13 December 2013

The Christmas Gift

We lived like nomads for my entire childhood. My Dad was an officer in the Australian army and he got posted to different countries all the time.

We never stayed in any place for very long.

It was mostly a big adventure for us kids but it was sometimes tough. We became familiar with the unfamiliar and there was a new school every year in a different country – sometimes two. My big sister and I were always the new kids in class and we were usually the only Australians. We were fresh meat and we were quite often a bit of a novelty so we had to learn quickly how to talk fast and how to fight. I learned very young how to make new friends without getting too close. We packed up and left all the time. 

We were always moving someplace else.

I remember when I was really little worrying whether Santa Claus would know where to find us because we moved around so much. My Mum and Dad assured me that Santa kept a track of all of the kids of the world’s whereabouts. I used to worry about a lot of things when I was young. I was naïve and callow and a bit of a dreamer. Perhaps I still am. My Dad used to placate and reassure and comfort me with grand stories about pioneers and heroes – he was a soldier after all.

Then one day my Dad went off to fight in a war in a place called Vietnam. I was just a little boy when that happened and the thing I remember the most was my Mum crying a lot. She tried to hide it from us but we knew. Some nights I would hear her muffled sobs through the thin walls of our army house and I would pad my way to her bedroom and anxiously ask her if she was all right. She wasn’t of course but she would tell me that she was. I would crawl into bed with her and her pillow was all damp and salty from her tears. Even in the dark I could see the sadness and the fear in her face and she hugged me tight until we both fell asleep. We were living back in Australia then and I was too young to understand wars.

A long time has passed I still don’t understand wars.

Some things never change.

My Dad used to leave out a bottle of beer for Santa and some Ginger snap biscuits for his reindeer every Christmas eve. I used to help my Mum make the biscuits and I remember how I loved the warm and sticky feel of the biscuit dough when I squeezed it between my fingers. My job was to roll out the dough and then cut the biscuits into funny shapes. Even now whenever I get a whiff of ginger I am taken back to that age of innocence and virtuosity and I smile involuntarily at the memory.

I am smiling now just reminiscing about it.

Mum used to make disapproving tutting noises at Dad when he opened a bottle of beer and he left it and a glass out on the mantle-piece for Santa Claus. Dad would always laugh and tell Mum and we children how much Santa loved his beer. Dad was right – as he invariably was, because the beer bottle was always empty in the morning and all of the biscuits were gone.

Not a crumb remained.

I remember too how exited we were on Christmas Eve and how Mum and Dad would tuck us under the sheets and tell us that Santa wouldn’t come to a house where the children weren’t asleep. We would still lie awake though – trying to fall asleep but we were so so excited that it eluded us for hours. Sometimes just as I was drifting off I could swear that I heard the jingling of the reigns of Santa’s sleigh and the soft thud as he landed on our roof. One Christmas day my sister Jane whispered to me that she snuck down to the Christmas tree and she saw Santa Claus the night before. She told me that she got just a fleeting glance - and I remember being aghast that he might have seen her and turned away.

I was very cross with her.

My Mum and Dad would make us write a letter to Santa every year and we had to not just request what we wanted for presents but we were to list all of the good things that we had done that year. My parents were always very active in the different communities that we lived in and as I look back and reflect on those times I can appreciate what kind and generous people they were.

What kind and generous people they still are.

Mum was forever helping out in orphanages and working with disabled children and assisting all manner of people less fortunate than us. It seemed to be the first thing that she did whenever we arrived at our new homes. We kids were always taken along to help out. We had no choice in the matter. It is to my shame that I recall that we were often dragged kicking and screaming to my mum’s causes but as I look back now and reflect I understand that she was teaching us morality and goodness and I discern how precious and important these lessons were.

They were priceless and endearing.

In the weeks leading up to Christmas my mum would bustle around wrapping gifts for perfect strangers and getting us to gather together toys that we didn’t play with any more to take to children’s homes. It was through this that we learned that Christmas was all about giving – not receiving - and that true happiness doesn’t result from what we get.

It is derived from what we bequeath.

I understand now that the letters that we wrote to Santa were my parent’s way of reminding us what fortunate lives we led. They were to to reinforce to us the importance of community and social service and the concept of decency. I realized much later on in life that compassion and kindness and a sense of caring for others can’t be forced but it can be taught.

It can be demonstrated.

My mum and dad were a testament to this and they educated us well.

My parents still help out in the community in which they live. They aren’t as spritely as they once were but they help out by teaching English to refugee families – and they remind us even still that there are so many people less fortunate than we.

We used to wake up very early on Christmas day when we were little – as I think that all children do - and we would run into the sitting room to see if Santa had been. There was always a telltale trail of snow embedded with Santa’s footprints that led to our Christmas tree. The snow that was so fine that is was like talcum powder and it didn’t ever melt. We would squeal in delight when we saw the presents under the Christmas tree. The noise we made would wake up our parents and we would sit around on the floor in our pajamas and take turns in opening our presents.

Mum would be very careful when she opened her gifts – cautious not to tear the paper so she could save it and use it again next year.

She still does that.

The first Christmas that Dad was away in Vietnam was really hard on Mum. It was hard on all of us. Looking back I think she felt very scared and alone. My Nanna and Grandpa came and stayed with us that Christmas. My little brother was just a baby and I remember my grandpa sitting with me on the back porch a few days before Christmas and telling me that while my Dad was away I was to be the man of the house. He told me that I had to be brave and strong.

I remember that moment well.

I felt proud and frightened and determined and frail – all at the same time. It was that exact moment that it really dawned on me that my Dad was not just away as he often was but he was fighting in a war in a faraway place and he might not come back. I felt real terror for the first time in my young life and it was a fear so profound that my insides turned outward as I processed and acknowledged his absence. My heart felt as if it had slipped out of my chest down into my stomach and the taste of despair and atrophy choked me.

In all of my previous letters to Santa I asked for the normal things that little boys wanted for Christmas. There were train sets and a new bike and toy soldiers and always books. My mum and dad gave my siblings and I a love of words from a very early age.

They read to us all the time.

I think that this was one of the greatest gifts that they ever bestowed on us but there were other precious benefactions as well. They taught us to be bold and brave and curious. They encouraged us to seize the moment and to always see the best that we could in people. They inspired us to always speak our minds and they gave us hope and love and empathy.

In the letter that I wrote to Santa that first Christmas that my Dad was away in Vietnam I made my normal list of all of the good things that I had done but I told him that I only wanted one gift from him. In exchange for this gift I promised him that I would do anything that he wanted me to. I vowed to never again fight with my sister or make a mess of my room or complain when I was told that we had to pack up and move away again. I told Santa that he could give all my presents for the rest of my life to other little boys if he would just make sure that my Dad was OK in that war in Vietnam – and that he would come back to us safe and soon.

Santa granted my boon and my Dad came back. It was the most precious gift that I ever received.

I felt safe again and my Mum stopped crying and all was well.

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