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The Last Present Under The Tree

The Housing Hour November 7, 2019


The Last Present Under The Tree

(Reflections of a Christmas past )

Sometimes it’s hard for people to point out one Christmas memory.

Memories-most typically-are collective thoughts of annual traditions strung out over the course of several years. If you asked a person, ‘What’s your favorite Christmas memory?’ Many would respond with something like getting together with family, decorating the Christmas tree, or maybe watching holiday movies.

Some may be able to point to a specific moment involving memorable occurrences. Think about it, just for a minute or two. Dig deep into your memories of Christmases past. What comes to mind? Did Santa leave a shiny, new bike or maybe a popular doll under the tree—the wish that had topped your Christmas list that year? Or do you have fond memories of family gatherings at your grandparent’s farm on Christmas Eve?

However, not all memories engulf you with warmth and happiness -sadly- memories are scarred by the loss of family members. The loss doesn’t have to be during the season. It can be anytime in the past year or longer. The first Christmas without that person is undoubtedly the most difficult.

My Christmas memories, for the most part, fall into one category, ‘collective seasonal traditions.’ I can point to wonderful memories of Christmases past without being able to identify any specific date. I try to recreate the next holiday season by remembering the collective past and perhaps add a small twist to the tradition.

However, I remember one ‘memorable occurrence.’ I’ve buried that memory away since my early twenties. It’s taken me most of my life to understand it, apparently, guilt buried by youth and inexperience. Time allowed me to file it away in the, ‘no one knew about, so it really doesn’t matter’ folder. Occasionally, the memory will creep back in. I quickly divert my discomfort by reclassifying the occurrence as ‘it wasn’t that bad’ or ‘I was young and stupid.’ Crisis averted, at least until the next time. However, the ‘young and stupid’ argument only work until you are no longer ‘young and stupid.’

Confession is good for the soul. I can still hear my mother’s voice as she so often spoke those words to me. So, this is my Christmas confession. We all have them.  Mine has taken me 35 years to come to terms with and understand how selfish one can be.

I remember it as ‘the last present under the tree.’

I was the youngest in my family and the last one at home. I had an older brother and two older sisters. My sisters always protected me-watched out for me. I was spoiled.

My father was working out of town during the week, and I was living with my mother in West Knoxville in a wonderfully mature neighborhood dating back to the ‘50’s. The street we lived on was peaceful and unassuming. Most of the neighbors were of my parents’ World War II generation. Their kids were grown and out on their own; retirement was looming right around the corner.

Even though they weren’t neighbors my age, I didn’t mind the aging neighborhood. I was attending college and playing in the University of Tennessee Marching Band; Life was busy, exciting, and unexplored. My world was small, consisting mainly of me and my friends. Older people were just not a part of my life or so it seemed to me at the time. I felt a growing distance from my grandparents, whom I loved dearly. I simply didn’t have time for them anymore, not like when I was a kid spending most of my summer vacation with them. I felt like my past was only something to hold me back from my future. To get ahead in life, I needed to let go—except, when I needed money, of course.

My parents and grandparents had always encouraged my independence. All of them would tell me, ‘I’m here if you need anything’. Their unwavering support was emboldening and fed my growing ego. It afforded me the ability to step out further with the knowledge I had a fallback, a safe place, my supportive family. Looking back, I realize now how important that older generation was to me. However, at the time, the arrogance of youth suppressed those thoughts.

With my father out of town and my grandparents living in another city, I became friends with the neighbors across the street. They were a retired couple from Detroit with a difficult sounding name beginning with ‘R’ and ending in ‘vich.’ So I dubbed them Mr. and Mrs. R. I had always wanted to call somebody by the first letter of their last name—like on Happy Days. The Fonz had called Richie’s parents Mr. and Mrs. C. Even though I truly did struggle with the pronunciation of their names, I mostly aspired to be cool like the Fonz.

Mr. R had a thick accent that I had trouble pinpointing. It was a strange combination of an extreme Yankee dialect with a hint of, perhaps, Russian or Romanian. He meticulously enunciated the first part of his name while slurring the last part. I watched his mouth closely as I had him repeat his name, trying my best to decipher his slurred speech. The second time through this exercise, I noticed a slight slipping of his lower denture. The slur may have been the result of ill-fitting dentures. Still, not yet hearing the last part clearly, my first attempt at pronouncing their last name was a flop. I had inadvertently replaced the ‘V’ with a ‘B’ resulting in extreme embarrassment on my part and a tremendous howl of laughter from Mr. and Ms. R.

I’ve been insecure pronouncing last names ever since.

Mrs. R was delightful—the sweetest lady you could ever meet. Small and petite, never saying much. She had a thick, southern drawl. The couple graciously welcomed me into their home—a typical 60’s style brick rancher with small aluminum windows. The landscaping looked like its ‘good days’ had been back in the 60’s.

