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Wrapping Christmas Presents: a Memoir
What is it about wrapping Christmas presents that brings out my worst side?
I finally had enough presents for a wrapping party, for the first time this year. I turned on corny Christmas music and set to work, only to find my hands reluctant, almost unable to move. I was obsessed; I wanted the atmosphere to be perfect. I wouldn’t think of doing it without Classic Hits 106 turned on. I’d listened to Classic Hits 106 every year since I was about eight. Finally, I was safe in my long-awaited happy place. But fear entered me. I hate wrapping Christmas presents sloppily. I want geometric triangles, smooth, picture-perfect, immaculate like Mary. But my presents always have uneven paper over uneven surfaces and lumps on the back and too much tape and crooked fold-line seams. I had to examine my presents to assure myself they were fine. But I wanted to rip the wrappings off, waste all the paper, and start over again. Perfect.
Lately, I remember how people gave us presents years ago. My mother was ashamed to tell me all the cool toys, the plastic food buckets and Play-dough and racer cars and doll wardrobes, came from the charity tree at Joe’s high school. Blissfully, I stared into the laundry room, where packages waited in great heaps. Somebody would drop them off at our house and then disappear. Believing in Santa Claus had one advantage—I didn’t have to think I was poor and being pitied. I didn’t have to think of people shopping for the Quattrochis out of the kindness of their hearts, taking labels off a high school Christmas tree from between the shiny geometric ornaments. My brothers and I squealed as we opened the presents, with their labels written in cursive by people we’d never know. There was that one year, 2012, when Joe spent Christmas Day in the psych ward for making idle suicide threats at school and getting the cops on the doorstep. Still, no matter how dysfunctional life was for the Quattrochis, the free Christmas presents had perfect wrappings. When we tore all that perfectness into crumpled wads on the living room floor, it went to the mysterious garbage man.
Crumpled wads of trash—that’s the fate of all pretty wrapping paper, labels, bows, and ribbons; still, I have to make it look perfect around my gifts, or it feels like death.
I first learned to wrap presents when I was five. My mother said my cutting marks looked like a rat had chewed the paper. I slid my chunky scissors achingly through the paper with a satisfying, irritating noise. I can still see her showing me how to fold, tape, and cut out a slip of wrapping paper to write a label. I can still see my childish, handmade presents sitting awkwardly under the tree beside the glorious ones Santa had brought. TO DADDY…TO MOMMY…TO JOEY…TO DAVID…FROM LULY.
The year I was six, I made a drawing called MY BEST FAMILY with crayons, put it into a Saltine box, and gave it as a present. TO THE FAMILY. To this day, it’s still in the china hutch. Through the years, whenever my family had a fight, I would take down the MY BEST FAMILY picture and turn it around, bare side facing the battleground.
I always hoped, I tried so hard to make it a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. But the year I was six, my autistic brother wrecked a large puzzle my mother was working. We had a fight that was legendary, though I can’t exactly remember why. I will never be able to ask what happened. It felt like the world was ending. I remember the shouting, shouting. My mother threatened to throw herself off the loft, and my father said tiredly that nobody was going off the loft. My brother, Joe, tried to make peace by giving the family a gift from a pizza box. A wooden picture of a city street on a rainy night. My mother sniffed and looked woefully at the picture. “It’s people in the rain,” she said, wonderingly. I wondered who the people were, what they were thinking, and where they were going.
The first Christmas I learned about suicide was also Stomach Flu Christmas. It was not a pretty scene. I was the only one who escaped severe gastrointestinal illness. My father made a dish he called a cheese weasel, and whatever it was, it made him look like an aged, sick donkey, stuffed into his bathrobe and sitting feebly in his room. The legend of the cheese weasel will live in infamy. “Cakes,” he said to my mom, in a hoarse voice, “It’s the cheese weasel.”
When the illness hit, David was the most dramatic. One night in late December, my mother and my two brothers and I were coming home from an appointment to David’s urologist. I was disgusted to find out that a urologist was a pee doctor, but I thought gross was cool, so it wasn’t that bad. David threw up every fifteen minutes exactly. We knew this because Joe timed it with a watch. Mom stopped the car and let David out to puke on some Mickey Mouse tarp, which a stranger had left by the snowy curb. Then David got back in until he was ready to puke again, and Santa’s little sleigh continued through the night. But that is only one example of dysfunctionality.
