One of the lingering effects of living a complicated life of abuse, poverty, concealment and imagination is that I generally don’t expect people to give me anything, including opportunities. Although I’m much, much better at accepting gifts, compliments, affection and opportunities than I used to be, I’m still not at a place where it all comes with the ease of someone who’s lived a charmed life, who has no expectations other than a life of giving to and receiving from others.
For almost all of us, our willingness to give and receive is set by our families, our parents and their ability to share themselves and their emotions with us, and not just presents and other gifts of things. In my case, we were all failures in this. It was difficult enough in ’78, ’79 and ’80. The last year of the ’70s was also the last time we (meaning me, my older brother Darren, and my newborn brother Maurice) would celebrate Christmas at all. Our gifts were meager–winter gloves, a pair of corduroys and some socks — but at least we had something that we desperately needed. We had an artificial tabletop Christmas tree that my mother had dutifully decorated. She promised, “It’ll be better next year.” Xmas ’79 was one of the last times I remember my mother saying “I love you” to each of us.
Well, it didn’t get any better the next year. The only good news was that we had plenty of food to eat, between my mother picking up the supplies for our Xmas dinner from a food pantry and her temporary separation from my stepfather. This food-filled holiday would prove to be the last one we’d acknowledge as Christmas until I was a high school senior.
With the return of my stepfather in ’81 came the Hebrew-Israelite era and four years without Xmas. No trees — artificial or otherwise — no Jesus, no Santa for my younger siblings to remember. All of this would’ve been more bearable if we had celebrated Hanukkah — the holiday that was allegedly one that the Lost Tribes could adopt. But because we didn’t have food in our humble abode the last three to ten days of any given month during those years, Hanukkah was not an eight-day festival of lights, giving or thanksgiving. It was an acknowledged but uncelebrated holiday. Neither my mother nor my stepfather put more than three candles in our menorah during Hanukkah. From ’81 to ’84, our new religion never yielded an opportunity to celebrate any giving or any miracles of oil or light.
By the time I had given up on my stepfather and the Hebrew-Israelites in ’84, I’d gotten used to not thinking about anyone giving me anything to hang on to at all. Even my conversion to Christianity didn’t make me someone receptive to receiving anything positive from folks in my life. I think that all of this set me up for the small miracle of December ’85, twenty-two years ago this date. It was the day that my second crush began, the one that would leave me depressed and disillusioned two years later. It was the day that my soon-to-be-obsession with a tall and popular girl from Mount Vernon High School would smile at me with more joy and affection than I’d seen from anyone in years (at least that’s how I interpreted it at the time). It was a smile that would leave me head over heels — like the Tears for Fears song by the same name that was popular at the time — giddy and nervous and constantly questioning my unconsciously emotionless and rational self for the next twenty-two months.
Her smile was a gift that I needed, received and purposefully squandered for the next couple of years because it’d been so long since I knew what to do with any gift. Since I no longer had a point of reference, a simple smile of attraction became a splinter in my mind, something that took the tweezers of maturity to pull out.
Still, even with that surgery, my adult years have been an evolutionary process in terms of giving and receiving. Because of how I grew up, it was always much easier to give to people in my life than to receive, to the point that I didn’t want folks to give me much of anything. I always saw it as a process that would have string attached. Yet, as my wife can attest, I sometimes complained when folks wouldn’t even think to give me a card or a telephone call or send an email of thanks or give without prompting. It’s been this kind of inconsistent behavior on my part that has left others scratching their heads over the years.
These days (say the last decade or so), I’m a recovering selfish giver. Every once in a while I fall off the wagon, only to find my way to repentance and staying on the path of giving and receiving, out of need or want or because it’s just plain fun to help others and for others to be there for me. It’s been a long and hard road just to reach this point. The even better news, though, is that I’ve been celebrating Xmas for the past fourteen years, making it easier for my son to see what giving and receiving is all about.