One night last week I risked the icy streets and walked downtown for the Harlem Christmas Stroll.
The Harlem Civic Association sponsors this delightful annual event enjoyed by the entire community. It was a perfect night, neither too cold nor too windy. Harlem streets, stores and homes were festive with decorations. Chestnuts roasted over an open fire. A gentleman from out Chinook way had brought in a matched team of horses and a hay wagon and treated the children to rides around town. What most delighted me were the kids dressed up as Christmas presents. Businesses held open house. Several places served food. Over at the library a book sale was in progress. Many people had come garbed in costume. A group of children enacted a live nativity scene. And Santa held court at KB's Deli.
Santa was the reason I walked downtown. Lately I have been yearning for a special gift. There is scant money in my "car jar" (a line item in my budget). So I reasoned that Santa might bring my heart's desire and leave it parked in my driveway. I stood back in the corner and waited until there was a break in the line of youngsters who, perched on Santa's knee, tried to pry loose his beard or eyebrows, yanked his cap, giggled, cried, wet their pants and otherwise created mayhem. They were darling. A young woman took pictures of the little ones with Santa. Everybody beamed.
When my turn finally came, I scooted close and whispered, "Santa, I want a Jaguar. Bring me a yellow Jaguar."
"You know, the car, a Jaguar. It is the car of my dreams. I want a yellow one."
Santa held his fingers about two and a half inches apart, raised his right eyebrow, and asked, "Do you mean ... ."
"No, Santa," I interrupted. "Not a Matchbox toy. I want the car, the real thing."
Santa shrugged. A wild look came into his eyes. He frantically gestured for another baby to hoist on his knee, a distraction to rescue him from the predicament in which I had placed him. A young mother with a toddler stepped forward and placed her little boy in Santa's clutches. I slunk out the door.
I am back to plunking spare change into my "car jar." Many long years ago I learned that if I want a gift of impeccable taste, a gift of unparalleled beauty, I will have to buy it for myself. I cannot rely on someone else to give it to me. Then whatever gift I do receive is a bonus, a surprise. I am not disappointed if I receive an electric skillet instead of an agate ring, because the agate ring already decorates my hand. I bought it myself, just the one I wanted.
Listen closely, you Wise Men, muddling over what to get the special woman in your life. Seldom do I give advice, but since I am on the subject of gifts, I cannot help myself. I give you two rules. Don't buy an item for her because it is something you want for yourself. Never will I forget the Christmas I received camping gear of the meal preparation variety. I don't camp. But he did. And, secondly, don't buy it because she will find it useful. In other words, not the electric skillet, the new set of steak knives or the tire chains.
A good rule of thumb is, the more impractical, the better. One can hardly go wrong with gold (in any form), frankincense (translate that into a rare and wondrous perfume) or myrrh (although it might be rather hard to find around these parts, and she'd probably rather you bought her cashmere).
Flowers are a great gift for any day. Always choose cut flowers over a potted plant. She might say, "Oh, you shouldn't have. These blooms won't last any time at all." But you know that the center of her heart of hearts just melted into a puddle because you, possibly the stingiest man on Earth, would buy for her, the one you love, a gift of such fragile beauty.
Meanwhile, I'll keep dreaming of my yellow Jaguar. For my own practical present under the tree, I bought myself four pairs of woolen boot socks. And for my impractical gift, the gift to warm my heart, the gift of exquisite taste and unparalleled beauty, I robbed my "car jar" and splurged on an airline ticket to Mazatlan, Mexico.
(Sondra Ashton graduated from Harlem High in 1963 and left for good. She finds, after returning, things now look a bit different. Join her in a discussion of her column at http://montanatumbleweed.blogspot.com.)