Teri Orr: Not the gift you expect
December 21, 2013
Our office holiday party is filled with many of the usual clichés — a toast, a white elephant steal/exchange, and some stories, some really great stories.
Sometimes we tell those stories you’d love to hear, about what it takes to put on a show, which artist behaved badly, or whose manager was a jerk, or who forgot the words to all the songs … he had written. Who wore a wig and who needed lifts in their shoes. Sometimes the stories are about things we hide from each other until this very night, about what happened on the stage … before, the curtain went up. Or after, the roadies took over — long, long after the show was done.
It mostly just means something to the hard-working, fun-loving staff, who produce more 50 events a year, run a free after-school literacy tutoring center and manage the anchor facility for the Sundance Film Festival. The same seven people do all the plate spinning and multiple-hat wearing. When we have that rarest of occasions together, when we aren’t serving our guests, we get a little goofy.
Spouses who put up with the crazy hours and days without a break and need to clean the car to transport the band and see shows they occasionally attend from the sidelines because we’ve sold their seats right out from under them, those good sports eagerly come along for the dinner. And like cop or doctor spouses, they join us in the laughter and share dark stories that wouldn’t sound so funny unless you’d lived through them and have a slightly black sense of humor.
And then the evening turns intimate. But not how you might think. For at least a decade now, the holiday party has involved a question about Christmas past How did you learn there was no Santa? What was your best gift (given or received) EVER? Best holiday memory? Earliest holiday memory? Favorite holiday food? And we learn the funny stuff, and sometimes the painful stuff, and the stuff that makes us tear up. The spouses always surprise us in their willingness to jump right in. And what we learn is the power is not in the shiny gift or the perfectly polished silver candlesticks or the vintage of the wine. We learn and re-learn the power of the moment. When someone either has remembered a child is in the room, or hiding on the stairs anticipating what is being placed under the tree. Or forgotten, the child who witnesses the anger of a frustrated parent often fueled by alcohol and disappointment, who lashes out at the child.
You re-learn kitchens are powerful impression factories. You re-learn the great humility of grown men on Christmas Eve, who have no mechanical skills, who put together those damn pedal cars. In my case, it involved my father and the fire chief who lived next door. I wanted the fire-engine-red fire truck. Which they bought and, fueled by Scotch, put together. And the next morning, I jumped right in and peddled. And it moved! But only backwards.
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There was a story about a toy piano (a la Linus, not an electric keyboard) and the young girl whose godparents couldn’t help themselves to make it all the more elegant and bought an expensive crystal cat to place on the top, a la Liberace. She felt like a princess, not so much because of the piano or even the crystal cat (she has it still in her grown-up living room) but because of the rapt attention everyone paid when she banged those keys.
One year, we heard about the age of almost disbelief, when a young boy (now a full-bearded man telling the story) thought perhaps there was no Santa. His father waited until the boy was in bed and climbed onto the roof … with his skis. And then he skied off the snowy roof. In the morning, the boy didn’t even notice his father limping. He noticed, with the help of older brothers and sisters, Santa’s sleigh had clearly landed at some time in the night, on their very roof!
And story after story, year after year, I am always struck by the very same story, re-told. Which is this: It is never about The Gift. There is never, The Thing, which creates the memory, which lasts for the now adult. It is always, always, always, good or bad, about the moment. About how we felt when we discovered something about the adult world. How when we shine the light on The Child, we have a chance to feel the reflection. It can be about the heaping platters of steaming food or endless desserts or just seasonal unwatched bowls of mixed nuts. It is about the lights on the tree — any lights, any tree — transforming it from a shaped bush in the yard to a magical display of shiny ornaments and twinkling lights.
It is about the bulging stockings and not the actual gifts inside. It is about the laughter, and sometimes the sadness of the messy stuff known by therapists the world over, from our families of origin.
So this week, as we all rush and ramp up and dervish to make the season bright, it matters that we slow down and step back. The stuff will long be forgotten. The laughter will long be remembered. Ditto the harsh words. Memories are the real gift that keeps on giving.
So step away from the electronics. Throw a snowball. Boil a pot of pasta. Create some kind of silly seasonal magic with, say, powdered sugar dusted around a boot print on the family hearth, or candles stuck in the snow, inside "cakes" made from bundt pans filled with hard packed snow, or cookie cutters filled with birdseed and hung on the neighbor’s trees. Or just make time for a quiet cup of cheer with a friend or a child. Tiny marshmallows delight us all. And find your moment. Unwrap your own memory and let it be your gift any day, like this Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the organization that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.