Christmas was almost torture for little boys, as I recall. I always had trouble getting to sleep because of course the presents under the tree would make my imagination run wild. I do not recollect that the black and white television we had had indoctrinated me into wanting anything in particular except possibly a Cowboy Bob gun and holster set which I did receive from Santa one Christmas.
Our tree would be surrounded by presents of every shape and size. Mom wasn't into elegant gift wrapping. She didn't have the time to do that. She was a farm wife and I think her main goal was the same as mine is today, to disguise the gift. That's all. To camouflage whatever was in the package.
After I had learned to read well enough to figure out what my name looked like on a tag, I became very sneaky about casually laying down by the tree and glancing over at the gifts to see if maybe my name was on one of them. Sure enough, I always had a few gifts that said TO: Cliff FROM: Mom and Dad. That information - that my name was actually there under the tree - would make it hard to get to sleep for the next five or 10 nights before Christmas.
I don't recall my age when I started wanting to reciprocate with the gift giving but it finally happened and I told Mom about it. She would remedy this by taking me along to town the next time she went grocery shopping. Somehow I had a dollar in my Cowboy Bob billfold and would have my head on a swivel in search of a gift.
Mom stopped in front of the chocolate covered cherries and told me a story about how her mother always loved them and as a matter of fact, they were Mom's favorite too. "Well, let's buy some" I would say and she would reply "They're 59 cents, maybe next time."
Hey, I have a plan, I would think to myself, and as Mom was checking out I would circle back to the candy section and grab a box of chocolate covered cherries. Somehow my Mom would lose track of me and stand at the front window of the store and stare out, looking to see if Cliff had already gone out to the car. That gave me enough time to take my box to the cashier who was always discreet about my gift purchase and would carefully bag the box and give me my 41 cents change before Mom turned around to see her six-year-old buying a box of candy. Probably the best part was being able to get to the car and into the house back at the farm, without Mom noticing that I was carrying a small bag of groceries.
Mom got chocolate covered cherries for Christmas and her birthday for several years in a row. They were the most thoughtful and best gift she had ever received. At least that's what she said. Mom was always very happy and sometimes moved to tears when she opened them. But not as proud and happy as I was to be standing there and watching her open a gift I had thought of myself.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since those days and I'm afraid I haven't been able to think of a gift to give anyone, to make them as thrilled as Mom was with those cherries. Mom did understand the true meaning of Christmas and showed it. She truly knew how to give and receive as well as anyone I ever knew. I think sometimes we aren't very good at the receiving part, as we could be.
A few years ago, I stopped by a live nativity scene to watch and ponder what was going on. The center of attention was the real baby they had laid in the manger. Even the livestock they had hauled to town seemed to realize that something special was happening in the center of it all.
Contemplating the scene made me realize that Mom hadn't invented gift giving at its finest.