It had been another fitful night before Christmas for Tim. Tossing and turning, wondering what bounty this year’s presents would yield. There were more this year than last. This year, their mom had told Tim and Donny, they had been blessed.
Tim rolled over in his bunk and checked the alarm clock, ticking methodically on the nightstand. 5:30. Well, 5:21 actually. It was way too early to expect their mom to be up.
“Donny,” he hissed at his younger brother, sleeping in the bunk below. Donny moaned and rolled over. “Hey Donny. Let’s go look at the presents!”
Their mother always put out a few new presents the night before, after they’d gone to bed. Santa’s bonuses, she called them. This year she’d made oblique references to an “extra special” visit from Santa.
By now Donny was awake. “OK,” he said. “But we have to be quiet. And we can only look.”
“Yeah yeah,” Tim said impatiently. “We’ll just look.”
“Not like last year.”
Tim nodded but inwardly frowned. Donny was the worrier of the two, and a real mommy’s boy to boot. Of course it wouldn’t be like last year. They’d learned their lesson.
The year before Tim had awoken even earlier on Christmas morning, around 4 a.m. He’d lain in his bed looking at the ceiling, where his mother had put little self-sticking phosphorescent stars and planets when they were babies. She’d never taken them down. Tim had memorized them all, even the ones that had long since curled, peeled off and fallen to the floor. Even though he knew it was fake, the glowing galaxy above his bed never failed to give Tim a sense of wonder about the impenetrable magnificence of the universe.
The minute he’d heard Donny stir, Tim had whispered down to him, “C’mon, let’s go look at the presents!” They’d trundled down the stairs to the living room, bursting with excitement. Beneath the tree were two huge boxes covered in shiny gold foil wrapping with red bows on top.
The new presents.
They’d picked them up and shaken them, trying to figure out what was inside. But the boxes had been packed tight. There was no rattling or shifting.
Tim looked at Donny, who shrugged.
“Guess we’ll just have to wait,” Donny said.
“Well…” Tim ventured, leaning over his box toward Donny conspiratorily. “We could open them up.”
“What do you mean?” Donny said uncertainly.
“We could open them up and then just put the wrapping right back on,” Tim said. “Look, it’s just little pieces of tape in a couple of places. We can peel them off and then put them right back in place. Mom will never know.”
Tim turned the box over, showing each of the places where tape held the wrapping paper. He began picking at one of the seals. The tape easily rolled away from the foil wrapping.
Within seconds the two had peeled off the tape and loosened the coverings enough to pull the unmarked boxes gently out of their wrapping. They gingerly opened the tops and peered inside.
“Wow,” Tim gasped. “Wow.” Inside was an electric race car set, the new kind with remote controls and a huge figure-8 track.
“Tim, look!” Donny said, shifting his box so Tim could see inside. The box held a portable phonograph and an assortment of 45 rpm records.
“What’s on the records?” Tim asked, reaching in. Then they heard something. It was the door to their mother’s bedroom, creaking slightly as it opened.
There stood their mother, looking confused as she blinked away the sleep.
“Tim, Donny,” she said hesitantly. “What’re you doing?”
Tim and Donny sat motionless, their eyes downcast and shoulders slumped.
Their mother walked over to where they were and looked at the open boxes. Then she looked at them, her eyes full of sadness.
“Mom…” Tim said.
She sat down on a chair next to the tree. For a few long moments her face was expressionless. Then she managed a half-smile.
“It’s OK,” she said. “I understand. You couldn’t wait.”
She said it to both of them, but she was looking straight at Tim. She knew it had been his idea, and Tim knew that she knew.
“Oh mom,” Tim said, his voice heavy with regret. “We didn’t think you’d be getting up so early. We were going to wrap them back up.”
“Oh, I don’t care about that,” she said. “It’s just … well, I wanted to see you open them is all. I wanted to share the experience.”
Tim and Donny were silent. There didn’t seem to be anything they could say.
“But that’s OK,” their mother continued. “Christmas is like life. You have to learn it. And that means sometimes you make mistakes.”
They’d gone on to open the rest of the presents as usual. But everything seemed a little more subdued. What they’d done hung in the air like the sting of ash long after a fire.
