Creative writing: The Gift

The first time I sat with family around a tree on christmas morning, I was in my early 30’s.

In the spirit of completion, I’ve given this draft a quick read through and am happy to share it nearly two years after I wrote it in January 2022! 

He told me that I would know exactly what it was if I were to pick it up.

Simply wrapped in plain brown paper and held together with green painters tape. Marked in sharpie with:

To: Jessica

From: Paul.

The mysterious brown paper parcel and I lived together for about a week. It’s about the thickness of a package of oreos with a curious rounded edge reminisient of a can of pringles. Imagine four oreo packages stacked end to end, lined with pringles cans.

He joked that it was a telescope, just to watch my response. I referred to it as a fishing rod and he retorted, “nice one” and chuckled. “That’s a good one” he said with another chuckle, dismissing it entirely.

Good, because I tried fishing once when I was 12 and the only thing I caught was the ass of my jeans. It was so embarassing. My family was visiting a family a few hours away who happened to have a cute son close to my age. Twelve is approximately the age to be completely mortified at catching your own ass fishing. To have to sit propped up on a cushion in the car on the way back was bad enough, but then I had to borrow a pair of the cute son’s jeans while my father cut the ass-threatening hook out of my jeans. Not cool.

So anyway yeah, no fishing rod. Good. I definitely don’t need to pick that sport up again. Not ever.

It’s been an unusual winter this year. Below seasonal temperatures with frequent heavy snowfall.

Paul and I met at my place early one evening, just as another storm was playing its trailers to the main event. The coming soon reel of soft snowfall that would build all night until it shut us in the next day.

We unloaded our things and selves out of the car. He worked to clear the layer of fresh snow from the garage roof as I traipsed to the house with my load.

I noticed I was following fresh footprints in the snow. Big ones. To my door. I paused to ask my memory if I had noticed if Paul had walked to the door yet, or had only busied himself next to the garage.

My memory didn’t think he had made it past the garage and recommended I ask the potential creator of these snowy foot impressions.

“Did you walk all the way to the door?” I called to him. No clear response. Voices muffled from the sound of vigorous snow removal.

Do I go into a house where perhaps someone uninvited may be waiting??

Paul came around the corner where I still stood, hesitantly placing my foot carefully in the footprints to calculate the size of the potential intruder.

“It’s called a christmas heist” he said.

I looked up from my footprint size sleuthing and offered only a blank stare.

A heist what now?

He explained that a Christmas heist is when someone breaks in and leaves presents under your tree. He tried to get there earlier in the day before the snow started, but couldn’t. He hoped I wouldn’t notice the prints he made in the snow. He even took care to walk out in the prints he made on the way in so there was only one set.

The concept of a Christmas heist was a new one but sounded great. My excitement propelled me through the door to see the additions under the tree.

Giddiness coupled with curiosity overwrote my adult routine to hang up my coat and place my boots neatly on the boot tray. No time to slow down, there are presents to see!

I dropped my things by the door and went straight to the living room to survey the scene of the heist. That’s when the oreo pringles parcel and I became roommates for 9 days before we got to meet.

My couch faced the tree, so I, in turn, faced the presents when I was on the couch. Since it’s December, I’m on the couch. Often. If that brown paper package had eyes, we would have been staring at each other.

Too large to sit under our small tree without blocking the room, it was propped up next to a shelf, close to where my yoga mat also lived. Once when I fetched my yoga mat, my hand hovered over the mystery package for a moment. But I wouldn’t dare touch it or pick it up. Don’t ruin the surprise!

He dropped another hint the week following over dinner.

“I couldn’t wrap it all, the other parts I’ve kept in my car.”

Workbenches! I figured it out. Clearly he’d gotten me a set of workbenches. Those sturdy aluminum ones like I had borrowed from my neighbour in the summer. Mystery solved! The living room parcel was clearly one of the bench tops, and the rest of the parts were stored in his car.

I didn’t tell him I knew it was part of a workbench set because I didn’t want to see his face fall when he realized the surprise was ruined.

We counted down to Christmas Day together with all the errands to run, parcels to mail, and supplies to pick up. We planned to get snowed in on Christmas day, no matter the weather outside.

Christmas morning arrived. I felt shy and overwhelmed. Why open so many presents on one day? I loved the presents we opened early. I loved misbehaving to open things on days other than The One We Observe.

When friends describe their Christmases as “for the kids” or “better when there are kids around” then I can understand why I can’t really experience it. I never did Christmas as a kid. I didn’t have Christmas growing up. The first time I sat with family around a tree on christmas morning, I was in my early 30’s. Every year, I personalize my own christmas traditions, but it’ll always feel a bit foreign.

My inner child feels shy with so many presents at once.

We chugged our first cup of coffee and exchanged thoughtful gifts back and forth. Artwork for me, a wool shirt for him.

The main event arrived. It was time to open the parcel that definitely wasn’t a fishing rod, and hopefully wasn’t a stack of pringles and oreos. He placed it in my arms, his eyes reiterating what he had said before—that if I picked it up, I’d know what it was.

