It was a Christmas when my three older sisters were 12, 10, and 7 just after my father, a young engineer, had accepted a transfer from Schenectady, New York, to Los Angeles, California. On Christmas Eve, my mother made preparations for the traditional Christmas dinner the next afternoon. My sisters took turns trying to keep me and my three-year-old brother from playing baseball with the shining Christmas tree ornaments. Mother found time to tend our new baby sister.
Amid the bustle of the Christmas Eve excitement, my father was preoccupied. His thoughts kept returning to the used bicycle hidden carefully in the garage rafters. Next to it lay the boxes holding two brand-new, shining black, matching three-speed bikes which he had purchased for my two older sisters. The budget strains of Christmas had prevented Dad from buying a third black three-speed for Leanne. Instead, he set about restoring the old single-speed, fat-tired bike the older two no longer rode. Scouring pads and elbow grease made the rusty spokes shine. The inner tubes were patched, and a new coat of paint erased the battle scars of collisions and neglect. A replacement set of handgrips made the handlebars look almost new.
My father realized Leanne would probably recognize the old war horse, but he was sure she could be happy just having her own bike. And in a year or two, when she outgrew this one, he would be able to buy her a brand-new one. Leanne had already received a big share of hand-me-downs from her older sisters. Many of her clothes, toys, and books had been previously used.
This Christmas Eve, as my mother tucked all of us in bed, Dad commenced his marathon toy and bicycle assembly projects. When he finished the new, black bicycles, he placed them side by side near the Christmas tree. He then carefully rolled out and placed the rejuvenated old bike next to the new ones. The stark contrast of the old half-sized, blue, thick-tubed bike against the sleek, black beauties made the revamped two-wheeler suddenly look small and old-fashioned. Dad reconsidered. Had he made a mistake in trying to redo the old bike for Leanne? Would she feel slighted? Leanne was too young to understand the economics of family finances, but she would be quick to spot this injustice perpetrated by Santa Claus: new bikes for her sisters, the old war horse for her.
A gradual panic swept over Dad as he realized he’d slipped up. Better run to the store and buy a matching bike, quick! But on Christmas Eve? It was already 11:30 P.M., and the stores would probably be closed. A few hurried telephone calls confirmed the worst. Everything was closed.
My grandmother, who was visiting for the holidays, tried to comfort Dad. “Don’t worry, Ray. She’ll love the bike. You’ve made it look just like new.”
Dad was not comforted. He kept imagining the disappointed look on Leanne’s face as she recognized the old hand-me-down. Though it was very late when he finished the last stocking and exhausted as he was from his assembly projects, Dad did not sleep well that night.
Early Christmas morning, we were poised in our annual positions in the hall—all in a row, youngest to the oldest. It was still dark outside, but we were already hopping with that special excitement of children on Christmas morning. Dad was in the living room making the movie camera and lights ready to record our grand entrance. Finally he yelled, “Okay, come on in,” and we blazed through the doorway like a shot. In a matter of minutes, the beautiful array of packages and ornaments was transformed into a mountain of strewn boxes, wrappings, and ribbons. My older sisters spotted their black beauties, gave them the once over with due praise and admiration, and moved on to the Christmas tree to locate more presents. Amid the chaos and clutter, Leanne stood firmly next to the old blue bike. She was touching every part and talking aloud, “Look, it has new grips and new paint! A brand-new seat! Just look at those pedals, and it’s my very own, my very own bike.”
Leanne didn’t seem to notice there were other presents for her under the tree. She stayed near the bike and repeated the same speech several times, though no one was listening, no one, that is, except my father. He stood silently on the other side of the room, oblivious to the rest of the children, the movie camera held low at his side, listening to Leanne. Tears of joy streamed down his face as he witnessed this perfect acceptance of his imperfect gift.
It has been a long time since the black beauties were worn out and discarded. Even the old war horse was sent to the glue factory years ago. But the image of my father’s tear-streaked face on Christmas Day reminds me still of the warmth of a Christmas gift well given and well received.