I’ve had lots of suggestions over the years about Christmas presents. None have been adopted.
I always liked the tradition of separating the religious aspects of the holiday from the commercial aspects. It seems kind of nice to celebrate Christmas on Christmas and all of its spiritual meaning and exchange gifts the next day. Of course it’s not my religion and after participating in family Christmases for fourteen years I’ve come to learn that part of the spiritual celebration is captured in giving gifts.
But giving gifts is also a sport. It can be a competitive sport for which there are winners. We tried to convince my parents and Kim’s parents to give the girls less for Christmas but we never could win that one. I also suggested we exchange gifts on New Year’s Day – Christmas and Channukah gifts together. That way we could take advantage of the post Christmas sales.
That suggestion never went over big. The main reason is that that’s when both grandmothers start shopping for the next year. I’m sure when they were each looking through the gifts they bought for this year they found items they had purchased for Elena before she died. Things they had planned to give her in December.
The girls always got way too much. They got some items that were meant just for them. They got some items that were meant to be shared. They got some items that could have been shared but they each got a copy.
Kim has finally taken the Mermaid Barbies out of the girls’ bathroom. The bottom half of the Barbie was a bendable fish tail. The top half was, at least in our house, a topless Barbie with long pink hair. Maggie and Elena had identical ones. There was no reason they couldn’t have had one between them. They only used it in the bath. But because they each had their own, Maggie thought it was important that they didn’t confuse them so she wrote an “E” in ink on the belly of Elena’s mermaid Barbie.
“Why’d you do that?” I asked.
“So we could tell them apart,” she said looking at me like I’m an idiot not to know that.
“But you wrote on hers.”
“Of course,” she said.
“You could have put an ‘M’ on yours,” I said.
“I explained to Elena that it would be better to have an ‘E’ on hers. That way we would know which one was hers.”
It almost seemed so obvious when she put it like that.
The fact was that Maggie never really liked people dolls. She preferred stuffed animals. Elena played with stuffed animals but she preferred people dolls. Elena loved the dolls that were the hardest to dress and she loved to dress them.
I would be in a chair editing an article on my laptop computer when Elena would lay her head on my arm and say “Da-da.” She only called me that when she was playing with dolls and wanted me to help.
“Hang on,” I’d say. And she’d quietly roll her head back and forth on my arm. She was hanging on like I’d asked, but she was still letting me know she was there.
“O.K.,” I’d say. “What do you want?”
“Here,” she’d say and hand me one of her dolls. It could be one of her Barbies or Prince Stephen or, my least favorite, a Polly Pocket. Polly Pocket’s clothes were made out of a rubbery plastic. Getting them on and off was tough for kids. And the shoes and other accessories (did I just use the word ‘accessory’?) were tiny and always getting lost.
I would struggle to get Polly’s jacket off and to put on her purple dress. I’d hand it back to Elena and pick up my laptop.
“Daaaaaad,” Elena would groan.
“What, baby?” I’d ask.
“That’s not the way it goes. You put it on backwards.”
I’d look at the doll not sure how anyone could tell which way backwards was. But sure enough, you could kind of tell. So I’d struggle to remove the dress and turn it around and pull it down over her head the right way – tugging it slowly one way then the other until it was finally in place.
“How’s that?” I’d ask.
“Great,” she’d say and give me a hug. “You did a great job. Now all you need to do is put on her boots.”
And Elena would hand me these things that couldn’t possibly fit over Polly’s legs. I’d pull them into place with Elena in my lap supervising. “There,” I’d say and hand them to her.
“Thanks dad,” she’d say. “You’re the best.”
I think Elena would have gotten far in life. No one understood the power of heartfelt flattery better than she did. She genuinely appreciated the help of others but she sure laid it on thick.
Elena would hold Polly up for a minute and turn her this way and that. A frown would come over her face.
“What’s wrong?” I would say even though I knew what was coming next. We were no longer dressing a doll. The doll had become a device for getting us to spend time together.
“I don’t think these boots go with this dress,” she’d say.
“So what are we going to change,” I asked, “the boots or the dress?”
And so it went.
Last Christmas, Elena’s last Christmas, her favorite gift was the Flying Turtle. It was another one of those times where Kim had suggested something that I thought was a bad idea. Kim had ignored me and gotten it anyway and she was right. Elena unwrapped the gift and pulled the scooter out of the box and rode it non-stop for the next two months.
It’s a little seat on wheels with a steering bar that you put your foot against. By wiggling the steering bar back and forth you propel the turtle forward. Elena loved it. If she had to travel ten feet she would sit on the turtle and move it those ten feet.
She had a favorite pathway from the study through the living room into the hall and dining room. It was just long enough that she could work up speed. When she hit the rug in the hall she had just enough speed to make it over the lip and halfway across it before coming to a stop. It’s almost a year later and the rug still has a big bend to it from all of the times she rode over the top. Kim and I trip regularly on it and smile thinking of Elena.
She soon tired of the rug slowing her down and would fold the rug in half and pull it out of her way. She would get up a head of steam coming across the living room and then perform a tight turn in the hallway – a perfect 180 – and head back to where she came from.
She would leave the turtle wherever she’d last ridden it so I was always tripping over it and shouting, “Elena, come and move this thing.”
“In a minute daddy,” she’d say from the other room.
“No. Right now.” I’d yell.
She’d walk by me and shoot me her “what’s the big deal” look. She’d get on the turtle and ride it back to the study.
“There,” she’d say, “are you happy now?”
And I was. There was no way to watch her little body wiggling on that turtle and not smile.
That might have been her best Christmas gift ever. And I’m glad that Kim got it and didn’t wait til the day after Christmas or New Years day to give it to her. I’m glad for every minute she got to enjoy it.