Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Dad happiest with Christmas over

And when I got a rocking chair, I cried, shunned it

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The punctuation mark on our family Christmas always came right after we opened the last present. That's it, our dad would proclaim. It's over for another year, he'd say, as if he'd timed it with a stopwatch.

All that planning and preparation, he'd say with private amazement, over in a brief flurry of crumpling and tearing Christmas wrap. His proclamations were always like hitting the nadir in the manic-depressive cycle. Two months of running around. Now, just a feeling of nothingness. Then our dad would tell the story about the time he got a single toy car for Christmas and broke it before lunchtime.

He was partly kidding, but there is a morbid streak in our family. My dad said my oma used to sit around the kitchen table talking about death. She'd had a hard life. Death hung around the back door in the shade of the eaves. My grandparents had lost family members prematurely back in Russia, some violently, and would never again see surviving loved ones they'd left behind.

The worst present I ever got was from that oma. I was five or six years old. I was aghast at the gift waiting for me under the Christmas tree at my oma and opa's house. It wasn't wrapped because it was too big. It was a little kid's wicker rocking chair. It had a blue plastic seat cushion. I looked around the Christmas tree, figuring there had to be something more. I was like, No, seriously, where's my present? That's it, that rocking chair.

My cousin, who was the same age, loved his rocking chair and went tossing back and forth in his. I just cried. A rocking chair? What was I supposed to do with a rocking chair?

I wouldn't touch it. I never did touch it. I never sat in that rocking chair and I was never tempted to sit in it. (Except once, as a teenager, and it was a sort of dawn of irony in my life.) It lay around in my parents basement for ages. I didn't avoid it. I just didn't see it. It was dead to me.

You might think I felt badly about how I'd reacted later, but I never did. My oma on the Redekop side was a tough woman. Her reaction to me would have been something like, Suck it up, Buttercup, or its German equivalent.

She was the oldest in her family and wanted to be a doctor, but the Russian Revolution removed any chance of that. My grandparents arrived as refugees in the late 1920s with a young family, including my dad, and settled on Hawthorne Avenue in North Kildonan. One story my dad told was the time my oma got a hamper at Christmas. She had a reaction a bit like mine to the rocking chair: What's this? She was stunned. Mortified, would be a good word, somewhere between horrified and humiliated. The family was poor but no different than other Mennonite immigrants on the street. That someone considered them an object of charity made her ashamed.

The well-wishers had to fight to get the hamper in the door. When they did, my oma wouldn't let anyone open it. Her six kids begged and begged. "Not for us, not for us," she told them in German. But after a day of this, she finally relented.

Delivering hampers can be tricky. Someone I know once delivered a hamper to a former classmate from school. Talk about awkward.

The last thing I want to do is make anyone think twice about giving hampers or other types of charity. I've delivered Christmas hampers, although not for years, and it's a good feeling. You go to prescribed house numbers handing out bags that include a frozen turkey and a toy for each child. The kids are all excited while the single mom is shushing them.

But it's funny what sticks in your memory. You're only standing in someone's doorway momentarily, but sometimes the adult who takes the hamper becomes eerily quiet. Sometimes no words exchange at all. I remember being with someone who, walking away, remarked how 'They didn't even say thanks.' To me, saying thanks is easy. Not saying thanks is hard.

That's what I remember about handing out hampers, how quiet it made some people. More tact is required of the giver than the receiver, I learned. For many, like my oma, it may very well be the worst present they ever receive.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 24, 2012 A16

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