When she was small, Christmas meant the smell of cinnamon-scented candles, a tree with lights that shone steadily and all white without even one twinkle, and wearing a scratchy dress on the big day, and not just to church but after, because after, Grandmother arrived, always in a long fur coat even though Arizona Christmases were warm.
Grandmother always brought gifts that were all wrapped the same: silver paper with blue bows, or red paper with gold bows, or a snow scene with green bows, depending on what the department store had chosen for it’s theme that year.
Grandmother owned a department store, or rather, Grandfather, her husband, dad’s dad, had owned it. Dad worked there when he was in high school, sometimes wrapping presents though maybe he wasn’t very good, because now mom did all the wrapping.
When Grandfather died dad had to take over the store, which meant they had to move to Arizona, a state that was so sunny and hot you didn’t know where to look, especially at Christmas. He managed the store but also worked in ladies shoes – she tried to imagine his eyes romantically meeting mom’s while slipping a pink pump on her foot, even though mom didn’t wear pumps and besides they’d met when dad was in the Air Force.
Grandmother’s presents were always expensive and followed a trajectory: ties and socks for dad, perfume and bath oil for mom, pajamas for herself when small, a robe or handbag as she got older. And then as if there had been a signal that they’d all missed, like a high pitched whistle or a handkerchief waved from a train window, none of them got presents one year; instead they all got checks. The checks came in pale blue envelopes edged in silver, with each of their names written in thick black ink that looked wet and liquid even when it was dry.
Her check was always for the same amount of money, an amount she knew was special because of the way her parents acted when they first saw it. She never knew what amounts her parents’ checks were for, or if they were for the same amount. It hadn’t occurred to her to question why they got separate checks – the ties and perfume after all were separate gifts – until she heard her mother say “And thank you for my check, it’s very generous of you.”
Her mother came down ever so slightly on the word ‘my’ every year, and every year that emphasis on the little word ‘my’ made her dad’s forehead furrow into three lines for the same amount of time it took her mother to say ‘my’, there and gone like a rumble of thunder on a clear Arizona day.
“I don’t like it. I don’t like gifts that have strings attached,” she heard her mother say in a low tight voice. This was the year they ended up moving back to Arizona – a year full of conversations behind closed doors. Her dad’s responses were either too quiet or infrequent to make it past the layers of lathe and plaster to her ear pressed against the wall.
The idea of gifts with strings attached had intrigued her enough to wake up extra early that year and creep into the living room to examine the gifts for strings, but they were wrapped just like usual, with expertly folded corners and shiny foil bows.
The year grandmother died, they all dressed in their Sunday clothes and went to an office to listen to a man read from a sheaf of papers. The man sat behind a big desk of shiny brown wood, wood that was even shinier than Grandmother’s formal dining room table that they ate at once every year, at Easter.
The desk had a small lamp on it with a green shade the shape of a lozenge, and it was this she stared at while the man droned on. The lamp had a small gold chain, not unlike a string, and twice her hand twitched with the desire to pull it and see that lozenge light up.
When she grew older she leaned about the metaphorical strings of gifts, but the idea of a real string trailing out from the wrapped rectangles and squares never left her. How much easier the world would be, she sometimes thought, if we all knew where the string was.
The cashmere sweater from her last boyfriend, for example, would have attached to it a small slip of paper like the ones that come inside of fortune cookies and would read: one nonreciprocal blow job. The car that dad gave mom a couple of years ago: release me. The charm bracelet her mom gave her for her birthday sophomore year would have said: please stay a virgin, while the pretty opal ring she gave mom this year: I am my own woman living my own life, please don’t see my married boyfriend in terms of you and dad.
She imagined that gifts from children would feature strings that were simple and sweet: Love me. Be happy. Or: I don’t want a baby sister. Some might be heartbreaking: Come back home. Don’t marry her.
Lovers strings would be short and wilted with palm sweat: Leave your wife like you said you would.
She thought that going to church was something most people saw as a sort of gift, which is why they always expected God to answer their prayers in return. She envisioned the congregation as a sea of people like Hershey’s kisses, their little strings poking from their heads so God can easily read them: Let him come back to mom. Make the lump be nothing. Don’t let me be pregnant.
Older people’s gift strings would bypass the guilt and state baldly their naked need: Don’t put me in a nursing home. Call me more often. Be sure to sign a pre-nup. Listen to me, because I raised you; you owe me.
Or the words spoken in response to that low tight voice, words she still remembered but was never sure were a plea, or a promise: Just a few more years and we’ll be free.