A Christmas short story by Libby Malin
Fraught with peril. That’s what gift-giving was in sixty-five-year-old Dierdre Young Cranston’s life. Ever since her great-grandparents, Della and James Young, had sacrificed their most precious possessions to buy each other Christmas gifts decades ago, the entire Young family operated under Gift-Giving Defcon One rules. Maximum readiness.
The gifts didn’t have to be expensive, but, man, they better be special.
For years now, local and national television reporters had done annual segments on what the Young descendants were giving each other for the holiday. The pressure to give the best, most significant gift, was enormous.
Last year, Dierdre had been particularly proud of her donation in her brother-in-law Dan’s name to his favorite charity, a Vegan No-Kill Pet Shelter, Organic Farm and Raw Milk Dairy Plus Goat Yoga Studio. She was glad the place was still open when he unwrapped that small box while complaining about the waste of paper. They closed a month later.
Well, the Pet Shelter part closed. Too many animals didn’t do well on that vegan diet.
This year, she was making gifts, something she often did, and she counted her blessings that her own children, grown now with families of their own, lived out of state and would miss the madness of the Young gathering at her cousin Dillingham’s home. She and her husband, Jonathan, would visit them in the new year.
She pulled at a strand of blue wool as she crocheted a scarf for Jon, trying to remember how many she’d made over the years. Oh, well, they wore out. Or he lost them. He’d lost a lot of them, come to think of it.
Her gaze lit on the exquisite Tiffany vase filled with holly that Jon had given her two years ago after she’d made a chance comment about disliking so many old florist vases from the various arrangements people had sent over the years.
He’d assumed she wanted something finer. Actually, she’d just wanted to clean the shelves of all those vases. She did it herself the week after New Year’s, but maybe that was the best gift of all—finally being motivated to get rid of all those things. She’d bought that popular simplifying-your-life book after that and started purging things from closets left and right.
Except the gifts. She couldn’t give those away—the recipe compilation her niece Daisy had painstakingly put together even though she worked full-time, had several children in elementary and middle school, and volunteered at her church. Daisy had literally made herself ill that holiday, staying home in bed instead of joining in the family celebration at Dillingham’s big house, because she’d worn herself to the bone putting together similar books for everyone.
Then there was the portrait of her great grandparents that her uncle Jed had commissioned from an old daguerreotype. His daughter had painted it. A freshman in art school at the time. It showed. She had to remember to bring it out of storage when Jed visited next week.
And, of course, there were the many things Jon had bestowed on her over the years after really getting into the Young family gift-giving spirit. He’d even sold his beloved Miata several years back in order to afford a cruise for them both.
The photos of that getaway were in a book on the coffee table. She wasn’t in any of them. Who knew seasickness could last two weeks?
Jon Cranston flipped through a catalog at his desk, his hand to his head. Though he was sixty-eight, he’d not yet retired, and he wasn’t sure when he’d tuck it all in and leave. He enjoyed the financial consulting office he ran, part of a national chain. He liked his few coworkers, especially young Robert, who he was mentoring to take over from him eventually.
Speaking of Robert, he passed by Jon’s door. “Hey, you have a minute, Rob?”
The fellow stepped in, steaming coffee mug in hand.
“What do you think of these?” Jon asked, pointing to the picture in the catalog.
“You thinking of getting one?” Rob responded, eyeing Jon as if trying to evaluate what was the most diplomatic answer.
“Not for myself. For Dierdre. She’s gotten into self-improvement.” He thought of how she’d been throwing out things, following that book about simplifying your life. And she’d mentioned wishing she could exercise more. She didn’t exercise at all, really. Maybe having the equipment in their home would help.
Rob barked out a laugh. “Never—ever—get a woman an exercise bike. Especially not for Christmas.”
Jon felt himself warm with embarrassment. “Well, we’ve seen those ads…”
“You mean the ones where the husband buys a bike for his wife and she goes all Sleeping with the Enemy to please him…” Rob waved the air in front of his face, wiping away the cultural reference Jon wasn’t getting.
“So that’s a no,” Jon said, good-naturedly.
“I’d say the best gift would be not getting her one of those!” Rob said, pointing to the catalog.
After a few minutes of business small talk, he left, and Jon stared at the catalog page, hearing Rob’s words. “The best gift would be not getting her one of those…” Hmm…
When he’d consulted his brother, Grant, about ideas for a gift for Dierdre, Grant had passed on this bit of wisdom: “What does she get you? Often people give things they themselves like to get.”
That was certainly true to a certain extent with him. He wouldn’t mind unwrapping a box with an extravagant…something…in it from Dierdre.
