1995 was the year I learned a little something about holiday gift-giving.
It was a snowy, bitter Christmas day, and my parents, brother and I had finished opening all our gifts to and from each other. We’d tossed balled up wrapping paper into trash bags, we’d pulled on slacks and sweaters. We’d sprayed hairspray and slipped on our dressy shoes.
We’d packed department store bags full of more gifts into the trunk of my mom’s teal SUV – a car we’d lovingly(ish) dubbed the Mystery Machine – and we’d begun the 20-minute commute from the suburbs to my grandparents’ home in Cleveland.
We weren’t on the road for more than a few minutes when my father blurted out “Ohhhhhh, CRAP!”
He’d forgotten his cherry Chapstick.
For those addicted to the thick lip balm, there are few moments in life worse than those when you discover you are Chapstickless and will have to face a long, dry day.
The very instant you realize this, your lips begin to tighten as the last bit of moisture evaporates and you desperately remind yourself, “Don’t lick your lips, don’t lick your lips, it will only get worse if you lick your lips.”
“Let’s go back,” my mother urged as my father’s shoulders slumped. “We’re not that far from home. We have time to go back.”
My mom understood his panic, having long been addicted to the “classic” flavor, the one with the black label.
My dad sighed a martyr’s sigh. “Noooooo, I’ll be fiiiiiiine.”
Mom tried to offer him a hit of her Chapstick, but he scoffed at the suggestion. A cherry guy had no use for classic. I was no help in the backseat, brandishing my blue label that boasted it contained “moisturizer.” My brother also was a cherry fan, but apparently dudes don’t share Chapsticks.
The drive was a long, quiet one for my father, who I can only imagine was trying not to speak, not to move his lips any more than absolutely necessary.
He was probably thinking about the Christmas dinner we were going to consume and how he’d have to repeatedly swipe his mouth with a napkin, how he’d have to limit his Diet Mountain Dew consumption in order to survive the day.
We pulled up the driveway to my grandparents’ house and climbed the few steps to the side kitchen door. “He forgot his Chapstick,” my mom told my grandmother, as we passed around hugs and slipped off our shoes.
“Ouch,” Grandma said.
“Yeah,” Dad said.
We dug into plates of cookies, popped open cans of soda (well, most of us did), and admired the colorful view under the tree. We’ve always been the type of family to open the gifts first and eat the meal later, so after an appropriate amount of time had passed, we got down to business.
The six of us sat in a circle around the living room and took turns opening gifts, one person at a time, to prolong the fun and enable us to see what each person received.
By the time we’d gone around the circle half a dozen times, though, we lost interest in each other as our attention shifted to our own new treasures.
I was busy testing out a new tape recorder I’d just opened, pressing the “record” and “stop” buttons over and over, envisioning how its use would make me a better poet or a future Lois Lane. I was going to use it to document all those deep thoughts and phrases that come on too quickly for a writer to be bothered with pencil and paper.
My daydream was interrupted by an animalistic sound of pure joy.
“GLORY HALLELUIA!!!” my dad bellowed out to the room.
The rest of us fell silent as we turned toward him, wrapping paper rustling at our feet.
He was perched on the edge of an armchair, smiling the grandest of smiles, triumphantly holding a three-pack of cherry Chapstick in the air.
A couple of days before Christmas, my grandmother had wrapped up the Chapsticks – along with a jar of salty peanuts – and taped a tag with my father’s name to the top. It was a throwaway gift, the sort of thing she would buy at the last minute to ensure everyone had the same number of gifts to open.
It may have been an afterthought, but it was the greatest gift anyone in my family received that year and for many years to come. I had to admit that, under the circumstances, it even topped my tape recorder.
And that’s the year I learned the best gifts in life aren’t always the most expensive ones. In fact, it’s not even necessarily about thoughtfulness or creativity.
Sometimes it’s all about timing.