I held it for a few moments. Silence. I had zero guesses.

“Can you tell?” he prompted me.

I couldn’t. I really couldn’t. I was wrong about the aluminium work bench. It was too light to be even a small part of an aluminum work bench. I had no other guesses.

I resisted the commands from my Nova Scotia upbringing that instructed me to carefully pull each piece of tape to unwrap the parcel so the paper could be reused.

I made one rip. Oh, that felt good. One more. I have no idea what this could be.

A set of piano keys was revealed.

I stopped ripping.

I put it down.

A keyboard? Really?

There’s a story I’ve told a handful of friends about how I entertained the idea of buying a keyboard a few years ago. Keyboards go on sale at the local electronics store on occasion. I would see the keyboard in the sale flyer, go to look at it at the store, and decide that no, I wasn’t up to the challenge.

I wondered – what if I can play?

I have no idea when it was that I quit piano, but that’s the only way to describe it. I quit.

You see, I liked playing piano, but I hated failure.

My brother, eight years my senior, was praised for his piano talent. Now that I think about it, at eight years older than me, he probably started playing before I was born.

Now, and only right in this very moment when I reflect on it, it makes perfect sense why he was so much better. He had such a strong head start that it pre-dated when my soul even circled my parents to choose them for this lifetime!

My brother and I were alike in many ways—our curly hair and greenyblue eyes. But when it came to piano, I only saw our differences. I couldn’t play. Not like him.

Our family wasn’t well off by any means, but we were proud of our upright grand piano that sat as a the focal point of the living room. To practice on that piano sent my attempts to play to every corner of the house. I didn’t just hear my mistakes on my own, I heard them through the ears elsewhere in the house. More embarrassing than catching the ass of your jeans on a fishing trip.

So when did I quit? Maybe in my early teens. I’m not sure. I vaguely remember walking to the house of my piano teacher. How she wouldn’t open the door all the way for me unless she first confirmed there was enough cash in the envelope I carried from my mom. How chilly and dark it was in the basement where the piano lessons were held.

She mirrored my hesitancy to learn piano with a clear distaste for teaching.

I don’t want to count the years since I’ve touched piano keys. Since I’ve played a scale. Since I’ve squinted at sheet music to figure out what hand placement to start with. In my adult years, every time I’ve seen a piano I want to approach it. To sit. To play. Even to have one song I could play with confidence. Not to entertain or impress you but because I wanted to further my relationship with that sound.

The voices of failure and embarrassment ran the show for a lot of my life. I found success in a few places, but I couldn’t help but wonder about piano. I’d heard so much from my teachers and family about my long “piano fingers.” I’ve studied these hands–the ones typing this story to you right now–I’ve looked to see if my fingers maybe really look that long? What if I do have a disposition for piano?

So here we are. Christmas 2021. Back to opening the parcel and how I froze when I realized what the present was. I looked up at him through blurry eyes.

It wasn’t about the keyboard, necessarily, it was that he got it for me because he believes in me. He remembered the story I told about how I considered buying a keyboard but that I couldn’t find the courage to try. Having this person in my corner, as my support, was one of the very best parts of 2021.

“You, you, um,” I stammered “you think I can do this.”

His expression was a mix of concern and encouragement. Apprehension as a response to my tears, tempered with all the passion that led him to drive two and a half hours to buy it for me.

I didn’t ask him a question – do you think I can do this? It was a statement. You think I can do this.

We set the piano up with the bench and stand in the loft of my house. Those were the other parts of the mystery parcel that he kept in his car! The bench and stand. Not workbench legs.

Within a few days, I rearranged the living room so the piano is front and centre.

I thought I quit piano, but piano didn’t quit me.

I played and practiced every day after Christmas. Somewhere deep in my brain, probably just before we get to the knowledge of how to do long division, sat the muscle memory of scales and chords.

I’ve always loved singing. The songs we sang to open and close our church meetings were my favourite part. Years ago I discovered karaoke and adopted a couple songs to enjoy singing socially. I still love to sing. It doesn’t matter if I’m good or bad, what matters is that I’m expressing myself.

Rather than the classical piano approach from the piano teachers of my youth, I stumbled upon chord progressions. I can learn the chords to songs and play harmony as I sing.

I don’t hear the missteps as failures anymore. I hear them as learning steps. They often make me laugh! It’s curious how I can recognize a chord on the screen or sheet in front of me, but then hear the misfire where my fingers got their wires – or themselves- crossed in the execution. It’s like, you asked for a G major chord? Well how’s this A minor sound? Pretty flat, if you ask me! (get it? Sharps and flats?)

I don’t cringe at the errors anymore, I just try again. To practice and learn with no one around helped me focus.

I learned the chords for a few songs I love to sing and on new years eve, I sang those songs in a private recital for Paul.

He didn’t buy the keyboard because he wanted private concerts! He bought it for me because he believes in me, and that’s been the greatest gift of all.

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