When I was a kid, my family didn’t have a lot. We were kind of like the poverty-stricken snake: We didn’t have a pit to hiss in.
One thing we did have was family, such as it was.
I never knew my dad’s mother or my mom’s father; they both died before I was born. I never really knew my dad’s father, either. He was what folks back then called a “wino” and what we would, in today’s politically correct world, call a homeless person.
But I did know my mom’s mother. In fact, she lived downstairs from us for a long time.
I had a good assortment of aunts, uncles, and cousins, all from my dad’s side, who lived fairly close. There were another set from my mom’s side, but they mostly lived in Denver, and we didn’t see them very often.
But Grandma was always around.
I always had toys for Christmas, but not many and never very expensive things. I sometimes think that my dad always wanted a son, because often he would get me toys that would seem, at least at first, as being more appropriate for a boy.
Like the year he spent who-knows-how-much on a toy plane, some big airliner or another, that had a “remote control” on a wire so I could make the lights come on, the small plastic propellers on the four engines rev up, and it would taxi around while I steered it. I loved the plane and played with it for years.
Or the year dad got me BB gun, followed a year later by a Winchester lever-action .22 rifle. No, I didn’t shoot my eye out, either. I loved them, too.
Looking back, it was more about dad giving me something rather than the gifts themselves that I loved. Like so many kids, I equated the gifts with dad loving me.
I don’t have any of those toys or gifts today. They were all lost to the passing years, and I have no clue where or how. All I have now are the memories, and that’s more than enough for me.
Then there was the year that Grandma died.
She had breast cancer, and the doctors did all they could, but they didn’t have the treatments available then that we have today. There was really little they could do other than keep her comfortable. Well, at least as much as possible.
Her last Christmas was a sad one, but at six, I really didn’t understand that she, mom, and dad all knew it would be her last. I thought it was just another visit from Santa.
The medical bills took as big a toll as anything else. There weren’t many presents under the tree that year.
But I remember one small package, only a few inches long, and far less than that in width and height. It had worked its way to the very toe of my stocking hanging above the old gas fireplace, and I had to take the red sock down and shake it to get the present to fall to the floor.
I recall thinking that it must be something good because it was heavy. I can still see the red wrapping paper, covered in white snowmen dressed in the traditional black top hats with their carrot noses and coal lump eyes. It was tied with a thin green ribbon, and a silver bow twice as big as the package itself finished it off.
I’d already opened all my other gifts, but something about this odd present fascinated me. It was so unusual, so different from all the others, that I had this feeling in my six-year-old mind that something must be very special about this last item.
A small card was taped to the package, and it read simply: “To Melodee From Grandma and Grandpa”.
That puzzled me. Grandpa? Did it mean Grandpa Bunny, the aforementioned wino? Surely not.
But at six, I didn’t worry about it too much, and tore into the ribbon and paper, tossing them to join the small, sad pile already on the floor.
Inside was a simple, unmarked cardboard box, and when I opened that, I found an old, well-worn pocket knife.
As I turned it in my hands, it was marked on one side with the word “Primble” and on the other with “Barlow”. I had no idea who these people might be, but they must have lost this knife a long time ago, because far from the bright, shiny color of a new tool, this one was brown with the color of old rust, rubbed off by wear from being carried and used on a regular basis.
I opened the larger of the two blades, and it was thin from repeated sharpening. Carefully, I ran my finger across the blade as I’d seen dad do when he sharpened his knife, and it was like a razor. I couldn’t get my tiny hands to open the smaller blade, though. The spring was too strong for my fingers to work.
Grandma, sitting in the old, big easy chair, waved her hands to get my attention so I could read her lips. “Child, close that knife and come on over here.”
I folded the knife and went to where she sat, and I crawled up in her lap.
I know now that probably hurt her. Her bones were brittle and ached from the cancer that, unknown to a six-year-old child, ravaged her body. But Grandma didn’t complain. She didn’t even wince.
Instead, she put her arm around me and tapped at the old knife with her other hand, the tremble noticeable even to me. “That was your Grandpa’s knife. He carried that everyday for a long, long time. It’s yours now.”
I saw a few tears running down her cheeks, but I really didn’t understand, because she smiled bright as daybreak. When I glanced over at mom, she too was crying softly, but she also smiled. Dad was busy poking at some invisible spot on his shirt, his eyes carefully averted from my gaze.
I remember saying thank you, but totally without understanding.
Grandma died in February, but it was many more years before I understood the meaning of her last Christmas present to me.
As I said, all the toys and other things from those times are gone, all a part of history now.
All but one…
As I write this, I look down at the desk and see the familiar knife there, the words “Primble” and “Barlow” still easily readable in the brownish metal, the colors of the artificial horn flowing across the handle. The blade is a little thinner now, but it’s still razor-sharp. Both blades now, because I can get the smaller one to fold out.
I carry that little knife with me everywhere I can. If I wear jeans, it’s in my pocket. Otherwise, it’s in my purse.
It’s not worth anything. It wasn’t even an expensive knife when new. To me, though, it’s priceless. It’s a tie across the miles and years to a woman I loved very much and miss terribly. It’s also a tie to man I never knew, but who I love just as much.
Some of you may be disappointed, because most of the stories from my childhood have a funny aspect, and this one is seriously lacking in the comedic department. No, this wasn’t a funny story, but it is a happy one.
Memories define who we are. To a large degree, they also define who we will become. That, in turn, defines how we live our life and how we impact others. The memory of Grandma’s last Christmas is a good one. She gave me a gift beyond all measure.
She gave me a past much longer than my years.
Yes, there is a good dose of bitter with the sweet, but like a fine wine or the most delectable chocolate available, the sweet far outweighs the bitter, reducing the painful twinge to giving us a reminder of how good things really are. The bitter only serves to enhance the sweet.