When I think about the best Christmas present I ever received, I'm a little surprised at the force of that particular memory and the pleasure it still brings me.
I have to say that the gift didn't come from anyone I had a special attachment to. It wasn't hand-made and it wasn't one-of-a-kind. There was certainly nothing spiritual about it. And it wasn't a book.
The year was 1964 and the place was Mickleham, Surrey, England. I was a student at a bleak red-brick boarding school in the south of England. Believe me, England can be very cold in the winter, damp and raw. And as I remember it, the winter of 1964 was particularly cold.
It wasn't just my imagination, either. This school was newly created and no one, from the headmaster to the cook, had much money. The Victorian mansion we all lived in housed 120 students, boys and girls age 8 to 18. Central heating was a concept that had not yet reached that part of England.
It was a winter of stark deprivation and the future didn't look too promising. My parents had recently gotten divorced and my mother fled to England. That's how I ended up at this boarding school. But she died six months earlier, leaving me stranded physically and emotionally.
Later, I would return to the States and live with my maternal grandparents. But I couldn't absolutely predict this happy outcome and at the time I was worried, hungry and cold. I was living in a kind of limbo with my school friends, many of whom also seemed to have traumatic family lives.
So we stuck together and formed fast friendships to counteract our fear of the future. We wore gray uniforms in the mornings: gray corduroy skirts, sweaters, blouses, stockings. We wore white uniforms when we played field hockey on the foggy grounds behind the school. In the evenings our gray uniforms were brightened by the addition of green ties and green blazers.
The food we ate was either boiled or fried. Boiled potatoes, mushy vegetables, burnt porridge. Fried bread, dry fish, greasy meat.
It seemed like we were only warm when we were asleep in our narrow cots. And I never got enough sleep. The gong would clang in the downstairs hall each morning, hours before I was ready to get up in the cold and dark.
One day in early December, I received a box in the mail from a fancy department store in the United States. Inside was a beautifully wrapped package in glittering paper with a golden ribbon and bow.
I ran upstairs to my dormitory where, surrounded by my girlfriends, I unwrapped the gift.
(I should say that this gift came from my father's second wife, a woman I'd never meet because they were divorced after only a few short months of marriage.)
White tissue sealed with a gold sticker hid the gifts.
"Oooh," we said as I revealed a black and gold bottle of spray perfume. Chanel No. 5. This was the last word in sophistication and elegance. When I saw that perfume and sprayed the scent in the room, I knew that I had a future. I would grow up and fall in love and someday I would wear Chanel No. 5 for someone wonderful.
But that wasn't all. The perfume was nestled on a bed of soft pink fabric, which turned out to be a full-length nightgown, hand embroidered with white lace at the collar and cuffs.
"Oooh," we said. It was the most beautiful and warmest nightgown I had ever seen, fabulously out of place in a dorm full of utilitarian flannel pajamas. When I looked at that nightgown I knew that I had a future. Someday I'd have a big closet and I'd wear beautiful clothes and would never wear gray corduroy unless I wanted to.
So, what's in a gift? Especially an expensive, materialistic gift from a virtual stranger? In this case, everything.
This Christmas, let yourself go. Especially if you know a teen-ager, who might be worried, confused or even frightened about the future. It could become a lifelong memory.
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