Every year, there it was – propped among the branches of our Christmas tree. Pop’s gift to his grandchildren was always presented in the same rectangular envelope crafted from heavy paper with dainty red curlicues on the corners.
After all the other presents were opened, I’d carefully extract it from my family’s eclectic collection of ornaments and the strands of tangled tinsel, taking care not to touch the hot bulbs of the light string that bathed our tree in hues of red, blue, yellow and green. Sliding a finger under the envelope’s sturdy flap, I bent it back until I could see Abraham Lincoln’s waxy portrait staring at me through the little oval window, a moment that always made me smile.
Pop never forgot to give each one of his four grandkids a fresh $5 bill for Christmas. It was something we all counted on, looked forward to and trusted for as long as I could remember up until the time when he couldn’t due to old age and dementia.
The complete lack of surprise was part of the gift’s charm. The envelope always held five bucks – nothing more, nothing less. The fun was in deciding how to spend it each year.
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, I used Pop’s annual gifts to finance a myriad of typical childhood indulgences. I remember buying a cheap dress-up set that included a tiara, plastic high heels, elbow-length gloves and a parasol. Other purchases included a Magic 8 Ball, a movie ticket to see “Escape to Witch Mountain,” Bonnie Bell lip gloss and frosted purple eyeshadow, a pair of rainbow suspenders, and shared chimichangas and fried ice cream at a restaurant with my high school friends.
It didn’t matter that Pop’s five-dollar bill didn’t go very far, never increased for inflation and wasn’t picked out at a store just for me. Regardless of its plainness, the gift was a reliable communication of his love.
As a widower with modest income, Pop would put forth considerable effort to send gifts to his grandchildren. I can picture him making plans over his usual economic lunch of fried baloney and mixed vegetables. He would put on his signature bowtie and a newsboy cap before heading to the bank where he had done business for years.
After flirting with the tellers, he would withdraw a wad of crisp five dollar bills. With a wink and a wave, he would walk outside to his big sedan and drive to the stationary story to buy the special envelopes with the little oval windows. Returning home, he would put it all together, making sure Abe’s image could be seen when my cousins, brother and me flipped open the envelope flaps.
Decades later – as Pop lies alongside my grandmother in a Louisville, Ky., cemetery – one can’t help thinking about the dramatic transformation of holiday gift giving.
Nowadays, Christmas wish lists are long and require subsets, contingencies and the occasional spreadsheet. We troll the internet in search of discounts, coupon codes and free shipping. We sweat over the possibility of hurt feelings if the present is the wrong model number, size, color and so on.
When online shopping fails us, we are swept into the swirling sea of retail consumerism at malls and superstores. We elbow our fellow shoppers to grab the best bargains. We stand in infuriating checkout lines, only to be told by the irritated salesperson that the “buy-one-get-one-half-off deal only applies to the blue model, not the red one.”
Then, when Christmas day rolls around, these gifts that were acquired under extreme duress are given, appreciated briefly and often forgotten … their meaning lost in the gift-giving frenzy.
Pop had it right. Ironically, his annual present stood out among the heaps of boxes under our tree because it was simple and given without fanfare, glitter or bows. To me, that envelope contained not only Abraham Lincoln, but also dreams and possibilities. The cost to Pop was only five dollars, but the value of his gift of dependable love was always priceless to me.