But he’d seen her crocheting like crazy lately. She was probably making things again for everyone. With a frown, he realized he’d have to wear yet another poorly constructed too-narrow scarf for a month or so this winter before “accidentally” ripping a hole in it that would necessitate he throw it away.
With a sigh and a grimace, he leaned back, tapped his fingers on the desk.
He ripped out the catalog page with the exercise bike, and then pulled up Amazon on his computer…
Dillingham’s house was more than large. It was a mansion. He’d made his money as the lone surviving heir of Della and Jim’s story, managing the eventual film and television deals, the spinoffs, the children’s books, zombie stories, vampire tales, romantic comedies and space opera iterations of their distant relatives’ literary estate.
The direct descendants did receive small payments from the estate every quarter, and Dierdre was glad not to have to bother with anything else associated with it.
Like this annual publicity nightmare of Christmas.
As she and Jon pulled up in front of the porticoed home, she saw a dark van out front, satellite dish on its roof, national television insignia on its side.
“Oh, no,” she breathed out.
“TV?” Jon muttered. “On Christmas?”
She knew Dillingham had already done one interview on public radio this year and another on the Today show. She’d thought that was all that would take place. She’d even hoped the desire for these stories was dwindling.
As they approached the door, it flew open, and her cousin stood in the entranceway, camera lens glaring from over his white-cashmere-sweatered shoulder as he spread his arms wide.
“Welcome, welcome! Merry Christmas,” he said in a voice that seemed projected to the last row of some imaginary theater.
“Merry Christmas to you, too,” she said on a laugh she hoped sounded sophisticated yet warm. She had on dark blue pants, a matching cardigan duster, and bright white embroidered shirt, with a deeply hued fringed scarf tossed jauntily over her shoulder. She’d figured someone would be taking pictures that might end up in a magazine or newspaper. She hadn’t counted on TV, but she smiled brightly as Dillingham ushered them into the living room, cameras following
“Hello, everybody! Merry Christmas!” she said with great good cheer at the gathering. They were the last to arrive, and while her husband handed his overcoat to Dillingham’s butler or servant or whomever, she went into the vast room, admired the vast ten-foot tree, and the vast array of gifts, to which she added from the Vegan-No-Kill-Pet-Shelter, Organic-Farm-and-Raw-Milk-Dairy-Plus-Goat-Yoga-Studio tote she’d carted them in.
“Let me help,” some young woman in designer jeans, clanging jewelry and plaid top said. At first Dierdre thought she was a servant, but then awareness dawned. This was Delilah, the youngest daughter of her cousin June’s first marriage. She’d not been at the past few holiday gatherings—the divorce had interfered, then college. She must be in her early twenties by now, Dierdre thought as she let the girl help her arrange her presents among the pile already there.
“Mulled wine, Del?” Dillingham said as he came back into the room.
“She likes martinis,” Delilah chirped, grinning. “I remember from the last time.”
Warming a little from blush, Dierdre nodded and smiled back at this precocious girl.
“How old are you now, dear?” she asked, sitting down.
“You’re in college, right?”
“Yup,” Delilah responded, scooting next to her on a settee. “University of Rochester.”
“Excellent. What are you majoring in?” Dierdre noticed as they talked that others were opting for other mixed drinks in lieu of the mulled wine now that Dierdre, with Delilah’s prompting, had broken the ice there.
“Literature of the Great Awakening,” she answered as the servant returned with a martini on a tray. “I’m doing a thesis on Irony and Ironing: The Memory-holing of Domestic Drudgery in Short-Form Fiction of the Late Nineteenth/Early Twentieth Century.”
Dierdre reached for the martini. So did Delilah, and the girl laughed. “Oh, I’m sorry. I asked for one, too. You go ahead and take this one.”
Dierdre didn’t mind if she did. She knew the afternoon would be long and tiresome, culminating in the gift-giving after some sumptuous dinner with too many dishes, too many of which she’d wonder what was in them.
This year, the dinner was so complicated, it was delayed. So they feasted on hors d’oeuvres for an hour, little bits of crostini with caviar, which Dierdre didn’t like. At least the cocktails flowed in abundance.
Finally, it was on to dinner, where there was some foie gras stuffing and truffle-butter carrots, both of which had a musky taste that triggered Dierdre’s gag reflex.
Seated next to Delilah, she reached for her water so quickly after a bite of the carrots that the girl turned to her and whispered, “They’re awful, aren’t they? They taste like they were rolled around in dirt.”
