Around mid-December, when I was eleven or twelve years old, my brother who was fourteen or fifteen, skulked into our house, hunched over a wrapped present tucked under his arm, looking from side to side like a cartoon thief. He went straight to the Christmas tree, got on his knees and slid the present all the way to the back of the tree so it would be completely hidden. When he stood back up, he had a scared look on his face. “Don’t tell anybody,” he whispered. “This is from (he said her name). I don’t want dad and momma to find out about it.”
I knew who he was talking about – the girl lived a few blocks away – part of a trashy family. We knew they were trashy because Momma used this descriptive title for anyone who didn’t take care of their house, or it had unsightly trash out front. Garbage, or cars up on blocks – that was obvious, but it could be peeling paint, rotting porch steps, or a yard full of straggly weeds. This girl’s family was well-known for several of these aberrations. It was nothing personal against the girl, but the lifestyle of the family cursed her all the same.
In case you’re not familiar, trashy was an East Tennessee/southern term used to show disdain for people who didn’t care about appearances. Your clothes, your home, your car – all of these should appear to be well-maintained. It’s not the same as being poor – because wealthy people can be trashy too. It’s about having clean clothes (mended if they are old), a car not covered in dirt, even if it has dents, and a house with a mowed yard with no scattered garbage or auto parts, and the broken things repaired. To this day I’m always conscious of how my home looks from the street – worried my neighbors will dub me with whatever term they use in the Northwest – I think they call it trailer trash around here. Call me what you will, but for the sake of my momma, I hope you never call me trashy.
I looked at my brother’s present everyday with the utmost respect, awed that he had entrusted his secret to me. He’d let me in on his conspiracy. He had treated me like an adult instead of the sneaky kid I was. As a child I never got a Christmas surprise in my life because I opened every present under the tree long before Christmas morning. I’d gently lift the tape strips to see the toy’s name on the end of the box, then re-tape it exactly where it was so that any torn wrapping paper would go right back in place. Sometimes I looked into my brother’s presents, too. I was a sneakier-than-most kid in many other ways, but I really shined at Christmas. This present, though, I would have guarded with my life.
When the day finally came, after we’d opened all our presents, and I’d feigned surprise about the gifts I’d gotten, The Present was exposed. My stomach tightened and my heart raced as my brother got on his hands and knees and pulled the forbidden gift out from the back of the tree. “What’re we gonna do? What’re we gonna do?” I thought. As a co-conspirator, I was just as guilty. I’d been like a sentry, a guard at Buckingham Palace, stoicly diverting any of my friends away from the gift lest one of them blurt out, “Hey, who’s this present for? It’s got no name on it?” His secret was my secret too.
He pulled the present out in slow motion and put it in my lap. I gasped. “This is for you,” he said. I stared down at it, wrapped in red plaid paper, no tag, no bow, a little longer and narrower than a shoebox. I looked at him. He was grinning.
“But I thought…”
“No it’s for you.”
“Yeah. Open it.”
I slowly pulled the paper off. Inside the wrapping was a plain brown box, stapled shut. Inside that was a piece of wood with rounded edges, painted red. It had something printed on top.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s a skateboard.”
“A skateboard?” I said, turning it upside down. It had two roller skate wheels on the front and two on the back.
“You stand on it and skate,” he said.
“For me? This present is for me?”
“Yes. I wanted you to have a surprise for once in your life.”
The feeling that came over me in that instant – the pleasure of a true surprise – was far better than the momentary release I’d always gotten from giving in to my curiosity. I’ve had wonderful presents in the many decades since then, but I’ve never had a more significant one. From that day on I haven’t peeked into another present. I wait, so I can get that wonderful feeling.
Later my brother told me he’d bought the skateboard with his lawn mower money. He knew I snuck into all my presents, so he came up with this scheme to keep me from getting into this one. We took the skateboard to the high school parking lot on a gently sloping hill. He stood on it and rode a little. I never did stand on it – I couldn’t steer it, and it went very fast. I only sat on it with my legs stretched out on each side, and that was fun enough for me. I wish I still had it.
Here’s my Christmas wish for you: May all your presents be surprises, and may all your surprises bring you joy.
PS – I found what looks like my skateboard online – the timeframe is right, and the color. I don’t remember what it said on top – I thought it was two words like Radio Flyer, so that fits, too. It’s the right shape and has the metal skate wheels. Ahhh – such a good memory. I’m grinning like a mule eating briars.