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Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2006 01:01 am

The better gift

When we meet again, they'll disapprove - but it'll all be OK

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CHRISTMAS PAST — The Christmas tree hangs from a hook screwed into the ceiling; the lowest branch is 2 feet off the floor. It’s a different but logical placement; the house is small, the room is small, and the pile of gifts is too high to fit under a tree placed normally. “Different” is not only tolerated here, it’s also encouraged — a gift from Kate-and-Ray.

The Ray of Kate-and-Ray placed the tree so oddly. The Kate of Kate-and-Ray doesn’t care: trees are just “things,” unimportant, don’t matter. There’s a mirror with a hole in it near the tree.

Our 1948 town is 2,000 All-American people strong. Looking back from now to then, we are all equal I think — at least equal by options. My buddy Snorts Sullivan is maybe the richest kid in town. His father is town doctor, and the only rich-poor disparity I can see between Snorts and Bugs Eisenberg, who had no father at all after World War II and lives in a room above a downtown tavern with his mother, is that Snorts has a better ball glove than Bugs — but not much better. “Much better” was not an available option in ’48.

The many presents under our hanging tree are 95 percent clothes for the coming year and 5 percent better gifts — dolls for my sisters, a basketball for me, Lincoln Logs for my brother, maybe a book for all of us to share.

The Kate of Kate-and-Ray picked the clothes: socks, underwear, shirts, and pants. Kate is a visionary; she envisions us doubling in size each year, and so she buys our clothes to fit — at next year’s end!

For the immediate future, the cuffs of our pants will be equal in length to the entire leg, and we will be able to carry our substantial school-lunch bags in the leftover cloth hanging down from our shirt sleeves.

Should we happen to grow an extra head this coming year, there’ll be plenty of neck room in our sweaters to accommodate the extra noggin. Shoes are bought almost to fit, but the snow boots protecting ’em are twice the size of the shoe — we can rent out the extra space in our boots to friends with mothers not so farsighted as Kate is.

Doesn’t matter — clothes don’t matter. Friends and family matter. People matter.

Other than handmade paper presents from us kids, there are no gifts under the tree for Kate-and-Ray. It would be well into the ’50s before there would be store-bought presents for Kate-and-Ray.

Except for last year. Last year, in 1947, Ray gave Kate the mirror. It was a fine mirror, and it was placed with some ceremony over the secondhand sofa. The mirror was store-bought new. All our other furniture, and all the furniture in any house I’d been in to date, was either secondhand or handmade. I did not know then and I do not know now how you can have secondhand without ever there once having been a firsthand.

The mirror lasted only a week in mint condition. My BB gun misfired; the resulting hole in the mirror was dead center, with small cracks shooting out 6 inches all around. Naturally I paid for the misdeed, but not through corporal punishment. Another gift from Kate-and-Ray: Anger and hitting were not on the menu; violence was not served up here.

The BB gun was confiscated; no joining Snorts and Bugs in after-school winter adventures for a week, I suffered a lecture of sorts, and that disappointed look — punishment done. The look dissipated by day’s end. Nothing is gained by dwelling on mistakes — think about it, resolve to do better, move on. Thank you, Kate-and-Ray.

Faye and Joe and Kathy and I unwrap our 1948 presents carefully. All of the wrappings and all the string binding ’em are saved, for Kate-and-Ray are people of the Great Depression and in 1948 they can still feel the hunger of it. “Carefully” is a challenge of course, because we have only one chance in 10 of finding the basketball, the dolls, and the Lincoln Logs — so we all want to hurry though until we find our better gift.

CHRISTMAS PRESENT — The four of us all hold Christmas lists for our grandkids now, and I suspect all requests on the lists will be accommodated, but the better gift, I know — and my brother knows, and my sisters know — is that some of Kate-and-Ray has been passed on down though the generations and that our grandchildren will run against convention every so often and maybe hang a Christmas tree from a ceiling — and know for sure that mirrors and “things” don’t matter.

CHRISTMAS FUTURE — If the heaven and hell that the Kate of Kate-and-Ray believed in so absolutely is true, and if some error in summing up is made, and I luck into the heaven where Kate-and-Ray reside, I’ll face a lecture of sorts — and that look again, for this:

You don’t speak pridefully in public of self or family — it’s just not done. If there’s good to be said, others should say it, not you! So said Kate-and-Ray.

But I’ll handle their displeasure in good order. And that look will dissipate by the end of heaven’s day — and we’ll move on. Maybe we’ll go back to ’48 for awhile.

Doug Bybee Sr. writes a column for Illinois Times.

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