Today, I’d like to share a story with you of a time when I committed an egregious faux pas for a writer and self-proclaimed bibliophile. A time when I disparaged the gift of a book. Let me set the scene.
It was Christmas, 1980—something. I can’t recall exactly, but I was maybe ten or eleven, an age at which the only gifts worth getting were shiny, plastic, often noisy, and found in the pages of the Sears Wish Book.
My oldest sister, Debbie, had recently acquired a part-time job and a car, so she was primed to buy all her siblings Christmas presents that year. Being proud that she was able to exercise her financial independence in this manner, she hinted that her bedroom contained seasonal wonders for us and was thus off limits to unaccompanied guests. In other words, she told us to stay out of her room.
Obviously, that was a mistake. I wish I could say I had the strong moral fiber of integrity that my other sister, Deedee, had. She was a good, kindhearted child. A trustworthy sibling.
I was not.
I was overly inquisitive. Intrepid. A child willing to investigate that which needed to be investigated. Indefatigable in my quest for knowledge. What I’m trying to tell you is that I was nosy and snooped in places I had no business being.
At the first opportunity, while Debbie was at work on a Saturday, I crept into her room. With the cool precision of a young Sherlock Holmes, I inspected then eliminated the likeliest locations for hidden gifts. Under the bed? Nope. The closet? Nothing. The dresser? BINGO.
In the middle drawer, tucked under shirts and sweaters, were several objects that didn’t belong. I quickly determined that the baby toys and action figures were meant for my younger brothers. That left two items: something I can no longer remember and a book, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin.
My heart plummeted. A crummy book? Who wants a book as a gift from their sister? Debbie was supposed to be understanding of a young kid’s need for the Christmas must-haves, like Rubik’s cubes or new Atari games. Books were things you borrowed from the library or snuck one at a time out of your mom’s closet because you weren’t supposed to read her Harlequin romances. They weren’t “gift” material. That book might as well have been a pair of white ankle socks, as far as I was concerned. I placed Rebecca back in the drawer and moped out of the room.
All I could do was hope and pray that the book was for Deedee, not me. Well, that wasn’t all I could do. I’m going to warn you about this next part, because it’s not pretty.
I made a point over the following weeks before Christmas to drop casual hints when Debbie was around that—apropos of nothing—books made the worst Christmas gifts. If someone asked me what I wanted for Christmas I’d say “anything but books!” I’d start idle conversations with my siblings, including Debbie, about ideal gift rankings, just so I could place books at the bottom, one spot ahead of socks.
Do you despise preteen me yet? It’s okay, I do too. I was a literal Amy to Debbie’s Jo, and no one likes Amy. (I actually do, but that’s another blog post…)
To her credit, Debbie was infinitely patient with these subtle-as-a-jackhammer hints. Maybe she realized I’d snooped? Ha ha. Just kidding, of course she knew I’d snooped. But she also understood the often-selfish nature of kids, especially her own sisters and brothers.
Lest anyone think it was a misjudged gift not suited for my personality, I actually LOVED books, even back then. I spent most of my free time reading. I preferred fantasy, sci-fi, and horror to historical fiction, but I’d also recently read the entire Ingalls-Wilder set, a gift we’d gotten from “Santa” several years before. So the idea that I might actually like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm wasn’t without merit. It was a smart gift, in fact. It just wasn’t what I wanted or expected from my sister, who was supposed to remember what it was like being a greedy, materialistc kid beholden to the generosity of those with money.
Come Christmas morning, when I unwrapped the book, I quickly and unenthusiastically thanked her for it and moved on to the next gift-wrapped box. I later placed the book on a shelf in my room, where it sat—unread—for many years. My spoiled-rotten unappreciation tainted any compulsion I might have had to read it. Until one day, out of the blue, I pulled it off the shelf—partly from a sense of grudging obligation and partly because I’d become curious about it, having recently seen Anne of Green Gables on television.
And yes, I loved it.
It was a charming book, well-written and filled with the feisty feminine spirit I so loved in stories. I was perturbed at myself for having been so stubborn and ungrateful about it those many years.
My original copy of that book has long since been lost to the past, donated to a thrift store or sold at a family garage sale long ago. When I later came across another copy at Goodwill, one with the same exact cover as my long-lost copy, I immediately bought it. I haven’t yet re-read it, but I bought it mostly because the memory of that gift means a lot to me, even though—or maybe because—I didn’t cherish it the way I should have when I was a kid.
The coda to this story is that when I visited my sister a few summers back, right after I’d found that book in the thrift store, I apologized to her. She laughed and said she didn’t remember my appalling behavior and had only a slight familiarity with the idea of giving me that book. Still, she was touched that I’d carried that memory, and the attached regret, around with me all these years.
These days, most people who know me know how much I love books. In fact, they rank rather high on my ideal gift-ranking list, one spot above a pair of comfy, colorful socks.