Thursday, December 18, 2014

it's a wrap

the lady walked up to the giftwrap station at Pittman's, the small department store where i was spending the better part of Christmas vacation wrapping presents, and handed me her bag. i peeked inside, finding a dozen or so pairs of tighty-whities and another dozen pairs of white athletic socks.(the trims were different colors as i recall.)

i know i blushed. was she the mother of a boy from my class? lord i hoped not. underwear was not a discussable item in my house in the 1970s — well not now either, come to think of it. (politics, yes, as long as you voted for Nixon), but not underwear, and certainly not tight-whities!

in my family, underwear was a utility item, bought on a summer saturday when the last pair had holes in it. Christmas was for surprises and wants, not for needs.

but back to the job at hand.

as the lady stood by me, i pulled out a two large boxes from the pile and some tissue, planning to place the whities in one and the socks in another. i probably huffed a few times, too, though i don't recall that. i mean, couldn't she have bought them cargo pants or a jean jacket, or brogans, something cool? (all of these things were available at Pittman's.)

wrap 'em separately,  she said. 

really? all of them? i glanced at my watch, calculating the time it would take me to wrap two dozen small boxes before closing, which in my memory was only minutes away. my church youth group was putting on "The Homecoming" that night, and i'd have to head home, grab a bite and dress for my role (my stage debut!) as Mary Ellen Walton. there was not time in my life for 24 boxes of briefs and socks, wrapped and bowed. 


i had a job to do, and Edna Earle, (yes, really, that was her name) — Pittman's ever-present clerk, hovered to make sure i was efficient.

once i got over my embarrassment, i set to work, trying not to imagine who'd be opening these particular packages on Christmas morning.


it was a rite of passage for the girls in my town to pay their dues behind the wrapping station at Pittman's. my sister, Pamula, had loved the work, and even now when she gives me a package i can see the results of her hours logged there as a teen. sides tight, ends as perfect as my mother's hospital corners. bow pert and beautiful.

not so much me. that exercise in learning how to estimate how much paper i needed (no wasting, please), or how to rip it away from the giant roll leaving a perfect edge, to fold the corners exact and flat and keep the tape straight, well, this was lost on me.

thank goodness i found another career.

in a week, it will all be over, but there is wrapping yet to do. these days i don't have anyplace else to go except to sleep once the wrapping is done, yet i avoid it. 

though i try to fold exact corners and tie a fancy ribbon, my packages look like they were wrapped by that anxious teenager, weary of the job of wrapping dozens of tighty-whities for some unknown stranger. (thank heavens for small favors.)

but with the FAM coming in on Sunday, i could avoid no more, so i set up my wrapping station on the kitchen island, turned the bose to my Pandora Christmas and set to work. 

though at first the memory of Pittman's and all those socks yet to wrap hovered for a little bit, something else came through my thoughts that i hadn't expected. our first Christmas in our small house in Atlanta, and my husband had found a jazz station on the radio, playing Christmas music like i'd never heard before. (we weren't all about that jazz where i came from. mitch miller, sure, or even perry como, but this? lyrical, but without the lyrics. it was fine.)

soon i was lost in the memory ofpre-Christmas 1984, seeing my (much, much thinner) self wrapping the set of blocks my daughter would get for her first Christmas, tying a bow at the neck of the wooden rocking horse (SO impractical for a baby of one, but what the who?) and wrapping the few but carefully chosen gifts for my family, all in plain brown paper and plaid ribbon. (you can take the girl out of the country, and all that, but...)

i remember that night feeling so full of love for my small family, excited to celebrate the best gift we'd received already that year — the baby who slept just down the hall.


music, of course, is the bridge to memory. 

as Christmases passed, i bought cassette tapes, then CDs of many of my jazz flavor favorites, practically wearing them out from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve in the car and at home. among the melodies is a string version of "Of the Father's Love Begotten," that brings me to tears every time i hear it.

tonight i think about all that's wrapped up in this particular Christmas memory, grateful for my not so young family, for gifted musicians, and for those years long ago when i worked at a job that taught me about serving others even when i didn't feel like it — and wasn't particularly good at it.

and, by the way, though my mother is probably cringing as she reads this, we are boxer people. 

no tighty-whities here, though i do wrap them separately from the socks.

writemuch.blogspot is the original work of author susan byrum rountree. all written work and photography is copyright protected and can only be used with written permission of the author.

Monday, December 15, 2014

shopping for mama

i called my sister on my way home from work, checking in to see when the family would gather for their first Iowa Christmas in many years. For the past few years, she has shipped her Christmas to North Carolina, spending it with my parents or her in-laws, but always making time to see my brother and me. 

this year, her children will be home for the first year in many, with a toddler granddaughter to entertain them every single minute she's awake. and Pamula can't wait.

so i want to know the details. what she's cooking, what she's giving. if it will snow. when everybody's coming. 

i call, too, to make sure we have my mother covered. 

my father loved to find just the right gift for Mama, and when we were young, he included us in on the hunt. whether he'd already chosen what he planned to give her (or she had told him what to buy),we never knew. my sister and i felt like a team, helping to choose, too.

one year, he bought her an evening gown of black lace and gold lamé. i remember my sister trying it on in the small shop, Daddy saying that it would fit my mother perfectly (which it did.) remember watching the clerk wrapped it in a large, beautiful box — i had never seen anything so glamorous. we couldn't wait for her to open her beautiful gift. she wore it for years.

shopping trips with Daddy were filled with fun and love as i remember. no struggling with exactly what to get her, no arguing or whining about how we didn't get our way. we didn't get to spend a lot of time with our father as a rule, but shopping for Christmas for Mama took precedence over patients, if only once a year.

the Christmas after i graduated from college, my sister was living in Texas so I shopped with Daddy alone. he picked me up after work one December afternoon, and in the process of shopping for Mama, i told him i had not yet gotten a Christmas tree. (i could not afford one.)  so he drove me to the garden shop where my parents had bought their tree for years. i found a small live tree, bound in its root ball, and insisted i have it. (we could plant it in the yard at home!) so he bought it for me and brought it to my second floor apartment — he even bought me ornaments! and there, it promptly died.

(in later years, Daddy and i shopped and bought my family's tree, which he put in the stand and in the house before my husband could complain about having to! i can still picture him lying on my driveway, screwing the bolts in the tree to keep it straight.)

as he grew older, Daddy asked my sister and me to take turns with him to shop.when it was my turn, he'd drive to Raleigh and we'd take on the mall and the jewelry store together, searching for that perfect thing.

i remember well the year Daddy and i strolled through the old mall familiar since my childhood. i don't remember what we bought, but at lunch time, we sat in the food court, eating hot dogs and sharing fries from a place that no longer exists.

a few days later, a letter arrived in the mail, Daddy thanking me for helping him shop. i have searched my house in the past year or so for that letter and can't find it, though i remember his words: how he cherished spending time with me, even if it was as 'simple as sharing a hot dog in the middle of a crowded mall'... i will never forget those lines, or the image they still provoke. 

Christmas always brings such anxiety about the gift giving, but i never felt that with my father. to him, giving was never a chore, but was as much about the time spent shopping with his daughters as it was the gifts we bought. 

my sister has finished her shopping, though i have not. do we have perfume? will what we bought her fit? i ask her these things, thinking of how Daddy loved giving to Mama — to all of us — wishing again that he were here to help is find that perfect thing.

writemuch.blogspot is the original work of author susan byrum rountree. all written work and photography is copyright protected and can only be used with written permission of the author.