Dierdre barked out a laugh that had her coughing so much Delilah had to pat her on the back. Someone with white gloves refilled her wineglass with excellent chardonnay.
White gloves? Really, Dillingham?
For dessert there was a crepe cake that looked spectacular but tasted like cardboard—both Dierdre and Delilah reached for their water goblets at the same time on that one, triggering another round of laughter.
They tried the pumpkin mousse tarte instead, which was infinitely better, they decided, even if it was a little grainy.
After that, it was off to the living room—or parlor, as Dillingham called it this year, looking at the TV camera—where the giant balsam glistened with a thousand twinkle lights in the early dusk.
From some speaker, Christmas carols played—a famous boys choir singing Willcocks arrangements, no Bing Crosby here—and the ceremony began.
The ceremony—Dillingham handing out gifts after looking at their tags, recipients oohing and aahing over them, the camera catching all the reactions.
Vegan Dan got a year’s subscription to an organic cooking magazine.
A niece received a basket of bath items and certificate to a local spa since she “didn’t get out as much to pamper herself” as in years past.
Delilah opened a present of multiple gift cards, which she gushed over with gratitude—how much she, a poor student, needed help with various needs.
And in the hullabaloo finally they came to Jon’s gift to her.
She pulled at the expertly tied bow and opened the flat box.
Inside, under the tissue was…
A picture. Of an exercise bike?
She looked up at him, confused. Or maybe it was the wine dulling her understanding. What did this mean?
Jon laughed, a little uneasily. “I’m giving you what I’m not giving you!” he said.
This wasn’t going as expected. Jon had thought Del would find his un-gift funny. She had a good sense of humor. And besides, there was a real gift hidden under the photo. Maybe she hadn’t seen…
“No one should give their wife an exercise bike as a gift!” he said, again with good cheer. So much good cheer that his jaw ached from smiling. “Dig deeper. There’s a gift there.” He pointed to the box as she pawed through the tissue, smiling as she pulled out the book.
“How to Knit and Crochet Like an Expert?” she said as she read its title, her face reddening. “But I already know how…” She stopped, her eyes widening, and her mouth sagging.
Oh dear. She thought her homemade items were perfect. She didn’t think her skills were deficient, and now he’d sent a very public message that they were.
“Let me open your present now,” he said, trying to change the subject. He pulled out her small box to him and shook it, making a joke about guessing what it was, maybe quarters since he never seemed to have any on him. It was so lame it didn’t even elicit a groan.
He tore into the wrapping paper and pulled off the lid of the jewelry-sized box. There, hidden below the cotton was a key. A car key. A Miata car key.
“I bought it back for you,” Dierdre announced. “You sold it, remember? For our cruise. But I knew how much you loved that car…”
“Loved,” he said, spitting out the d to emphasize the tense of the verb. But he didn’t love it anymore. He’d wanted to sell it. Upkeep was too expensive and he’d been thinking of buying something a little sleeker, maybe a BMW, a four-seater. He didn’t need to look at their bank accounts to know that that purchase was now out of the question.
“I—I don’t know what to say,” he said, and Dierdre immediately picked up on his disappointment.
“Maybe thank you? For such an extravagant gift?” She stood and rushed from the room, camera whirling to follow her.
“I’m sure she’s just overcome,” Dillingham said from somewhere in the group.
Suddenly, the large space felt small with them all crowded into one corner. Jon tugged at his collar.
“Here,” someone said, handing him a handkerchief.
“Hey, that’s the embroidered one I gave you—I did the embroidery myself. It’s your monogram,” a woman said.
“Oh, I thought it was a leaf,” the man who’d given him the hanky said.
“It does look like a leaf,” Jon said as he wiped his brow.
“What?” the woman cried, rising—was she one of Dierdre’s aunts? “How would you know what it is, you, you cretin! You never appreciate Dierdre’s sweet pieces that she labors over every year.”
At that point Dierdre reentered the room. “Labors over? You make it sound like I work in a sweat shop!”
“At least she does something with her own hands,” said niece Daisy in the distance.
“Are you insinuating that you wanted a poorly constructed scarf instead of that spa package?” Daisy’s husband remarked.
“Who has time to go to the spa, Derek? We have three kids. And I have a job.”
“I have time to go to a spa,” said an older woman on the sofa across from the tree. “At least your husband is thinking of giving you something relaxing.” She held up the set of hand-decorated mixing bowls said husband had bestowed on her.
“Jenna, you love to cook!”
“Jordan, I cook so we don’t starve. A gift certificate to a nice restaurant would have been nice.”
“Maybe for the both of us,” Jordan snapped.
