It was a Transformer toy, one of those hulking robotic action figures that morph into a vehicle, or so he told me. This particular one had orange dragon wings and spring-loaded missile launchers on or instead of forearms. When I called my godson from the toy store to check if this was the figure he wanted, he told me, no, the one he wanted shoots fire from his arms. So I took a picture of the box and sent it to him. His dad messaged back, “That’s the one! He’ll be thrilled.”
I wished the present would be more of a surprise. Even if he did ask for it, he didn’t need to be so sure he was getting it. But I was nervous about getting the wrong figure and disappointing him and I wanted to make sure.
It’s only half the gift he has asked for. “I want Optimus, too,” he told me. “It’s €108, if you buy them both.” He told me the name of the store, too. His thoroughness disarmed me of any cynicism I might have had. He may not have understood the spirit of Christmas, but he certainly knew more things about shopping than most seven-year-olds.
“That’s a lot of money, you know,” I said. I wasn’t happy buying one, much less two. It wasn’t the money. I had spent more last Christmas, when I chipped in with his godmother to buy him a bike, but I had felt good about that. A bike meant freedom. What does a Transformer mean? Battlefield slaughter?
“Is it a lot even for Christmas?” he asked.
It’s a lot, I thought, for something that might not hold his interest beyond the first few days of Christmas. How many stories can you make up about a Transformer? But I didn’t say anything.
I tell myself that I should have more faith in his imagination and his self-knowledge, even if he’s only seven. I think back on the presents I asked for as a kid at Christmas and the pleasure they continued to give me long after the holidays. I knew what I wanted. Why do I think that Harry doesn’t?
I know why, of course. If he had wanted a different gift, one that would bind us closer, one that we could play together or at least talk about, I’d be happier buying it. But it’s more than that: I want to find a gift that will delight him in a way he can’t have anticipated.
The toys and gifts that bewitched me most were ones I didn’t ask for, because I didn’t know they existed. They were things like bird model kits and plastic bricks and bookshelf strategy games that my parents bought me, and the first installment of an illustrated history of the world that my Uncle Leonard, having confirmed my enthusiasm with this initial gift, would continue buying, one book per month, until I had collected and read all 16 volumes (a feat which made me unfit for the World History class I would have to sit through several years later). I had asked for none of these, yet each was perfect in its own way.
My uncle, who worked for a weekly magazine and was the only one in my family I remember actually reading something other than the newspaper, gave me all sorts of books, from encyclopedias to Ivanhoe and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Like me, he never had kids of his own and knew little about them. And like me, he had the missionary’s zeal when it came to seizing the chance to shape a young mind.
One Christmas he gave me and my brothers each a piggy bank, a small-scale cash register in shiny black metal with a lever you pulled down after inserting a coin. Although the till didn’t open, there was a flap at the back of the register through which you could slide your hand and collect the coins that had been deposited. But it would only open when you unlocked the register. He gave us the thumbnail-sized key, too. “It’s not really saving if you can’t spend it,” he said.
Such presents were the exception, though. Apart from the books Leonard’s Christmas presents were usually envelopes of money.
It didn’t matter that I knew the envelope would be sitting there on Christmas morning, perched on a branch of the tree. Nor did it matter that I was also fairly certain which President’s face I would see through the oval cut-out once I lifted the flap of the envelope. I was excited. Having my own money seemed such a grown-up thing.
It was probably no more than the equivalent then of what I’ll spend for my godson’s present, but it was more money than I could imagine spending. I’d buy another model kit, I thought, a monster this time, maybe the Creature from the Black Lagoon (ah, Harry, maybe I do understand you), and cupcakes at the sweet shop during recess and still have some left over. Part of the pleasure of the gift was thinking about how to spend it.
My uncle never asked me what I did with the money. It wouldn’t have been in his character to ask; he saw me as a tiny adult, and adults don’t ask each other if and how they’ve used their gifts. I’d sometimes report to him on my own, and show him the model or comics I had bought, and only then would he ask how I decided on this particular purchase.
In anyone else, an envelope of money would signify nothing more than the perfunctory discharge of an obligation. But my uncle’s envelope was another one of his teaching gifts: a lesson in stewardship and my initiation into the calculus of desire and limited means. It was a lesson I would need later in my life and an enablement as important in its own way as what I learned from the history and science books he quietly bought and let my father give me.
Still, it is the books that I remember more than the money, not only the ones he bought but the ones in his bookcases that he would read to me from and later let me borrow. He must have seen something in me when I sat on his lap and listened to him in fascination (as my mother later told me) as he read to me. Conceivably I could have developed a love of reading without them, but his gifts were kindling for a curiosity that would otherwise have taken longer to catch.
In the toy store I tell myself, this gift is about Harry not about you. So I buy him the robot he wants, and an Angry Birds board game that I think he’ll like. But I’ll also pay for chess lessons when his father finds a club nearby. We’ve played before and he’s pretty good for a kid who has had no formal instruction in the game other than learning how the pieces move and what the ultimate aim of the game is. I try to teach him things like the importance of thinking moves ahead and controlling the center, but I’m enough of a teacher to know that I can’t teach chess. I’ll arrange for lessons, in memory of Leonard and in gratitude for the stories he told me and the books he bought me.
And speaking of stories, I’m reading up on the Transformers.
Image: Ferdinand Heilbuth, “The Reader”, 1856