Gifts Assorted

I played piano for a holiday party in one of the historic mansions of Saratoga Springs last night. Can’t help but reflect on how things change. Not too long ago I myself was the hostess of a similar affair. Then too, I sat at the piano and played Christmas carols and led the guests in song. Only now, my back faced the singers as I sat at an old upright, out-of-tune piano in the foyer of someone else’s home. Back then, I looked out over my ancient baby grand at my friends as they sang, enjoying their faces, the look of pleasure and togetherness I recognized on them, savoring the moment and filing away the images in my mind to remember forever. Last night, although kindly treated and fully appreciated, I was an outsider. For a moment here and there, I missed the old days, and ever so briefly, my heart became sad. Even still, having been rather cloistered away in my tiny country cottage these past three years, I was happy at the opportunity to be playing again among people.

Elihu had spent the evening running up and down the four wooden staircases, dropping wine corks down the center to the hall below, just missing the heads of guests standing in line for the bathroom. He befriended a small boy – very much of the same spirit as he – and the two darted through the forest of grown ups, following on small adventures through the house’s many rooms. As I played just about the whole three hours I was there, he had lots of time to himself. The books and drawing materials I always bring along with us to keep him entertained sat untouched at my feet as he explored the huge house, befriending cats, a dog, discovering a large game fish mounted on the wall of the billiard room on the top floor. He announced when we got in the car – and reiterated several times later on – that it had been his very favorite party ever. And this kid’s been to his share. “Why?” I asked, sincerely curious. “Because I could be alone. No one was watching me, making sure I could see something, making sure I was ok… I was with everyone and I was still alone!” I assured him I understood completely. I did. I have lived most of my life as a lone person in a crowd. It can be a wonderful feeling. Sometimes it’s just the best of both worlds.

Today Elihu flew to Chicago to be with his father for Christmas. So far Elihu has not spent a Christmas here. Probably never will. How can I deprive him of being in a household of two small boys, a mommy and a daddy on Christmas morning? I can’t. Elihu knows that Santa is old-fashioned at heart; he honors all twelve days of Christmas and seems to prefer visiting the country homes after that first, too-busy night of the holiday. That means after Elihu comes back, on New Year’s day, he may indeed find presents under our humble tree well before the wise men reach Bethlehem. So I do have Christmas with him. Only it’s just not on the 25th. And he ends up getting ‘more Christmas’ than most kids do. All around, it’s ok.

It was twenty-five years ago tonight that Fareed and I went on our first date. “VIP” seats at the Nutcracker in Chicago. They turned out to be a couple of folding chairs behind the last row of seats, hastily set up for us as the lights dimmed. Fareed had forgotten where he parked the car, so after the show we waited in the cold of the underground parking lot until it thinned out a bit and the car, a retired suburban cop vehicle, could finally be spotted. Checking first to see if it was ok with him, I removed my stockings. As it was a first date, I’d been trying to impress. Clearly, after the folding chairs and lost car I didn’t have to suffer through pantyhose all night. Off they came, ending up in the bottom of my purse. Then we were off to a fine, downtown Indian restaurant. A world opened up for me in that dinner. Then we visited his Rogers Park apartment, which was not far from my own Rogers Park apartment, the one in which we would live together for the following twelve years. It was then and there that he played for me a recording of John Williams playing the Aranjuez concerto. What did I say when it was over? I asked him if he could please play it again. To him, this seemed to seal the deal. For me, I was just trying to understand this strange new music. I needed a second pass at it. As I drove down the dark highway tonight after dropping our son off at the airport, I remembered what day it was. And our story came back. Hadn’t thought of it in years. Can it really have been a quarter of a century ago? Truly, it was the night that changed my life. I wouldn’t have my son, my life, and all that I’ve learned from it, if it weren’t for that one night, so long ago.

The first year we lived here we went back to Dekalb to visit over the holiday. I cannot imagine how I did that; I slept in my own house – along with my husband, his young girlfriend and their baby, waking up in that same house on Christmas morning to share the day with them – as if we were all some sort of a natural family. (I guess ultimately we are some type of family. Strained, not quite at peace yet, but in some way all related, like it or not.) I had been trying to show my young son that everything was ok; that I was ok, that I approved of this new family. Elihu had my permission to love them. I did not want my son to feel guilty for loving his new baby brother, however stunned I still was at the new baby even being here. (Today I realize that the antidepressants I was on back then probably enabled me to make such a brave visit, because I cannot imagine making such a visit today, ‘clean’ and fully alert as I am now.) On Christmas Eve I’d taken a prescription sleeping pill, and as it began to kick in, mercifully numbing me to the current surreality of my life, my then five-year old son told me he wanted to leave something for Santa. I was too groggy to deal with logistics this last-minute; we were in bed, for crying out loud. “Santa always gets cookies.” Elihu said. “But he’s fat; he doesn’t need cookies. I want to give him something he needs.” I struggled to stay awake for him as he thought about it for a minute. “I’ll bet he needs a screwdriver. A phillips screwdriver. He could really use that.” I told him to run downstairs and ask Jill and Daddy. So he did. A few minutes later he crawled into bed with me, happy to know that his gift for Santa – a small, phillips head screwdriver – was under the tree waiting for him. That Christmas may have been strange and painful, but I will never forget Elihu’s true love and concern for Santa as expressed in that one, tiny and meaningful gift. It more than made up for it.

