As a teenager, I was a major Grinch. During my senior year especially, I was surly and uncommunicative. It wasn’t just our family’s financial situation—we were not the poorest family in our neighborhood, but we were not well-to-do. I’d grown up in West Bountiful (on the other side of the tracks) and we’d moved to a house at the bottom of the East Bench in my teens. I felt out of place in this “upper class” area. We lived in a small house at the foot of a hill where the families became more affluent as their homes progressed up the hill. Of course, all my friends lived higher up the hill. I felt like I was still from the wrong side of the tracks, just pretending to fit in on the East side.
But it wasn’t just our monetary status that year made my life so difficult that year. My mother was dying. My oldest brother was married, my next brother was serving a mission, and my mother was fighting a battle with breast cancer that she’d lose within two years. As the oldest girl in the family of seven, (and the oldest child at home) it was my responsibility to come right home from school to tend the younger children, make dinner and help mother as much as I could.
The difference between my friends’ situations and mine had not really mattered until that year. That year however, their dreams and mine seemed to divide dramatically. All my friends’ hopes seemed focused on college while my hopes for college seemed to become more tenuous as the year progressed and my mother’s health deteriorated.
To my mind, the real differences between my friends and me were symbolized by the school pep club. My friends were members, and I wasn’t. My parents and I had discussed whether I should go out for the pep club, and the burden it would be for the family if I did. Yet my parents had wisely left the decision whether to join or not up to me. In a moment of noble renunciation, I had chosen not to join the pep club to save money and to help more at home.
I made the decision of my own free will, so I could blame no one except myself. However, I resented the decision from the moment I made it. I felt increasingly alienated from my friends, not because of their attitude, but because of the circumstances. They went to school early to practice and stayed after for the games and activities. I walked to and from school by myself, embracing my resentment like a prickly hairshirt. I hid in the library at lunch and studied during the pep rallies and pretended that I was happy with the choice I had made. The isolation I felt seemed to underscore the separation between my friends’ dreams and mine. They were confidently preparing to go away to college, while college seemed increasingly unobtainable for me.
My mother knew that I was unhappy, but I obstinately refused to tell her why. I told myself that I didn’t want to make Mom know how my “noble” decision to help the family had blighted my life. The real reason was more profound. I didn’t want Mom to know how important an education was to me in case I couldn’t go to college. My mother had quit high school when her father died during the Depression, and she had never graduated. In some unexplained way, I felt that I needed to get an education both for myself and for my mother. My father didn’t object to education for women—his own sister was a teacher. But he felt that men who would provide for their families needed a college education more than women who would stay at home.
As Christmas drew near, my rancor grew as grievances built up in my heart. Although my mom asked repeatedly what I wanted for Christmas, I always replied, “Nothing that we can afford, so why worry about it?” My younger brothers and sisters made out long Christmas wish lists, and I knew that somehow, they’d get one or two items on their list. I refused to make a list and even hinted to my youngest sister, four-year-old Ann, that Santa wouldn’t bring me anything because I’d been bad.
I wasn’t in a hurry to get up on Christmas morning because I expected very little under the tree. I was amazed and surprised when I opened two unique and special gifts–a book of Emily Dickenson’s poetry and a soundtrack of my favorite musical, Carnival. I looked at my mother and began to cry.
“How did you know I loved Emily Dickenson?” I sobbed.
“I called all your friends until I found out what you’d been talking to them about. You’ve always wanted to be a writer, and Sharon told me that your favorite poet was Emily Dickenson. The book will be useful when you major in English. Linda told me that you loved Broadway musicals. I hope you like the one I picked out. It will have to do until you see one on Broadway someday.”
My dad was mumbling about the gifts he wished he could have given me. He said that when he won the lottery, he’d buy me bushels of Janzten sweaters. But I didn’t hear him. Through my tear-filled eyes, I could see their vision for me. It was a vision that I hadn’t dared dream about and that mother would not live to see.
Gifts are merely symbols of what we would really like to give others. For how can you wrap love inside silver paper? How can you place a red satin bow around dreams? How can you enclose hope inside shiny cellophane? That Christmas my mother had searched for the key to my dreams. And she had succeeded.