COLUMNISTS

His relatives were known for their "unique" gifts

Justin Isherwood
A perfect gift is more than giving than the getting. And Justin Isherwood's relatives' choice of gifts were baffling at times.

Gifting is the active reagent in Christmas.  As children we hope for some distinguishing toy on which to hang our hopes. The classic Christmas fantasy is of a single thing that can make the world right. 

This in a way is connected to the gospel of Christmas, of that one saving thing that can make the world right. The child’s point of view turns out to be the theological point of view. That one thing, to make the world right.

As adults we probably know better, yet who of us doesn’t harbor that ghost of lingering desire, like a child, to be gifted, the difference-maker, if the parameters are wider than a Red Ryder BB gun or new Palm Beach Barbie. This ghost remains the challenge of Christmas for those we love, and who love us, of that gift that slides through the cracks of our being. The perfect gift, to acknowledge O’Henry’s take on this subject, whose perfection is more the giving than the getting.

This preamble may or may not be cogent to my intent, because the gifting I want to confess is a special case, if maybe all gifting is the special case. We all know this person. Who of us didn’t have that aunt, a great aunt or uncle, a grandfather who gave weird stuff at Christmas.

Aunt M.'s fruitcake at Christmas was liable to hold many surprises including acorns and chokecherries.

In my case this aunt lived in the backwoods, though she was decidedly literate, a back-to-nature sort whose homemade stuff of the kind from which most of us have surrendered.  Aunt M. (to protect her identity) was a “from scratch” kind of person. She gave fruitcake at Christmas. The flour was home ground, if she added acorns to the mix. The fruit was wild blueberries, black raspberries, also elder and chokecherries as ordinarily doesn’t make it to fruitcake.

If you have not yet attempted fruitcake with a chokecherry reagent you don’t know there are food flavors that can bring tears to your eyes without the benefit of onions or ammonia. Something about that tin-roof taste of chokecherries whose sudden surprise feels like a grasshopper stuck in your throat. 

Aunt M. made homemade soaps — she had a passion for cleanliness — later we ;ater discovered was a pretty good engine degreaser. She used, as might be guessed, homemade lye water, as explains the degreaser.

Aunt M. gifted homemade chocolates that looked innocent, yet remember her invention of chokecherry fruitcake? Aunt M. died more than a decade ago, buried near Rhinelander, her plot on the down side of the cemetery in case her corpse was contaminated such as to rust out neighboring coffins, leaving the cemetery hummocked with bomb craters. The fault of her homemade lye-water soap.

Uncle C. (again to save any postmortem prosecution) my mom's older brother who according to my mom was also a weird gift giver. Such was not my opinion. Uncle C. wasn’t weird, instead he a phenome, a fabulous uncle. Uncle C. was a gift-giving genius.

At an age well below our mother’s minimal allowable tolerance, Uncle C. was giving us knives, followed by single shot BB guns, followed after by gumballs so hot they could be used as hand warmers, to suspect their core was sub-critical plutonium. His usual line was “You grown up enough to try this?” Of course we were old enough. As luck would have it Uncle C. did not chew or smoke, else he’d have given us lessons.

As brings up Uncle J. (identity withheld). Uncle J. did smoke cigarettes of the classical kind. Involved was a little cloth pouch, a frail wafer of paper and kitchen matches as could be ignited at the seat of his pants. Uncle J. was a circus act as far as we were concerned and the sheer art of his rolling those dense, firm, toy-like fags, with just enough tobacco sticking out to catch fire.

We learned what bad habits were supposed to be – the 5 cent pouch of tobacco with the tax stamp on the string lasted two weeks. Smoking for Uncle J. was like prayer. Devoted like prayer is devoted, serious like prayer is serious, but not to excess as to bore God. 

Uncle J. had style. When he inhaled, smoke filled him to his toes, he held that smoke like an immaculate Buddha as smoke emanated from his nostrils, his shoes, his cap.  With that one drag he was complete.

I was ten when he asked on a cold day during potato picking if I wanted a drag. At the time I thought smoking was a portable form of central heating, the kind cold October at potato picking can inspire. I did not tell my mama else Uncle J. would have died sooner than he did.

On the flip side of this gift thing are grandmothers who didn’t remember you passed the doll or yo-yo stage a dozen years previous. My grandmother gave me a toy tractor instead of a gift certificate when I was in college. True, that tractor is still on the shelf. 

Despite our  young age, Uncle K. gave us firecrackers and live revolver ammunition as gifts.

Before I could blow my nose for myself, Uncle K. gave us ladyfingers smuggled in from Florida. Called ladyfingers because they blow off fingers if held too long. Uncle K. was our mom’s baby brother who gave us live .38 caliber service revolver ammunition. I can’t explain why a live .38 caliber cartridge ammunition matters to an eleven year old kid. It ended up in my "possibles" bag and is still there. Uncle D. was an amateur archeologist, as meant sometimes an arrowhead for Xmas which I also still have, despite Uncle D’s having been toast for a half century.

My Great Grandmother A. at Christmas gave me a tooth dislocated from her mom’s mouth, what now happens to be $400 worth of element 79.  A weird gift, if not so weird now the price of gold is $1555.70 an ounce. Great Grandma A. rests in plot 24 of the Grand Army of the Republic Cemetery, her mouth more worthless than it ought to be.

At Christmas my brother gave me the pliers from my dad’s pocket the day he died. Cheap slip-joint kind our dad always carried, when Oshkosh overalls had a pliers pocket. Those pliers are too cheap to keep but also in my "possibles" bag.

Justin Isherwood

Justin Isherwood of Plover is a fifth-generation farmer and the author of Book of Plough,Christmas Stones & The Story Chair, and Farm Kid: Tales of Growing Up in Rural America.