I stopped in to see my parents after I dropped Elihu off at the airport. We had a nice visit. They were watching different ballet companies’ versions of the Nutcracker, a marathon of performances after which the viewers could call in and vote for their favorite. I told my folks that just that afternoon Elihu had recounted the Nutcracker for me – only he didn’t want to tell me how it ended and ruin the story for me. ! He’s a thoughtful kid. And I appreciate that. Not sure if I’m as thoughtful a kid; I often worry about my parents growing old and having all that house and life to take care of, yet I don’t stop in too often, despite my living next door. Life just seems to take over, and guilt follows. So I’m glad that I at least stopped in. Made going home to my first decadent night of house-tidying and free-form internet surfing feel better earned. Plus I knew that they were ok. And that’s something I don’t take for granted these days.

No sooner had I returned home than the phone rang. Elihu just wanted me to know that he had arrived safe and sound. “Love you so much” he said before he hung up. And then I was alone. For the first time in a long while my house was truly empty. I thought about the week before me, an expanse of time that belonged only to me and my private to-do lists. This week, I would to put my house in order. I would file every last paper, toss every last unused article, and donate every last item that needs a new home. For me, this week is truly the best gift ever.

Santa, dear man, you can forget about me this year. I’ve got pretty much everything I need.


Santa visited us here in Greenfield the other night. There were very few kids in attendance, perhaps because so many had seen him at the Victorian street walk in nearby Saratoga just the night before. Santa gave each child, as he does each year when in our tiny town, an unrushed, generous turn, engaging each child in thoughtful conversation in a way I doubt many Santas do. I drove by the small community center to check the line before I zipped off to pick up Elihu, who was at the moment, making gingerbread houses at a friend’s place.

When we returned, Elihu was pleased to find his classmate Jack, the other book-loving kid in his class for whom Star Wars was also of no interest. The two boys giggled and ran around on the lawn outside til I called him in for his turn. As soon as he approached the chair Santa called out to him. “Elihu! It’s so good to see you!” Elihu has come to expect that Santa will not only remember him, he will also recount in lovely detail his observations of the birds he sees while flying in his sleigh. And so the conversation begins. The room is full of chatter, and it’s hard to pick out exactly what is being said. Hoping not to ruin the mood, I catch a little on video. I keep wondering if this is the last year. Jack’s mother and I share our concern and wonder if living in Greenfield might not help extend the magic. It’s hard to know; we are not so isolated from the world as we might hope. I myself have searched Elihu’s face, his physical language, his tone of voice for signs of doubt. I think this year Elihu is still truly on board. As usual, Santa shows no sign of needing to wrap thing up. They continue to talk, and I back away, letting the moment be.

Soon it is time to light the town tree. As he does each year, Santa leads all the children out the door and around the corner to the large tree in front of our tiny town hall. He sings as he walks, ho hos and such, chatting with the kids who run at his heels. When he gets to the tree, Santa tells us that with enough holiday spirit he can light the tree, but first we must show him how much we have. He bends to a child in front and asks if they have the holiday spirit. He then touches their nose and his index finger lights up. He touches the noses of several children before he turns to address the small crowd. He asks us all to shout in chorus “Merry Christmas!”, and when we do, the tip of his right index finger glows red. But it flickers out. “Ho ho! Come on now! I need all of your holiday spirit!” He leads us again, and this time we’ve done it. Santa sweeps his arm upward and points to the giant tree with his glowing finger and it bursts into life. The large, colored bulbs turn on and the crowd claps, every face smiling. But what’s this? Do we hear sirens? Could it be already? Yes, it’s time for Santa to get back to work. He must leave Greenfield now, and the fire truck is coming to whisk him away. The hook and ladder truck pulls up alongside the gathering, lights whirling and sirens blaring, and Santa picks up his pack. He turns to wave at us once more as a fireman, clad in his working gear, gives Santa some help getting up the stairs and into the front seat. His finger still glowing, Santa waves goodbye to us as the truck pulls off into the night.

When Elihu was six, and we’d just come home from lighting the tree with Santa, a tiny blossom had opened on our paper whites. We’d waited for weeks for that first flower. He was beside himself. “Look, mommy!” he said, stunned. “Look how much Christmas spirit we had! We even had enough to make the flower bloom!!” He was thrilled. He was pure belief, pure joy. That was year before last now. He may still believe in Santa, but he and Jack had just discovered that there was a giant electrical box under the tree, and they just knew someone inside the building had turned the tree on, not our Christmas spirit. That jig was up. Gone too, no doubt, was the idea that spirit had once opened a blossom. “Come on, tell me, what did you guys talk about??” I asked after we got home. “Well,” he started quietly, “he told me he sees the geese when he flies. He’s actually flying right next to them in the air. He says the setting sun looks beautiful shining off their bellies. Can you imagine that? That must be amazing.” I wait a bit, then ask – what else? “Did you tell him anything you wanted?” I ask Elihu. “No” he said. “He asked me, but I just told him that I already have everything that I want. I told him I had everything I needed. I just told him that I was happy.”

Me too. Thanks, Santa.