Through the years, I don’t recall writing a whole lot of Christmas fare, other than a few Christmas song parody sports columns. I’m not really sure why that is. It seems like I must have had ample opportunity, but I don’t recall many columns that touched on the subject.
One of the few I’ve written was one that never appeared anywhere, as far as I can remember. I dropped it in the Pursuit, and I thought I’d drag it out here for the holiday season.
Here’s wishing everyone on the whole ‘Friends’ list a great holiday season.
This was going to be my greatest gift.
It was early 1996 and, after four months, I was still reveling in first-time fatherhood. I was admittedly self-absorbed for the better part of my first 28 years, obsessed with my own interests, accomplishments, and later, career. But that changed with the delivery of my beautiful son. The focus of my life was no longer on what made me happy, but what I could do for him. Thus, shortly after my infant son’s first Christmas, I began plotting a gift for his second.
It couldn’t be an ordinary store-bought or catalogue-ordered present. Mass-produced, tirelessly marketed gadgets might be good enough to give someone else, but it wouldn’t cut it for my first-born. It had to be a one-of-a-kind original from his enraptured dad.
Since I fancied myself a writer, the answer was obvious. I would write a book, with my son in the title role.
The story, imaginary nocturnal tales of merriment with his dog and cat while mom and dad slept peacefully, actually came quite easily, even with the rhymes. But a children’s book without the illustrations will hold a child’s interest no longer than a phone book. I would need drawings to accompany the prose. Since as an artist I make a pretty good bus driver, this was going to require some effort.
With an ample supply of erasers, I plodded forward. And plodded some more. Until, sometime much later, the pages were filled with my son and his pets in cartoon form. Sure, the little lad in the illustrations bore no resemblance to my son, or any other carbon-based life form. But at least the character was consistently poorly drawn. The unrecognizable Ian on Page 2 looked just like the blob who bore no resemblance to the real Ian on Page 4.
Since the project was being undertaken in secrecy, I worked on it only in the absence of my wife. So, it was no surprise that I was only wrapping up my tale as December approached. But my work was only the beginning.
While clear plastic binders would suffice for my 10th grade social studies reports, they would be woefully deficient to hold this tale for my new best pal. This baby needed to be in hardcover.
I contacted a binding company in the summer and asked the owners if they could do this one-time-only job. Sure, was the reply. I never explained there might be a rush order placed.
Apprehensively, I called back after Thanksgiving to explain I was done and was forwarding it on. To my relief, I was assured the company, which was really just a husband and wife family business, could meet my rushed deadline.
A few weeks later _ a week before Christmas _ the book was still not in my possession, so I called again. I reached the owner, who explained she had just finished the binding and had put in the mail. Then she went on with more details than I had expected.
She told me that her husband was ill, and from the tone of her voice, it was an illness from which he might not recover. Consequently, she solicited the help of a friend to finish the job. She told me how important it was for her, since she and her husband had never been blessed with children. I uncomfortably offered my sympathy, my thanks and my Christmas wishes, expecting that was the last I would speak to her.
A few days later, the book arrived, looking fantastic. The bold red cover meant this tale would not be embarrassed on my son’s bookshelf, even resting between the works of actual authors such as Seuss and Sendak. Only one thing was missing.
I called her back and asked for that missing item: the bill.
“Oh, I’m not going to charge you anything. I want to do this for you and your son,” the angelic book binder told me.
I was stunned. Here was a woman I had never met, a woman whose partner in life and business was gravely ill, performing such a magnanimous gesture to a man who seemingly had it all: a great wife, a young son and most of his life in front of him. How could anyone in the middle of such an agonizing ordeal be so generous to an absolute stranger? I didn’t know the answer to that question then, and I still don’t know now. But when I think back on that phone conversation more than 20 years ago, I still feel chills that had nothing to do with the December temperatures.
In the weeks that followed, I wanted to do something to show my deep appreciation for her generosity. But nothing I could conceive could possibly equal hers. I opted to take a photograph of my boy, the book in his hands, and send it off to her. It was the least I could do, and perhaps given the circumstances, also the most.
As I had hoped, the book has become a prized possession of my son. He once took it to school with him for show and tell, filling his dad with a sense of pride he couldn’t possibly fathom. I hope it remains one of the most treasured totems of his childhood, maybe sharing it with his children when they become old enough to read.
But even if that book doesn’t stay with him forever, if it becomes the victim of a basement flood, is lost in a move or is doodled on beyond recognition by his own children, its importance will never be lost on me.
Not as I originally intended, however. I no longer think of that book as the greatest gift I ever bestowed on my son.
Since that day, that book has always been the most remarkable gift I’ve ever received.