The ghost of Christmas presents
Do you remember the Think-A-Tron? If you're of a certain age, you might have received one as a Christmas gift in the early to mid-1960s, as I did. I got mine around 1961 or '62. It looked like a miniature version of what were then room-sized computers that were coming into use in government and a few corporations, and it came with its own set of miniature punch cards. Each card had a question on it, with multiple choice answers below. You'd feed the card, which had holes punched in it, into the machine and turn a crank; lights would flash as the machine "read" the card, and then the lights would form the letter corresponding to the answer — A, B, or C. I loved it, just as much as I loved my Magic 8 Ball, which also offered the answers I craved as a child, but in a more otherworldly manner.
I recall few other childhood Christmas presents with particular clarity. There were dresses and other clothes — some of them the height of little-girl fashion — which I hated. There were books, which I generally enjoyed, and a variety of other items, mostly forgotten now. The one thing I remember vividly, the emotions coming back to me as I call up the image of it in my mind, is a Daisy Ricochet Rifle given to me by a very perceptive aunt when I was 8 or 9.
A gun, you say? Why give a gun to a little girl? And, peace-loving, violence-rejecting person though I am, I reply, "Yes, of course, absolutely!" I adored that gun. It was a validation, my ticket to the world of boys' imaginary play. When I tagged after my two-years-younger brother to the park to play "war" with him and his friend Eddie, they always made me be the Germans, but I had my own gun. I belonged.
I'm sure the Daisy, which actually looked more like something that might have been seen on the American frontier in the mid-19th century, was also incorporated into games of "pirates," though, with my tendency toward literalness, I might have balked at including it in "Robin Hood," another favorite imaginary game. I was always more attracted to adventure-based, boy-type games, rather than "house" or "school," or other games thought suitable for girls 50 years ago. I did not want to be a boy, I wanted the freedom, the excitement, the self-actualization of a boy's role. And my aunt's gift gave me permission, if not to claim that role, at least to aspire to it.
My aunt lived several hundred miles away with my uncle and my cousins, and I didn't see her often. I doubt that she could have known all that the Daisy rifle would mean to me: she'd simply noticed that I liked to play "boy" games rather than "girl" games. What thrilled me deeply then, and still does, is that she saw me, not some idea in her head of "little girl." That was the best part of her gift.
Recently, there has been a photograph making the rounds on the Internet. It shows a New York City policeman giving a pair of sturdy boots to a homeless man whose feet, on a cold November day, are bare. The cop kneels next to the beggar, who's sitting on the sidewalk, in a tableau of seasonal charity.
Since the picture and the story of the officer's generosity were publicized, I read a story in the New York Times telling how the man who received the boots had again been seen barefoot. It is dangerous to have something as nice as a $100 pair of boots when you live on the street, so he'd hidden the boots, he explained to the Times, saying, "I could lose my life."
His statement points up how complex even something as simple as an act of kindness from one person to another can be. And it suggests a corollary to the familiar Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, if you were in their place." Maybe when we give to others, whether they are our closest family or complete strangers, we should pause to consider the gift from their point of view. Are we truly giving to the other, to our idea of the other, or to a version of ourselves?
Maybe seeing who the other really is, and showing that we see, is the very best gift we can give.