Thinking about my first Christmas as a father.
Tegan is asleep in her room above me, dreaming of what I assume babies must dream of: colors, familiar faces, places they can’t possibly connect. The baby monitor on my computer desk emits the static sounds of a beach, where fake waves crash along the shore and seagulls sound off in a perfect 1-2-3-caw rhythm that never falters. The sounds are supposed to help put her to sleep, but I find they are equally useful in helping me focus.
I’m writing about Christmas. What it has meant to me, as a child, and what it means to me now, as a father. When I struggle with synonyms for “amazing” “surprising” and “total bullshit” for too long, my monitor goes black, and in its reflection I can see our Christmas tree glowing behind me, surrounded by a number of gifts wrapped pristinely by Tegan’s mother, and a few wrapped by me, as if handled by a person whose hands have been asleep for hours. Without counting, I’d say there are roughly twenty gifts of varying size encircling the tree, and no less than fifteen of them are for Tegan.
Of course, she won’t remember any of what she unwraps, nor will she have any concept of our gesture. Mostly, she will peel off the bows stuck to each brightly colored package and collect them within arm’s reach (for optimal “getting into mouth” time), much like she might collect and ascribe value to seashells or fireflies a few years from now. Still, it doesn’t have the slightest effect on my absolute excitement for Christmas morning, when we will sit with her on the floor, encouraging her to rip the paper away and find what is underneath.
Thinking about this first Christmas with Tegan has me remembering a particular year when I was a boy.
It is 1996, and my grandma is watching me at her house on Bauer Street. The two-story house is old and full of history, including that of the childhood of my mom and her three brothers and one sister. The walls are painted white, and the floor is made of wood, dark brown and always dirty. In the backroom, behind a gate, is grandma’s Rottweiler, who is never allowed out when the grandkids are around. A precautionary measure, I think, as I don’t recall any cousin ever being sewn up with stitches after prodding the dog.
I’m eleven years old, and I’m fairly certain I’ve just convinced my grandma to take me to McDonalds for lunch. Before we can go, though, she must go down to the basement and get some money for the trip. I follow behind her, down into the dank and cool basement. The only other time I remember seeing the basement is during a particularly stormy night a few years ago. My mom came to help her three brothers send buckets of flooded water up the stairs and out the back door, while I sat at the top of the stairs watching wayward hats and Ziploc bags full of useless junk float and bob around as if it was completely normal.
In the corner of the basement is grandma’s safe. Standing six feet tall, it towers over me and is decorated with magnets that pin pictures of the grandkids to each side. There is one of me in a green jersey holding a soccer ball. The dial spins back and forth with ease as my grandma performs the opening incantation, and in a few seconds, the door of the rust-brown safe swings open. Her purse hangs from a coat hook soldered to the side, and while she begins to rummage through it, my eyes catch something lying along the floor of the safe. The front of the box is gray with a red stripe across the rightmost side; the top is purple and hosts Bowser, Mario, a Stormtrooper, and a figure I don’t recognize. “Nintendo 64” is proudly written across the front, and, just underneath it, “The Fun Machine.”
Almost immediately, I lift my hand, point at the treasure befitting a safe of this magnitude, and ask “who is that for?”
My grandma pulls her hand out of her purse, clutching wayward bills, and immediately shuts the safe. “That is for your cousin Jenny, and you better not ruin the surprise!” Despite my insistence, she will say no more on the topic.
I spend the next few days in agony, repeating the same imaginary conversation with my grandma over and over. “But grandma, Jenny doesn’t even like video games. She won’t even want it!” I plead to no one. Eventually, my anger subsides, and the final weeks of school before Christmas vacation drift by effortlessly and without consequence.
Christmas day finally arrives and, despite constant reminders, I am crestfallen to discover that there is no Nintendo 64 among the gifts furnished by my mother that morning. Still, there isn’t much time to sulk, as my brother and I are hurriedly dressed in now too-small sweaters given by relatives last year and carted off to grandma’s house for dinner and more gifts. Jenny sits across the table from me, talking excitedly about the gifts she has received so far, and I loathe her as much as any child is capable of loathing. A thimble’s worth really, but still I loathed away.
We move to the living room, and my grandma and grandpa begin to distribute presents to the kids with concerted sluggishness. Each trip back from the kitchen produces a few more small presents—too small to be a Nintendo 64—that are placed around every cousin, including Jenny, while my brother and I watch, gift-less. Finally, my grandma comes out one last time with a large, rectangular box wrapped in bright red paper, and places it in front of me and my brother.
“Sorry for tricking you,” she offers with a wink.
I can’t believe it; grandma, herself a bastion of hope and truth, a woman who never met me without a cookie or candy bar in tow, had tricked me. My brother and I feverishly stripped the box of its paper before hugging. There, but of course, was the Nintendo 64. “The Fun Machine” was ours. When we return home, my mom presents us with two more gifts: a copy of Super Mario 64 and an extra controller.
It wasn’t until years later that I put together why my grandma had purchased us such an elaborate gift while my other cousins received clothes and checks for $25. She had bought it for us because my mom, a single mother working two jobs to support us, couldn’t. It was as simple as that. I haven’t worked up the courage to ask whose idea that was, but I have a feeling my grandma orchestrated it; my mother is certainly too proud to ask for someone’s help, especially in buying her kids Christmas gifts.
I think about that Christmas each year. About the absolute joy of receiving exactly what I wanted, as well as the love my grandma exhibited in helping my mom provide that for me. Tegan won’t remember this year’s Christmas the way I will, but I hope one day I can give her a memory like this; a brilliant memory of a day she can always look to and think “my dad loves me.”