We hosted Doug's family on Christmas Day for brunch--mimosas, eggs and sausages, homemade bread, another mimosa, cookies, and presents. His nephew has two adorable boys, aged 2 and 5, and it was fun to watch them rip the wrapping paper into shreds and grow wide-eyed over presents. The younger boy, Sam, opened his first gift--a plastic jar of tiny rubber dinosaurs--and was instantly content. He needed nothing more; he was oblivious to the stack of unwrapped gifts growing beside him, oblivious to the commotion and thrill of his brother, Jack, who was importantly passing out packages, dressed in a Santa hat.
Jack took the Santa role seriously. He took everything seriously. He had arrived dressed carefully casual in an argyle sweater over an untucked shirt, and when I suggested he remove the sweater (after he observed that it was warm in the house), he said, "No. It makes me look handsome."
In his stack of presents was one that it became clear he was saving for last--a largish square box, from Doug's sister Mona. When the time came to open it, Jack was almost trembling with excitement. "Is it...? could it be ...? Could it?" he kept asking, as he shook the box, and pried at the Scotch tape.
Mona looked worried. Whatever it was he was hoping for, she was pretty sure was not what she had bought. Jack had worked his way to a quiet frenzy of anticipation by now, and when he finally ripped away the paper there was a moment of stunned silence before his wail: "This isn't what I wanted!"
His mother was off the couch in a flash, scooping him up, removing him from the room, murmuring to him about manners. We could hear his disappointed sobs floating in from the hallway. His oblivious brother continued to talk to his dinosaurs. We all felt terrible: what Jack had wanted was a Wii game. What he had gotten was a puzzle.
It is to Jack's enormous credit that within minutes he was back in the living room, Santa hat in hand, eyes dry but red; he looked up at Mona and begged her pardon. He spent the next half-hour quietly putting the puzzle together. But oh, the disappointment for that one unguarded moment! (And shouldn't five-year-olds have unguarded moments? Lots of them? I think so.)
It flashed me back to Christmases long ago, and presents sought, and presents gained. I had my disappointments, too. One year I was delightedly intrigued by a largish present with my name on it--it had four little wooden legs sticking out from the bottom, and I could not for the life of me figure out what it was. The mystery was delicious. Sadly, it was not long-lived; my sister Kristin said, "You know what that is." "No, I don't." "Yes you do." "No, I don't." "You know it's a toy piano, don't you?"
And in a flash I did know, and the delight just oozed out of my body and I started to cry. I loved toy pianos, and their tinny, happy sound--there was one under the tree just about every Christmas, because they didn't last long (nothing did, in our house). I was happy enough to be getting one of my own. But that moment, though I didn't understand it at the time, was evidence that anticipation might exceed reward.
Another Christmas I awoke with the flu. While the rest of the family sat down to the Christmas breakfast at the long dining room table, I lay on a quilt on the living room floor, idly poking at my lumpy stocking, too feverish to care much about the troll doll or the miniature deck of cards or the orange in the toe.
And after breakfast, the presents. We opened them one at a time, to make them last, so all eyes were on me when I pulled the paper off of a giant tube of Tinkertoys. And my sister Nancy said, "Sticks! You were a bad girl! You got a bag of sticks!"
And oh, the sobbing, the fever, the listlessness the disappointment, the sudden shock of awareness that he really did know when I'd been sleeping, really did know when I'd been bad or good, and that somehow the bad had trumped all.