**** ********** ****
“No, Donny,” Tim repeated to his brother. “We’re not going to open anything. We’ll just look.”
They tiptoed down the stairs to the living room. The tree was lit up and twinkling, and the silver tinsels that Tim and Donny had put on glistened with reflected light. Beneath the tree were several new gifts.
They sat down in front of the tree and began craning their necks to look at the new presents.
Tim reached over and picked one up.
“Remember, just look,” he told Donny, anticipating Donny’s hesitancy. The present was marked TO DONNY FROM SANTA. Tim put it back under the tree.
Donny was looking at another present.
“Who’s that one for?” Tim asked.
Tim reached over and picked another present out. It was marked for Donny as well.
A rush of confusion, distress and anger began welling up inside Tim. He swallowed hard and felt his face go flush. It occurred to him what was going on. He was being punished for last year! Donny was getting all the presents!
“Here’s one for you,” Donny said, handing a small box to Tim. But Tim was looking at another present with Donny’s name on it and shook his head. “Put it back,” he told Donny in a choked voice.
“Let’s go back to bed.”
Tim climbed the stairs back to his bedroom, his heart sinking further with every step. He knew he’d done the wrong thing the year before, but he’d learned his lesson. It wasn’t fair for Donny to get all the presents! Why was his mother doing this to him? This was going to be an awful Christmas!
The next hour seemed like an eternity. Tim lay on his back and stared glumly at the universe above him. There was no tossing and turning, no eager anticipation. He wasn’t thinking about any presents. He just wanted Christmas to be over.
After a long time he heard his mother rustling downstairs. He followed her footsteps into the living room, where they stopped, as if surprised. Then they approached the stairwell and he heard her call up.
“Boys? I can’t believe you’re still sleeping up there. Come on down, I don’t have to tell you it’s Christmas morning!”
“Coming mom!” Donny called out excitedly, jumping from the lower bunk and clattering down the stairs. Tim followed behind. He didn’t want to seem out of character or his mother would suspect something. But it was hard to summon up his usual enthusiasm.
Donny was already sitting at the tree, cradling a present in his lap. Tim sat down beside him and picked out a present with his name on it. Remembering the year before, they both hesitated.
“Well,” their mother said. “What’re you waiting for?”
Donny tore into his present, then grabbed another and began opening it. Tim moved more slowly. He didn’t want his mother to suspect that he already knew. As Donny opened more presents, Tim kept waiting for his mother to say something, to explain why he wasn’t getting as many presents this year. Instead she just sat there in her robe smiling, knees crossed, coffee cup in hand, taking it all in.
“Look Tim, look!” Donny exclaimed. “A baseball mitt! Just what I wanted! Willie Mays…”
As they got to the final presents, his mother rose. “Wait for just a moment if you could, you two,” she said. “I have to check on something.” She walked out through the kitchen and Tim heard her open the door to her bedroom.
Donny remained preoccupied with his presents, oblivious to the fact that he’d gotten more than Tim. “Wow,” he said. “I can’t believe all the stuff we got! This is the best Christmas ever!”
Tim nodded but said nothing. He heard the bedroom door shut again as his mother came back toward the living room.
“Surprise!” she said.
And she wheeled in a shiny new red, white and chrome bicycle. Every part of it gleamed like sun on water. The silver spokes flashed like skinny mirrors as the wheels moved forward. The tires made squeaking sounds against the floor, and Tim breathed in the smell of fresh rubber. The read and white head tube was inscribed S-C-H-W-I-N-N on an ornate head badge.
“It’s for you, Tim,” she said.
“Wow,” Donny said, his voice full of quiet awe. “Wow. Tim. Is that a Spitfire?”
For a moment Tim could not move. He was speechless. He sat motionless, staring at the new bicycle. Finally he looked at his mother, who was beaming at him with deep brown soft eyes full of infinite wisdom, kindness and joy.
“Merry Christmas,” she said.
“Thanks Mom,” Tim said softly. Then he screamed out “Yayyyyyyyyyyy!!!!” and ran over to the bike, taking the handlebars from his mother and turning the front wheel to and fro like he was already riding it.
“Can you teach me to ride it?” Donny was asking. “Can I ride it too sometimes? Tim? Didn’t I tell you? This is the best Christmas ever!”