Some who might have expected a Christmas card from me this year may not have received one. Others who expected one may have received two. As in so many other areas of my life, my Christmas intentions are good, but my follow-through is sometimes weak. And even when I do the right thing, my record-keeping may be a bit, shall we say, sloppy. I blame it all on age. If you didn’t get a card you expected, it’s because I’m old, my sight is failing, and I just missed it. If you got two cards from me, it’s because I’m old and I know I may not be here next year, so I sent you an extra to cover next Christmas, just in case.
People on the Simpson Christmas card list over many past years are the ones most likely to notice glaring differences. My spouse was organized, efficient, and unrelenting in her search for perfection in all matters Christmas. Even when she became physically unable to perform most daily activities of living, she would still sit at a computer or at the kitchen counter and labor at length over addresses, labels, and just the right cards. Cards, by the way, that she had purchased immediately after the preceding Christmas, when they went on sale for half price. And when some of the administrative tasks were beyond her ability, she was a beloved but demanding task master. Smudged envelopes or crooked stamps were not acceptable.
Christmas gift-giving was approached with the same attention to detail. Gift buying would begin in late summer, and if you wanted to submit a list of possible gifts she might consider, you had better submit it at least a month before Christmas. If not, you would be reminded. Repeatedly. I, on the other hand, always had a terrible time choosing the right gift for anybody. My failings in this area started early. When I was just a youngster, I decided one year to take my paltry savings, a few coins, and buy my mother a Christmas gift. Somebody took me along on a trip to town and dropped me at Rose’s five-and-dime. I had not yet learned that women often are not impressed by gifts of household work items, but I had learned somewhere that tableware was often in six-place settings. So I bought six cheap paring knives and wrapped them carefully.
When she opened her gift on Christmas morning, my mother thanked me and was too kind to laugh. My older two siblings felt no such reluctance. They became nigh-hysterical. The whole matter was a family joke for years. I didn’t think it was all that funny. At least when I left home at 18, I went with the comforting knowledge that my mother would never be without a paring knife when she needed one. For the rest of her life.
I don’t learn lessons quickly. Early in our marriage, I bought my wife a vacuum cleaner for Christmas. To be fair, it was just one of several gifts, and the only one that was in the danger zone. And to be even fairer still, I was the one who used it for most of its life. It and its descendants.
I did hit the bull’s eye with one gift. One night during a pre-Christmas shopping ramble, my wife dragged me to a special shop to show me something magical. It was a white mink jacket she’d seen and had fallen in love with. I said I saw nothing especially pretty about it, that it was outrageously expensive, and that only a nut would spend that kind of money for something so unnecessary. I wandered away, disinterested. When we got home, while she removed her makeup I quietly called the store and bought the jacket. They would put it away for me. A few days later, my wife mournfully informed me that someone had bought that beautiful mink jacket she so loved. On Christmas morning I presented it to her. She was overwhelmed. Although it did huge damage to my credit card, that one gift made up for a lot of bad choices, including even a vacuum cleaner. I still treasure the memory.
I hope no one expects a mink wrap from me this year. But if you’re expecting a Christmas card, I hope you got one. Or maybe two.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of “Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage.”