Folks, I am so old that not only do I remember when you could send out a Christmas card for three cents, but I remember the postman coming to the door with a package on Christmas day. Yes, a delivery from the United States Postal Service on Christmas day. It was a box from my great-aunt Billie in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Ten dollars in import duties had to be forked over before we could have it. When we opened it the box contained a Mister Potato Head and a few other trifles. But it was good to be remembered. Billie always did her best to keep Christmas.
And so do I. When I was a teen-ager at home, that meant helping my mother prepare the gifts to be mailed to the many relatives in Canada and Maine. She sold me on the idea that I was the most creative one at wrapping packages, although her own favorite wrapping, that which her presents had come wrapped in when she was a child, was white tissue paper, Christmas stickers, and ribbon. Most of you have probably never seen those stickers, it strikes me. They were printed with Santa faces and angels and things. You had to lick them. They tasted bad.
My style of package-wrapping in those days was to study the Ladies' Home Journal for the latest in wrapping styles and then big-deal my mother into buying fancy ribbon and shiny paper, carefully color-coordiated, which would be all used up in the distant relatives' presents before we got around to the immediate family, so that what we had under our own tree was often quite plain. I grew skilled at curling that new curlable ribbon with the edge of a table knife. I was never any good at tying bows, no matter what my mother said. Everything had to be in the mail by December tenth, I think it was, or maybe it was the fifteenth. One was required to wrap international packages in brown paper and tie them with string, so that bureaucratic customs tags might be attached.
The Christmas season ran on a very strict schedule in those days: the sending of cards, the buying, wrapping, and mailing of gifts, the baking of cookies, the decorating of the house, the putting up of the tree, the hanging of ornaments, the putting-together of toys late, late on Christmas Eve. Maybe it still does, for many people. In our house, not so much anymore. I'm always behindhand with the cards, partly out of a terror of having them returned "address unknown" or "deceased." The old beloved Canadian relatives have all died off, although thanks be to God I have new ones. The children are grown and gone. No late-night toy assembly. We have no fireplace in our little cardboard row house, so there's no place for Christmas candles. Poinsettias and massive swags of Christmas greens bring on my asthma. There are no free flat surfaces to display the creche.
Still I do my best to keep Christmas. This year I had all the presents rounded up by December seventh. On the tenth I began coughing and wheezing, but we put up a tree just the same, a nice big live tree, fragrant. I got kind of tired after hanging half the ornaments, but it looks just fine like it is. On the thirteenth I went to the doctor, who diagnosed me with acute bronchitis and prescribed a number of drugs. By the seventeenth I felt worse. I made an afternoon appointment to go back to the doctor. "Maybe I have pneumonia," I thought to myself. "Maybe she'll send me to the hospital. Maybe I'll even die there. I'd better get this box of presents off to John." My youngest son is in Olympia, Washington, half a world away. I wrapped the presents hastily and carried the box across the street to the Post Office.
The freight was forty-three dollars because the package was big, though light. I could have done better by putting it in the car and taking it to the UPS Store across the river but I was too sick to make the trip, so off it went. Harold drove me to the doctor and sat in the waiting room for an hour and a half while the health care professionals gave me breathing treatments to quiet the noises in my chest enough so that they could tell by listening whether or not my lungs were involved. A terrible snowstorm was falling by the time we headed up to the hospital to get my chest X-rayed, turning a normal journey of twenty minutes into something much longer and more unpleasant. But, hurray! I didn't have pneumonia.
We picked up some more drugs and arrived home in time to cobble together a late dinner. As I was taking the second bite I suddenly realized I had sent John's package to the wrong address. Instead of saying such-and-such a street, NE, I had written SE. Or it might have been the other way around.
What a dunce! I had ruined everything! Half a world away the evil clowns of the United States Postal Service, chuckling, would cast my carefully-selected gifts into the dead letter office, or worse, onto the porch of some strange lowlife on the other side of town who would sell them for drugs. Christmas was ruined. It was all my fault. I took a pill and coughed.
Last night John called to tell me the package had arrived. God bless the Post Office, those sweet angels. I can keep my Christmas in peace now. You'll be happy to know that I'm feeling a lot better, and Merry Christmas to you, too.
© 2013 Kate Gallison