Telluride Daily Planet, Friday, December 7, 2018
They come roaring in, these lists upon lists of gifts upon gifts, 10 best or dozen most useful or most quirky or most coveted. Gifts for the cook, the couple, the bookworm, the humbug, the athlete, the gentleman, the millennial, the techie, the bacon lover, the beef lover, the vegan, the gardener, gifts for every kind of kid and connoisseur and aficionado you can think of, as well as, of course, the zen koan-iest gift curations of all — gifts for persons who have everything.
At some point, usually around the time I’m actually starting to believe that life might be measurably better with a certain thing I don’t yet have, I flash on my father, a bigger than life military man I’ve written about many times before. For whatever reason, and against all odds, Jim Curry, liked Christmas.
He passed away over 30 years ago, so I’m not completely sure he wouldn’t have eventually gone the way of the Grinch, especially given today’s subscriptions boxes and animal adoptions and thematic gifting and blogger posts and celebrity curators like Oprah and Ellen and corporate ones like Amazon and BuzzFeed. He certainly would have put his foot down at the pressure imposed to spend, to splurge, to agonize over what others have pitched as the perfect gifts.
Not to mention the religious aspects of the holiday he was never quite on board with. At the dinner table one night, after a heated argument about religion (me from my perch as a Catholic high school sophomore at a school he’d enrolled me in), he declared he would never set foot in a church again. As a self-proclaimed nonbeliever, he rarely went anyway, but with my mother’s French Catholicism backdropping the raising of the kids, he had always managed to put the suit on for the occasional church wedding and for midnight mass. No more midnight masses. Maybe no more weddings.
So, it wasn’t entirely clear to me why he liked Christmas. He’d grown up relatively poor in the Depression years, a father gone, his mother and grandmother raising him. And yet, he wasn’t a man who wanted much, except for the very best of anything! (This became ever so clear in a pile of letters he wrote to my mother in the 1950s during 10 years’ worth of tours of duty. He was buying suits in Hong Kong he could not afford while she was literally buying bolts of material to make clothes for three kids. )
But at Christmas, all personality rules seemed to be off, and in a beautiful you-never-know-about-people (especially your dad) sort of way, he settled into the season. He might have been done with midnight mass, but he created a memorable tradition of Dad’s Christmas on Cascadia Avenue. Old school, spare and oddly curated — part Charlie Brown, part king-of-the-castle, and all of it commencing with the clearance tree we’d go buy for $1.99 at the local variety store in Seattle and then drill holes into in order to fill it out more (seriously).
Sacred rituals? Excessive tinselizing of said tree (tinsel was made of lead back then). Ornaments that never changed at all, not in 30 years. And, at some point mysteriously slotted into the delicious days before Christmas, he would disappear into his office, a cozy little smile on his face, with the ribbons and scotch tape and the limited assortment of wrapping paper we had back then, and carefully wrap all the presents he’d purchased for the family. It was the bows I remember best, a simple type of little flower bow he would make by wrapping curling ribbon around and around his hand, tying it in the middle and then fanning out all the loops into petals. Every single gift got one. Every year.
Curation for the girls (there were two of us, and two boys) was very simple and did not waver much: dried fruit assortments from Harry & David (platters that came with a two-pronged plastic fork that included dates and maraschino cherries, apricots and pears and such). A silk scarf in a small box, with tissue. And some kind of bath item like powder with a puff — usually a respectable, well-known scent.
These gifts were old fashioned even back then! But thinking back on it, I loved what he brought, for his daughters especially, at Christmas: delightfully simple things that were, in their own way, quintessential and right. Care spent in making them ready. And the simple tag accompanying each one of them that said our names and “Love, Dad” in his own loopy, big-boss-man handwriting. In fact, it was probably those two words in juxtaposition — “Love” and “Dad” — that, along with his little gift, reminded us that he had a beating heart, after all, and that it was a soft and tender one.