THE BEST GIFTS
Lingerie, perfume, slippers—the usual presents for women can’t hold a Christmas candle to the best gift I received back when we were a younger family and our son was still at home. The gift had no wrapping, and because it came disguised, I didn’t know what I had received at first.
My husband, son, and I rode the train from Portland to visit my parents and sister in La Grande. We chugged into the cold, icicle-clad station, irritable and rumpled after the six-hour trip.
Looking out the train window onto the dark, snow-frosted platform, we saw among the large crowd a Santa Claus waving. The mittened hands of my father and sister held a white banner with broad black letters reading, “Welcome: Karen, Neal, and Sean. Merry Christmas!” With that, my exhaustion dissipated, and a lump formed in my throat. My sister and my dad and…where was my mom? Why wasn’t she here too? I supposed that she stayed home, baking sugar cookies for us to frost, or preparing spicy, chunky chili as only she can make it.
I wove my way down the aisle, through departing passengers and bulky luggage. As I stepped off the train, Santa Claus, who was handing out candy canes at the train exit, stuck a candy cane in my coat pocket. “Merry Christmas,” he said, in a gravelly voice.
“Thanks,” I muttered, thinking that this was a great service Amtrack was providing, and rushed off to meet my family. We all hugged and helloed. To my surprise, I noticed that Santa Claus, who hadn’t gone inside the station with all the other disembarking passengers, embraced Neal and Sean.
Then Santa sidled up to me, hugged me, and said, “Merry Christmas!” again.
How nice, I thought, and hugged my dad and my sister again. Santa continued to stand next to me. “Why is he still standing out here in the cold with us?” I wondered. “Isn’t this overplaying his role a bit?” I kept chatting and all the while Santa remained at my elbow. Why was Santa so attentive to us?
I couldn’t figure it out. The chatter died out and my entire family stared expectantly at me, then laughed as Santa pulled off his beard. Only then did I finally understand. In my excitement I hadn’t seen what they had seen. I screamed and threw my arms around the red and white padded body. You see, Santa Claus was really my mother.
My vision always blurs when I think back to this incident. It taught me two things. First, presents don’t have to be wrapped to be just what you need. And secondly, parental acts of love don’t stop when you leave home, but continue the rest of your life in the form of some of the best gifts you’ll ever receive.