When I was four at Christmas, in 2008, I woke up and looked into my stocking and there was a rag doll. The first thing I said was, “That’s ugly!” Joe told me I ought to show more respect to Santa Claus. When I got full Disney Princess costume jewelry and high heeled shoes and a magic wand, I crowned myself with a plastic sparkly crown and married David. I wrapped my arms around him by the banister as he came fresh from the bathtub and crowed, “I marry David!” David was wearing his fire truck pajamas zipped backwards, so that he wouldn’t stick his hands down into his underwear and do disgusting things to his room. If I knew that’s what I was marrying, I would have backed right out of the ceremony!
The next year was 2009 and I was five. Weeks before Christmas 2009, my brother, David, was on the edge of insanity. I remember he wrecked my advent calendar. But mostly, I did not realize it, because of the smell of a beloved McDonalds toy. It was a Strawberry Shortcake McDonalds toy that smelled like strawberries, and I loved it so much that I turned the paper scrap that had come in its plastic packaging into an unlikely Christmas ornament—that paper scrap followed us to the new house many years later until it was smashed on the basement floor. There were other cheesy ornaments shining in my eyes. One ornament showed three chubby smiling wise men and a little smiling Jesus in his china manger—I loved that dearly. I still remember the smell of the tree and musty lights tangled. I was obsessed with Christmas ornaments and didn’t understand why David had to spend time away, far away, upstairs.
I screamed, a tiny yelp. Mom came running, frantic. David was trying to throw the VCR and the record player again. My dad caught him on videotape, live footage of David refusing and screaming barbarically when asked to do a simple task like put dishes into the dishwasher.
The slow pain of David’s deteriorating behavior was not real to me. I was making paper dolls from old grocery ads and stray magazines, playing in the dollhouse, listening, wide-eyed, to magical girl worlds behind the covers of the bedtime stories my mother read to me every night.
So we were going to visit David in the psych ward, but snow flowers and Aurora Christmas lights and carols swarmed the air. What did I know? I was only five. The world was a huge, snowy blur of love.
I remember that was the Christmas I wanted a pony more than anything. Not a little plastic pony, but the huge furry one I saw in the store, the one that was big enough for me to sit on and play giddyup. I wrapped my arms around the pony and begged my mom to tell Grandma that’s what I wanted. But when I ripped open my presents on Christmas, I found a yellow plastic pony that came with its own bathtub! It had a shower attachment, and when you gave the pony a shower, its mane changed colors. I played with this fabulous invention all evening, while my mother dreaded the inevitable water spill she’d have to sop up.
When David was not throwing the record player, the record player crooned Bing Crosby’s “Jingle Bells,” and Joe jumped on the indoor trampoline, listening, his ears sticking out. When the record player stayed on its stand, John Denver sang “Aspen Glow,” “A Christmas Song,” “Away in a Manger,” “Christmas for Cowboys,” and “Please, Daddy, Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas.” Sometimes, I was in the big fuzzy chair before the computer, while “Sleigh Ride” floated into my ears.
Christmas lights swam mysteriously into the air, higher than I could imagine in my tiny world on the floor. Christmas lights played to the rhythm of the light-filled songs, stems and blossoms, plastic twining around plastic, each one a tiny precise flower. Delicately, my fingers wafted around each flower, afraid they were hot inside, and I might be burned.
Nothing that made Christmas a flawed, sad day for others hurt me, because I had learned to escape into inner fantasy.
When we came home from a church Christmas party the year I was seven, and the car broke down, and we had to get a family friend to call a tow truck while we stood outside freezing in the bitter cold, I thought it was an exciting story to tell my grandchildren. I was happy because I was hyperactive from Christmas cookies, and I was going to get a doll stroller and I had my brother’s little candy cane. When I was home, I wrote about the car breakdown in a special, sentimental memory book I had.
When the Christmas story from the Bible was told in my dad’s clear, singing voice, I tried to imagine the Nativity and got a vague picture of a baby in a manger with a golden halo, shadowy parents kneeling around him, shepherds startled amid a great black emptiness shattered by pastel angels. Three vague wise men came from the East with gold and frankincense and myrrh on cardboard camels, guided by a huge unnatural star, to a stable that was straight from a picture book fantasy.
