For as long as I can remember, which is more than 60 years, I’ve been both excited and disappointed when Christmas rolls around. As a kid growing up in Queens, New York, I was excited because this time of year meant the snows were coming and the sled runners would get waxed and there would be plenty of hot chocolate after several hours of long downhill runs on 21st Ave., out in the cold. It meant school was out for 10 to 12 days, so freedom was here. It meant presents were coming, and we were going to have stockings full of cool stuff and cousins from Pittsburgh were going to visit for a few days. It meant we were halfway to the next summer and a real vacation.
Of course, the snows didn’t always come, so the sleds didn’t always get used. And the presents were almost never what we –– my brother, four sisters, and I –– asked for. We’d ask for a horse all year, but it never showed up. We’d ask for new Schwinn bikes, and our dad would instead buy used ones and clean them up. We’d ask for new dress shoes and instead found our own shoes under the tree, spit polished to a high gleam, but still our own shoes. We’d ask for a dozen different things each, and we’d wind up with a few of them and a new ping-pong table to be shared by the whole family.
And then one of the relatives would always show up with one of those rock-hard fruitcakes, damn it.
Years slipped by, and as a teen I got to buy my brothers and sisters presents with my own money. I got to buy my mom and dad things they probably didn’t really need — I always bought my dad a bottle of Old Spice and my mom a scarf or something — but somehow they pretended they were wildly surprised and happy with them.
More years slipped by, and then I was the father of boys and Christmas was easy. Presents for little kids are a snap. Presents for my wife weren’t hard to pick, and buying and carrying that Christmas tree a couple of blocks and then up a couple of flights of stairs to our 90th Street tenement in Manhattan was a joy. We’d visit my sisters and brother, or they’d come to our place for a big feast, and since I loved cooking, even that was fun. Tiring –– make that “exhausting” –– but still rewarding. But as the kids grew older, they began to have their own ideas about gifts. My oldest, Italo, would want soccer cleats. But not just any soccer cleats. Special Italian cleats. And they had to be in gold. Final tally? A measly $300. Marco would want electronics, and by the time I’d gone through the list, I was looking at $600. And then our daughter, Madeleina, well, she didn’t want a doll or a cook set. She wanted a pink pony. Every year she wanted a pink pony. How the hell do you keep a pony in a New York cold water flat?
Year after year, they asked for things that were unaffordable (motorboat, every electronic game ever produced), impractical (a mobile home for the kids to live in, in the backyard), or so lousy for one reason or another that no decent parent would give them to anyone, let alone his or her children (generally, whatever the hottest new games/toys on the market were). Which meant my wife and I bought them the best, coolest stuff we could afford. Still, the boys and Madeleina started to look like I did when I was a kid and Christmas was rolling around: They were excited but preparing for disappointment.
We moved to Texas in 2002, to bucolic Joshua. I had enough to pay for the little house we bought, but not much more, and for several years at Christmas I began to think I was channeling my late dad. For Christmas, I’d scrape together all I could, maybe even $1,000, which had to be spread out over food, tree, trimming, lights for the house, stockings, and presents. By the time it was time to buy the actual presents, I found myself buying several small things for everybody and then one big thing for the family: One year it was a foosball table, another year air hockey, and one year a ping-pong table. And despite having enough land for a pink pony — I think any pony would have worked — I never had enough to buy and take care of one. And maybe I’d put up a new tree swing in the yard or buy a couple of goats, things from my heart.
I often think about my parents, both gone, but especially around Christmas. I think of them having six kids and raising us on a character actor’s wage. Some years were good, when dad had a Broadway show running. Some were bad, when he didn’t. I think of how they worked to find those bicycles and re-spoke them, get new seats, paint the frames and have them looking sharp when we opened the curtain to the front room where the presents were. I think about my dad taking out his shoeshine bag and sneaking into our rooms as we slept and gathering up all of our shoes, then heading downstairs to polish them to a spit shine. I remember my mom saying that we, as a family, had given a hundred bucks in the Gorman name to some charity that brought food to poor people and remembering selfishly thinking that that hundred could have gotten me a few more things — a thought I’d try to throw away as fast as I could because that was not Christmas-like at all.
Now that the kids are grown up, I get to buy things for my daughter-in-law and my grandbabies. My ex-wife has two beautiful young daughters I get to shop for as well. I’m sure I fail them all.
And every year I get a bottle of Old Spice. And I get socks, and I get shirts, and maybe I get a shiny metal trashcan for the kitchen garbage bags. And I’m thrilled to get that stuff. And I make a feast, and while we’re eating I probably tell them that we also made a donation to the Tarrant Area Food Bank or Salvation Army, and even though they’re grown up, maybe they think, even if just for a second, how I could have used that money on more presents.