Approaching Another Christmas Without My Mom’s Presents, I Clung to My Dad’s Presence

Photo: Stocksy / Sean Locke
When I sent my dad an invite to join me on Zoom, he announced that technology was failing us. “It won’t let me in, Cole,” he texted, referencing me by the nickname he had assigned me in my youth. I sent him three links by the time I gave in and reached for my phone. “Did you try them all?” I asked when he picked up. “And with your iPad? Your phone?”

After 15 minutes we resorted to FaceTime. “Thank goodness something is reliable,” he said, sitting down at his desk. I exhaled a sigh of relief. Considering our exasperation, it would’ve seemed as though it had been weeks, months, since we had seen one another face to face. But it had been just 24 hours.

I was at my condo in downtown Chicago, the place I called home in pre-pandemic times. Once COVID hit, I spent most of my days at my dad’s in the suburbs, where we had spent nearly a year together—cooking, walking, making lots of toast. Saturdays and Sundays were our days spent apart, the days meant to serve as breather from the back-to-back weekdays in which we were now called to cohabitate: me, 35-year-old single woman; he, 75-year-old widow.

But tonight, two weeks before Christmas, we had decided to hold a holiday reading meet-up to discuss a favorite of ours: O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.”

Perhaps it was the fact that my mom and my grandpa, her father and a lifelong aspiring writer, had always admired it. Or the sweet irony that splashed the last page upon learning of Della’s newly acquired combs that would be left to collect dust on an armoire, or Jim’s glimmering watch chain, now rendered useless. Or maybe our growing interest in the Bible had something to do with it, the ways in which O. Henry referenced the magi as the most wise—those who followed that bright morning star towards Jerusalem. For various reasons, we had held the story close.

I watched on my phone screen as my dad moved down a list of discussion questions I had prepared for the night. What do Della and Jim reveal about themselves to one another in this story?

“Well—they were children as far as life is concerned, and children are not wise because wisdom takes life experience,” he said, referencing O. Henry’s comparison of the couple to the magi in the Christmas story. “They hadn’t lived long enough to be wise. And yet they were wise beyond their years.”

He brought up a story of a poster that he and my mom had hanging in the house at one point, one of a couple on a beach that bore the words “Love is the gift of oneself.”

“She liked it,” he said, silent for a moment. “I looked at it and didn’t quite understand it.” A pause. “And now, finally, I do.”

Before my mom passed away, my dad and I didn’t know each other well. We didn’t need to. We had her.

Older now—his hair silver and short, his glasses low on his nose, his face defined by the lines of time. And yet in that moment he seemed younger to me than ever, clad in his red Reebok sweatshirt and clenching a highball of Diet Coke, which he threw back upon every seemingly satisfactory response he shared. He was a child again, and to me, for the first time.

I thought about how much I missed him right then. Strange—how 10 months together day in and day out couldn’t always conjure it; how the distance now presented to us between city and suburb was able to recall the most distant of times in our lives. When I lived in France for a year. Brooklyn for five. Or flat-out faraway in heart after she was gone, when I realized it was up to me and him to keep the other one going; to remind the other of the family she built and the work we had before us in keeping it together. How I yearned to be next to him now.

When we hung up, my mind jumped to the conversation we had had the previous night, when I had emailed him my holiday wish list. It was short—four or five books, all available for purchase online—but he was worried about the technology of it all (the URL, the cart, the shipping, each with its own opportunity to fail). “Can you just put them on my credit card, Cole?” my dad had asked. “Dad!” I had exclaimed, laughing. “That’s not a gift—a gift is when someone surprises you,” thinking of my mom’s modus operandi for such occasions: the personalized ice skates (birthday), the handmade dollhouse (Christmas), the bunny in the basket (Easter).

The only thing: After my mom was gone, the continuation of each of these storylines was thwarted. Within a few years, I stopped skating. Without her guidance, I didn’t feel encouraged to outfit the miniature home. Soon enough, void of her passion and provision for all of our animals, we found the rabbit a new home.

The combs would collect dust.

The watch chain would be rendered useless.

It didn’t take away from their magic in the moment or her doting intention behind the giving. And maybe, as a child, my focus was in the right place. By placing it on those things, I fueled her passion for giving. But now—now maybe I knew better.

I thought about the year my dad and I spent together—the kind created on moments we hadn’t shared since my childhood—if at all—when I lived most such moments with my mom. Time with him pitting cherries, baking pies, building fires, passing basketballs, counting ducks, seeking comets, melting marshmallows, caravanning to Wisconsin cabins, blowing out birthday candles (including hers for her would-be seventieth). Holding book discussions. Debuting dad-daughter FaceTime.

I deeply missed the spirit with which my mom gave. But now, in front of me, was the spirit my dad was giving of himself. It was never about a gift to be asked for, it would seem. Just one to be received, thoroughly and gratefully, day in and day out.

Earlier in the conversation, I had asked my dad if he thought the story could have been titled anything else beyond its well-recognized words. “Maybe ‘A Christmas Irony’ or ‘A Christmas Twist,’” he had said.

And this year, perhaps it was one of our own, illuminated by an impromptu session of FaceTime—our own bright morning star.

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