I wrapped a package of two books for a little nine-year-old girl yesterday: The Witch of Blackbird Pond and Island of the Blue Dolphins, two favorites from my younger days. There was always a book under the tree for me at Christmas time, and it was nice to pass along that memory and tradition. It was a treat to spend part of Christmas Eve with the enthusiastic young recipient of the books. She was quite absorbed with tracking Santa's progress on her iPad, dialing up his voicemail message, and checking and rechecking her naughty or nice level using a "finger scan" app. All of this brought to mind the letter to Santa I had written when I was nine, and that my mother so faithfully saved for so many years.
The little girl last night got an American Girl doll, much fancier than any doll I had ever known as a child. But the thrill and joy and wrap-around hugs lavished on the doll, and worries about what to name her, were all familiar. I remember the Christmas that Santa brought my "big baby doll", after mom and I had carefully looked her over in a toy store. I had not dared to hope for such a lovely baby doll but there she was on Christmas morning, wrapped in a soft pink blanket with a big pink satin bow. How I cried when I could not retie the bow properly, and how happy I was when mom made it all nice again for me!
There was another Christmas when my very best gift came in a black plastic garbage bag, because it was too big and bulky for mom to wrap properly. It was a brand new coat! In those days, I rarely got a new coat. There was an older sister ahead of me whose hand-me-downs were readily available. And if her wardrobe did not suffice, there were always the frequent donations from a better-off branch of cousins. They seemed to get new clothes every other day, and to stop wearing them when they got bored with them, rather than when they were torn, stained, or worn beyond repair. But this Christmas I got a brand new coat of my own. A "fur" coat, spotted like a leopard, with a hood trimmed in more brown "fur". I remember opening the bag, peering inside, shrieking with delight and immediately shutting the bag again - I could not believe it was true. I peeked in again and it was! it was true! If I had that coat in my possession still I would make a pillow out of it.
When I think of the book under the tree each year, and the amazing fur coat in a trash bag, I think that my mother saw me - saw me, her fifth of six children, the middle of three daughters, as a unique person with individual preferences and desires and needs. She was often overwhelmed, always overworked and tired and stressed, always trying to stretch an inadequate budget to feed and clothe her large brood of often ungrateful kids. She was not in any way a perfect mother - is there such a thing? - and she was not my friend, in the way that it seems to me the ideal of modern motherhood is often portrayed. But she loved each of us fiercely, loved each of us as her own and for our own selves. I was lucky to be so loved.