But it was the most important.
It was 1971, I was 12 and it was one of the darkest times for our family. My oldest brother was still recovering from major spinal surgery that had him flat on his back for 6 months. My other brother, at 13, was growing out of his shoes and clothes every month. My father was slipping further into an alcoholic haze and we were slipping deeper into debt. Bill collectors called all the time and would badger anyone who answered, even my 8 year old sister.
Like a lot of the other girls in my class, what I wanted for Christmas that year was “Mystery Date,” a ridiculous game centered on getting enough points to open the door at the middle of the game board to see our “date.” Would we get the dreamboat, the skier, the bowling guy--or would we get the dud? Heady stuff for a romantic tween like me. However, with money tight, I knew the chances of me getting what was a relatively expensive present were slim, especially since 3 of the 4 of us Halpin kids had birthdays in the first week of December. I still hoped, though.
Christmas morning came and the gifts were opened. No Mystery Date. But when I opened my present I forgot my disappointment. You know how in writing fiction, the goal isn’t to give the character what they want, you give them what they need--and that’s just what I got that Christmas.
I tore the wrapping paper off a thick, spiral bound notebook and a package of pens. On the notebook’s red cover, Santa (aka my mother) had written in black magic marker: THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL. I was beyond delighted, and had many pages filled with my left-handed slant before the Christmas goose was served (well, really meatloaf, a family favorite).
I didn’t think much about the gift’s significance at the time, but over the years I came to realize just how important it was. The whole shebang, pens and paper, had probably cost my mother 79-cents at Woolworths, but to hit a cliché as hard as I can, the gift, to me, turned out to be priceless.
Because, though I loved to write back then, I’d always felt like a weirdo for doing it. Reading and writing weren't exactly "cool" in my neighborhood. I'll never forget the neighbor who visited our apartment, took one look at the bookcases overflowing with books and let out a horrified, "You read books?!?" I didn't talk about wanting to be a writer and hid my scribblings from the world.
But my mother had noticed. The notebook was encouragement and validation, her way of telling me not to hide and not to care what others thought. That I might be a kid from the project, but what I had to say mattered. That I could do anything I set my mind to.
I finally did get Mystery Date for Christmas, and probably was bored of it by New Year’s, but that notebook has stuck with me for always. Especially that time, a year before my mother died, as I was walking with her down the main hallway of her assisted living facility, and she called out to anyone who would listen as we passed, “This is my daughter, a published author.”
Now, it’s been suggested we offer a giveaway to go along with this month’s theme, but I’m going to do something a little different. I’m going to make a small donation to the library/literacy program in the neighborhood where I grew up, hopefully reaching that project kid who’s scribbling under his/her bedcovers like I used to. I will tack on $1 for every comment my blog entry gets—so comment away (and please share!).
Here’s wishing you all a safe and healthy holiday season, filled with joy, family and many important gifts!