Monday, December 13, 2010

Saving Paper

Tomorrow we will bury my father. We lost my father-in-law at the end of October, and my mother-in-law is recovering from an operation that will result in more big changes in her life. My Christmas tree is still naked, no gifts are bought, and I haven't posted for you in ages. But I have been spending time with family and with memories, and that has been rich in blessings. So I wanted to share a little story I wrote back in 1994 as another way of looking at this time of year, and at how the smallest things can make the biggest impression on us and form memories we cherish for a lifetime. Blessings to you, Kathy


“To Mary, From Lona” read the careful copperplate script beneath the brittle yellow cellophane that must have come from the first roll of tape ever sold at the Halfway hardware store. The impossible pink-and-silver-scrolled Christmas wrap had been bequeathed to me from my grandmother’s careful hoard of color. Hers was a life in which many precious things were carefully hoarded: color, beauty, smiles, praise, approval.

It was a hot summer’s day, they say, a hundred-and-one in the shade where Grandfather had gone to rest from making hay. One minute he was drinking cool limey water from the tin dipper by the well; the next, a massive heart attack left Grandmother, at age 46 and without a resume, to make a living on the rocky red clay hills of an Ozark farm. Is it surprising, then, that beauty, even in the form of a creased sheet of wrapping paper, was deemed worthy of more than the burn pile?

My mother’s family, too, were “savers”. These shared histories of hardship merged into a yearly ritual of wrapping at my parents’ home. Each December as the 25th approached, we kids would pull out the cardboard tubes on which were rolled the memories of Christmases past. One by one we would peel them off, carefully ironing, trimming, removing tape. Tiny scraps and old greeting cards were fashioned into name tags; we rummaged in the bow-box for unsquished specimens of appealing hue, sometimes resorting to yarn, paper, tiny bells, or cones to decorate our packages.

I remember particularly a gift that I wrapped for my older sister, whose elegance and savoir-faire seems still just beyond my grasp. The thin colored paper sported medallions of greeny-yellow partridges in pear bushes on an unlikely blue background with hot pink worked into the scheme somewhere. How to accent such a breathtaking design? I painstakingly cut out one oval partridge, centered it on the package, and puffed it with cotton balls, sealing the edges with ‘Elmer’s glue. After the better part of an hour, I had finally worked out most of the ripples and gluey gray fingerprints. Time and invention were an important part of my gift, and I did not begrudge them.

When the remnants got too small to cover anything but the much-used white “jewelry boxes”, my brother and I would badger Mother into taking us to Gibson’s or Super-X for a new roll: 25, 50, maybe even 100 smooth, glossy feet of tapeless, creaseless, inky glory! In honor of NEW PAPER, we would select boxes just a little too big for our gifts, or use the old paper to wrap a series of boxes like nesting dolls, each just a little larger than the last, until we had no choice but to use the new paper – since none of the “savings” were large enough.

The opening of gifts, too, followed a distinct ritual. After “Santa’s helpers” had delivered to each person his or her allotment of mysterious shapes, we took turns opening them. My little brother usually ripped his; I pulled mine off the ends of the package whole, unless it was taped to the box – in which case, I ripped it; Mother and the older kids peeled away the tape with moderate care and an eye to reusing the paper. But it was Dad who made an art form out of the opening. He would fish in his pants for the ever-present pocket knife, newly sharpened for the occasion. Slowly he would select a blade and ease it open with his work-blunted thumbnail; slowly he would insert the thin silver blade into the wrapped seam until it reached the tape – snick, snick, snick; slowly he would rotate the package onto each plane to be sure that all taped joints had been summarily dispatched. The paper seemed to float away from the object at just the instant when the mingled anticipation and frustration levels of the giver had reached critical mass, and all without adding a single new crease to the paper, which would of course be saved for next year.

Our legacy has taken root differently in my brothers, my sister, and me. I now wrap my gifts in simple brown paper in rebellion against the increasing commercialization of a miracle. My sister chooses tasteful wraps in gentle soy ink colors made from post-consumer excesses. My older brother purchases humorous holiday wrap for $2.69/roll at the Discount City, having analyzed the cost/benefit ratio of hoarding. But my “little” brother still rips his wraps, secretly confiding to me his terror of ever again having to press and trim wrapping paper!

But there is a common thread in our separate wrapping rituals: It is the gift of story and fond memory that add beauty and color to our lives.

Perhaps one day I’ll ask Grandmother what was actually in that pink-and-silver-scrolled paper that made its way through the years to me.

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