Joe said the Christmas story wasn’t anything like that. If Jesus were born today, he would be born in a truck stop washroom, wrapped with paper towels, and put into the sink. The shepherds would be Hispanic auto repairmen. Mary and Joseph would be parents on welfare just hoping for enough money to buy diapers and formula. The stars would be over the Fox River, over the city of Aurora, the city of gangbangers and ramshackle churches where we’d come from.
“We always wish we had more presents after we’re done unwrapping them,” Joe said, in a rare moment of wisdom. “I guess that’s just human nature.”
Joe was always there at Christmas, eating too many cinnamon rolls, getting up too late, and screaming about electronic presents. Joe and I prepared for Christmas long before the holiday by watching videos of greedy Black Friday shoppers and laughing at how stupid they were, to think Christmas was all about stuff!
One Christmas, Joe was not here. It hurt, it hurt. He lay there on a cot in the white scar of a hospital, his long hair drooping, his adolescent face working with despair. “I don’t want to spend Christmas away from home,” he said over and over, like an incantation, as though saying it again and again would be his ticket out of madness. “Don’t make me spend Christmas in the psych ward,” he said, his blue eyes begging us. But my parents couldn’t help him; he was at the mercy of the doctors and nurses. We’d just had a brush with DCFS, and my parents said that Joe had caused destruction with his mouth. But I couldn’t forget him, and there was nothing that could bridge the gap between Joe and I, on Christmas Day, 2012. I wondered how silent it got for the kids on the adolescent ward of the psychiatric hospital. Did Santa Claus come and bring them generic toy firetrucks and candy canes? Snow settled on the roof outside the windows, as white as the walls. Walking through this place of TV screens and plastic utensils wasn’t enough. He had lost something inside him and had gone somewhere where we could never find him. Like a white moth dipping into his wing, Joe hid from us, closed his mouth, left the rest of us to our strangely empty, charity-present Christmas Day. We were all too careless.
We had put the ornaments on the tree between psych ward stays. When he came back, he gave the family his presents. Mine was a plastic crust-cutter for sandwich bread. I secretly thought it was pathetic, but I had learned to be glad to have anything at all. Having all the presents in the world would mean nothing if family was not there. Without these people, day was hollow, night was unreal, Christmas was nonexistent.
When Joe and I had watched the Black Friday videos that year, laughing in his bedroom, and he brooded about making a Christmas tree, he was already on the edge of madness. If I could have, I would have begged him to stop right there, to not take little subtle step over the edge. But he wouldn’t have listened.
Our family had developed an ugly tradition of having psych ward visits around Christmas Day, a tradition that would continue for a few more years. Joe had his turn—so did David and Mom and Dad. I looked over the edge of madness but never jumped.
Christmas is crumpled, a holiday that magnifies sadness for millions all over the world. Madness swells, loneliness grows wings and flies. Hungry ears hide from the cheery sounds of the radio, which claims that war is over if we want it. We know that war isn’t over and there will always be war. Some things aren’t a matter of us choosing.
But ears like mine listen to the soundless snow. Eyes like mine still take it in and love it and hold it so it doesn’t go. Hands like mine cut down pine branches from the yard to make a Christmas tree in a jar that sheds needles all over the carpet—and set up baby dolls to make a Nativity scene, and make Christmas ornaments out of flour and water clay. There’s a part of me that begs a truce with eternity, and cries peace on earth for all Quattrochis, home or gone. They may not be my best family, but they are my only family. Norman Rockwell moments and plenty to go around and meaningful rituals are not what I’ve been feeling.
Christmas is a day full of puke and stars. Christmas is a day of rumpled bags and price tags still clinging to half-price presents. Christmas is a day for the poor to line up in single file cold like the poor always do, waiting for their gifts to be handed to them by angels in glasses. Christmas is a day for tattered joy.
The Bible says it is better to have a little with the fear of the Lord and peace than a great celebration with strife. So be it. Christmas 2021 is another year for crumpled wrapping paper around treasures we touch with delicate child hands, the snowy, frail act of giving oneself away.