The Last Gift

Written by Phil Callaway

The older I get the more I’m convinced that memory and smell are linked. I love the smell of Christmas: Sugar cookies baking. The turkey sizzling. I love the taste of Christmas too: Mixed nuts. Mandarin oranges. Fresh dirt from one of my brother Tim’s incoming snowballs. Ah, Christmastime.

When I was a child of eight or nine and Christmas was barely a week away, I sinned greatly. I sneaked into Grandpa’s room, listened to him snore, then reached out and stole an entire box of chocolates, locking myself in the bathroom, and eating both layers. I can still taste those chocolates. I can still feel that strap. Few spankings were worth it. This was one. It made me wonder if sometimes you’re almost better off asking for forgiveness than permission.

Each December morning my sister and I would sit on a living room heat register inches from the Christmas tree coveting toys from the Sears catalog. On the wall behind our heads, frost framed an electrical outlet. Yesterday I’d earned a nickel putting my tongue on it. But otherwise I was a reasonably bright chap. My sister pointed out certain toys. “What do they do?” she asked. If I didn’t know the answer, I made one up. One page in particular held a dream for me. At the top right, just above a stuffed bear, sat a yellow-handled bow with real suction-cup arrows. “If only I could pull the wrapping off one of those,” I told my sister, “my Christmas would be complete.” She shook her head. When I told my brother, he said, “You kidding? After what you did to Grandpa’s chocolates? You’ll be lucky to get a hand-me-down toothbrush.”

Deep down I knew he was right. Deep down I dreaded Christmas. But still I shared the dream with my dad. “0.99!” he winced, “You want to put us in the Poor House?” I wondered what the Poor House was like. What would we do there? Would Grandpa still come visit? Would he bring chocolates?

As December 25 drew near, I scanned the growing pile beneath the tree. Nothing. A shiny green package near the back was the right size, but late one night while everyone else slept, a flashlight informed me that the nametag was my sister’s. In fact, most of them seemed to be hers. I squeezed the ones that said “Philip.” They felt like practical gifts: socks, deodorant, underwear. Things you don’t tell your friends about on Boxing Day.

The worst thing about Christmas morning was the waiting. My parents made us eat breakfast first. Then do the dishes. And sweep the floor. And vacuum. And memorize the Gospel of Luke. Then Dad prayed for the troops in Vietnam and Korea and Russia, and missionaries in countries I couldn’t pronounce.

At last the time came. And this year the disappointment was overwhelming. With only three presents left beneath the tree, I held in my lap a small Tonka truck, three pairs of black socks, a shirt with pins in it, and a cowboy poster that read, “When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on.”

The first remaining gift was a George Beverley Shea album for my mom. The second was for Grandpa, a box of chocolates from my brother and me. The last gift was green and shiny and just the right size. My sister grinned. And picked it up. Then the most unexpected thing happened: she turned and handed it to me. “Open it,” she said. “It’s yours. Tim put my name on it to fool you.”

Mom wanted me to save the wrapping paper for next year, but it was already too late. I let out a triumphant Whoop! and danced around the living room, holding the bow and arrow high like the Stanley Cup. Grandpa stopped sampling chocolates and smiled widely. “It’s from all of us,” he said.
“You be careful with that, Son,” said my mother.
“He’ll be okay,” said my dad.

I remember only a handful of gifts from my childhood. A Detroit Red Wings hockey jersey. A Hot Wheels race-car set. I remember ice-skating and carol-singing and candle-making, and Grandpa’s story of a Baby whose tiny brow was made for thorns; whose blood would one day cleanse the world. But it was the last gift that made Christmas come alive for me. You see, that bow and arrow caused me to realize that Christmas is all about grace. A gift I don’t deserve coming along when I least expect it. Changing everything. Forever.

A child of eight or nine doesn’t think of these things. I only knew at the time that I couldn’t wait to try the gift out. I remember wolfing down turkey and my Mom’s special dressing and pudding so thick you could hear it hit bottom. And I recall tip-toeing after my brother as he headed down the hallway that afternoon. I locked an arrow in place, took careful aim and pulled on the string until it was tight.
“Hey Tim!” I yelled. “Merry Christmas!”
And I wondered just for a moment if I should ask permission or forgiveness.

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