to find and buy a go-cart motor for Brett, a gift he swore would change his life, presented to him in the alley behind his parents’ garage with a huge red bow on top. And together, David and Brett gave me a brand new pair of roller skates with a silver key. True tokens of love that said: I know who you are.
There was another boy in my life that year, my boyfriend Ted, who wisely didn’t make waves about the time I spent with my posse. That Christmas I was alive in my body, always moving, and he gave me a gift that perfectly captured that 17-year old energy, a pogo stick. I was good at it; he became a pro.
But the gift to end all gifts was Ted’s birthday present in early February, 1972. It was the culmination of a month’s planning and some serious secret keeping among our entire school. In a blow-out expression of how great I thought he was, I gave him a parade. The chief of police provided a permit and blocked off Shady Grove Road for an hour on a Saturday morning. A fire truck parked down the hill. The glee club made banners, and unicyclists, cheerleaders, a marching band, kids and their dogs, a girl in a bear suit, even a monkey and an organ grinder assembled on a church parking lot, then marched down Shady Grove toward Ted’s house. His mother, who was in on the plan, brought him outside at the precise moment of our arrival. He stood on his driveway in the cold, his hands stuffed deep in the pockets of his jeans, rolling heel to toe in his tennis shoes. For five or ten glorious minutes, at the tender moment of turning 18, the world was his.
That year of gift giving fever, I rolled down the streets of Memphis and through the halls of the school on smooth ball bearings. I hopped 50 times on a pogo stick and made friends for life. I opened my arms and received the fortunate gift of ragged, unfettered love.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feaest: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.
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