A Daughter’s Memories of Christmas with Dad: The Year I Wrapped My Own Gifts

by on October 4th, 2010
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It was a couple days before Christmas of 1989 in central Florida, and it was so cold that the overwhelmed power company was instituting rolling blackouts. Fifteen minutes out of every hour, day or night, we lost power completely, and the temperatures hovered around 15 degrees Fahrenheit. It was a bit ironic for a city called Winter Haven.

I was home from college, and I visited my father who was alone in his house. His wife had gone to visit relatives in New York for the holiday. He and I were cloistered in his library, and I was helping him wrap everyone’s Christmas presents. Things were a bit tight financially, for he had been recently let go from an embattled law firm. These troubles weighed heavily on his mind, and he didn’t seem particularly enthused about Christmas.

At the time, I was just glad to be home for a few weeks, and I didn’t really understand the depth of my father’s problems. He seemed subdued and maybe a little depressed. Things were quiet. It was just the two of us, and candlelight filled in the gaps that the power company left. It was a short father-daughter evening that couldn’t be rightly called a pleasant Christmas memory, but when I look back at it 22 years later, it seems that it had its own kind of melancholic beauty.

My father was never the picture of ultimate ruddy health, but he wasn’t suffering the ravages of diabetes that now assail him. He still sported his jogging outfits from time to time and took regular walks and runs. I was blissfully unaware of the true horrors of life and had led a rather sheltered existence, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I had gotten caught up in the college town social scene and the rarefied world of academics. This night was a suspended moment.

When he showed me the modest stack of presents for me and my brother, he apologized that I’d have to wrap my own presents, as he wasn’t up to it this year. I didn’t get mad, partially because the way he spoke worried me. The presents suddenly took on less importance than ever before. It was the first moment I remember thinking pointedly about how useless it is to want things like I did in childhood.

I realized that my father was important and lasting, and whatever gifts he bought for me would pale even before the wrappings went on. After the Christmas of 1989, my world became much more complicated, and the 1990’s brought many life changes, including two brushes with death. Somehow, this short and seemingly unremarkable point in time stands out as a moment of calm before a storm, a reminder that the fripperies of Christmas and other artificial holiday celebrations are just side skirmishes in a more serious battle.

It is the bond between a father and daughter, emergent in hindsight, which strikes at a more meaningful underlying significance for the Christmas celebration. It is this quality of communion that gives an anchor to my struggles. This memory is more valuable than any material gift could ever be. But for my recording of it here, it would eventually be lost, only to be recreated anew in some other family, between some other daughter and her father.

The special nature of the memory is its universality, the moment of communion that ties a family together and which can tie together two or more people who can see beyond the illusions into what is really important.

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