“What does that mean?” Jenna retorted.
“It means at least at a restaurant I can order something besides ground turkey casserole.”
“You said you loved that casserole!”
“Not every week!” Jordan harrumphed. “Besides, those bowls are beautiful works of art. Unlike…” He held up the painting of their ancestors Della and Jim Young.
“Jordan! That was painted by Jed’s daughter!” She nodded toward the corner where Jed and said daughter stood.
“It’s very nice, dear,” Dierdre quickly said to salve the young woman’s ego. “You’ve come a long way.”
“From what?” Jed groused.
“I mean…this one is better than…” She stopped, obviously knowing what minefield she was wandering into. “It’s quite lovely.”
Jed groaned. “Lovelier than those scarves you give us all. Your knitting hasn’t come a long way.”
Jon stood up. No one would insult his wife like that. “Del is a damned fine knitter.”
“Which is why you gave her a how-to book on the subject, I presume,” Jenna said from his other side.
Dierdre’s face reddened. “All these years, no one has liked my scarv…?”
Before she even finished, a chorus of “no’s” thundered.
Jon went over to her and put his arm around her. “Come on, honey. We’re leaving this viper’s nest!”
Before they could make their way out of the wrapping paper strewn room, though, Delilah shot up.
“Stop, just stop!” Delilah shouted. “This intense gift-giving is ridiculous. It places too much pressure on everybody to come up with just the right present!”
She stared at each one of them in turn as she spoke. “And you know what? I think our ancestors were nincompoops for doing what they did so many years ago.”
Dierdre was impressed. That Delilah, the young thing, knew what a nincompoop was.
Delilah rolled her eyes. “Cutting off all your gorgeous, luxurious hair? Unless you’re donating it to a bald cancer patient, what’s with that? Do you think her husband wanted her to cut her hair for him? Of course not! He probably carried a shit-load of guilt that she thought that’s what he would have wanted.”
“And him selling his watch for those combs? I mean, c’mon. If they’re that desperate for cash, maybe sell the damn watch for a down payment on a better place to live.”
She paused. “These were two selfish people satisfying their own egos with these so-called sacrifices that nobody asked them to make. Just like all of you, they were paying more attention to the reaction of the gift recipient than their own reactions to what people gave them.”
Dierdre nodded even though she wasn’t sure she understood. Nonetheless, she opined, “She knows what she’s talking about. She’s a literature major.”
Delilah took a deep breath. “Here’s how I would have ended that story—Della runs off with the grocer’s wife, who also has short hair, if you known what I mean…” She waggled her eyebrows like Groucho Marx. “And Jim becomes a Wall Street financier with a woman on each arm after he figures out how to buy and sell quickly to make bigger profits. They run into each other years later and Della thinks what a snob Jim is and Jim thinks what a snoot Della is. They both were so damned virtuous in a self-aggrandizing way. I doubt anyone in this room would like having them as friends.”
“Hear, hear!” someone said, then started coughing.
Delilah grabbed a brown box and held it out. “Here, dump your gifts in here. Each one of you.” She went round the room, and everyone eagerly placed their presents in the box, everything from gift cards to cashmere sweaters to gold watches, jewelry, scarves and books.
“Okay,” she announced. “Now, hug your neighbor. Tell them Merry Christmas and something you like about them. That’s all. That’s your gift to each other, your very special gift.”
Everyone dove into the act with vigor, and Dierdre learned that her Aunt Jane had always admired her ability to stick to things and her cousin Diane loved how stylish she always looked, and Jon loved what a great mother she’d been all these years.
They basked in the glow of the warmth they’d received from each other, and the camera panned slowly to each person, some of them wiping silent tears from the corners of their eyes.
There had never been a Christmas like this in the Young family household, an entirely gift-free Christmas.
And the camera caught the wonder of it all.
Dierdre stood and grabbed her half-filled glass of wine.
“To the best Christmas ever, thanks to Delilah. To Delilah!”
They all raised their glasses and toasted her, then silently drank.
It wasn’t until a few moments later they realized she wasn’t in the room.
And it wasn’t until weeks later they realized she’d absconded with all their gifts except for the Miata, which hadn’t been parked at Dillingham’s estate.
Later Dierdre saw her hand-crocheted scarf, the painting, and more show up on eBay.
But it was still the best Christmas ever.
(c) Libby Malin Sternberg, December 2019
Libby Malin’s books, some of which are light women’s fiction, can be found at her website, www.LibbyMalin.com
They’d make great Christmas gifts. She herself is giving a copy of this very special Christmas story to all her friends and relatives.
Along with other things. 🙂