Walking into their home, I got the immediate sense that Mr. R was the decorator. The furnishings looked heavy and masculine. A big, burly chair stood boldly in the middle of the living room facing the fireplace area. Next to the chair, an assortment of books and newspapers were piled high at its side. I figured that was Mr. R’s roost. A long sofa stretched against the center wall with a knitting basketful of yarn and supplies perched on one end—no doubt, Mrs. R’s place. The walls boasted heavily framed prints of outdoors action scenes hung randomly throughout the room. One print, for example, had big dogs attacking some poor bear which struck me as brutal.

In one area of the living room, Catholic-type decorations were concentrated. The pictures on the wall were of Jesus and Mary. Directly under the pictures was a table sprinkled with candles and other religious items I couldn’t identify. Ornate crucifixes were displayed above most of the doorways.

Amongst the multitude of Catholic regalia, I felt that Mrs. R was out of place. She struck me as a sweet, little Southern Baptist lady from Mississippi, or, perhaps, Alabama—hardly a practicing Russian Orthodox.

Regardless, the home was warm and inviting with a wonderful aroma. Mrs. R was forever puttering around in the kitchen concocting a tasting treat. I immediately hoped I was going to benefit from this new relationship.

I thoroughly enjoyed our friendship. Mr. R had great stories about his day’s working in the automobile industry in Michigan. My curiosity was piqued regarding how they ended up in Knoxville. He said they were snowbirds; it was the first time I had heard the expression. Mr. R explained—for years he and his wife would travel down to Florida escaping the brutally cold winter months of Michigan. Their travels would bring them through Knoxville via Interstate 75. Over the years, they made a point to stop somewhere in Tennessee to explore. They fell in love with the state and chose Knoxville as one retirement location. He explained that Knoxville was the halfway point between Michigan and Florida.

This particular summer was a busy time. I was working as a deli cook, dating, and practicing with the UT Marching Band. In July, I had received a letter from the band department asking for volunteers to march at the opening of the first section of the I-640 bypass near the Western Avenue overpass. It seemed rather silly, but dozens of state dignitaries would be in attendance, along with the standard media coverage.

The entire group of dignitaries lined up behind the band. The drum major gave the usual long, whistle blow signally the drummers to start the roll-off. The group began to march west on I-640 as the band played Rocky Top. This make-shift parade had no attendees watching the festivities; everyone was part of the parade. I felt a little embarrassed. We marched about 1000 feet, and it was over. The drum major grabbed the megaphone and shouted instructions to the band, ‘Please clear the road. It is now open.’

During the remainder of the summer, I would see Mr. and Mrs. R outside working in the yard. Mr. R would mow the lawn while Mrs. R would attempt to tame the severely overgrown front beds. When I came out to mow my yard, Mrs. R would disappear inside and bring out ice-cold lemonade, homemade cookies or some warm, chewy fudge brownies. We’d all take a short break from yard work, talk, and enjoy Mrs. R’s refreshments. Mr. R always had a fun story to tell, and Mrs. R would always talk about her kids. I looked forward to those ‘work’ days.

By September, my schedule started to get busier with work, band, dating, and school (in that order). I had less time, especially on Saturdays, to mow the grass. Most of my yard work had to be done during the week. I hardly saw the R’s out during the week. The occasional shout of ‘hello’ as they got into their car was the extent of our interaction. One such encounter has stayed with me all these years later. Mr. R’s booming voice shouted toward me across the lawn while Mrs. R seemed to hastily duck into the car, almost as if to avoid eye contact. Her behavior struck me as odd.

The first Saturday in October was the first free day I’d had since the middle of August. UT football had an away game and since the band didn’t travel, I was free to work in the yard and try to get it back under control.

I noticed that Mr. R’s grass was tall, also in need of a trim. Mr. R would most likely be catching up on his yard work as well. I figured this would be the day to catch up on some of Mr. R’s great stories and eat some of Mrs. R’s delicious brownies. I finished mowing and raking the front lawn, but they never appeared.

Curious as well as concerned, I walked over to their house and knocked on the front door. I heard heavy footsteps inside their house grow closer and then the door quietly opened. Mr. R seemed surprised, yet very happy to see me standing on his porch. However, he stayed behind the partially opened door and didn’t appear to be in the mood for visitors.

After a brief greeting, I asked how Mrs. R was doing. He lowered his voice and answered in more of a whispered tone, “She’s been suffering from a bad cough this Fall.”

Awkwardly, I questioned him about her health, not wanting to appear nosey, just concerned. He assured me it was nothing more than allergies and explained further his thoughts to the cause. ”She would be suffering more in the morning, especially after she started to read the newspaper.” Mr. R thought she might be allergic to the paper ink since it tended to come off onto your hands after handling the paper.

Convinced that’s all it was, my concerns were shelved. I wished them well and went back to my work. For the rest of October and all of November, I didn’t see Mr. and Mrs. R. very often. I noticed more and more that their car was missing from the driveway. I figured they were busy with the upcoming holiday season and, perhaps, traveling to see their kids.

In December, I was putting up some Christmas lights on the front bushes at our house. From across the street, I heard that familiar booming voice of Mr. R’s. I walked over, and we began to talk. Mr. R had his usual funny stories. I was relieved to hear his news that Mrs. R was doing fine. As our conversation ended, he said to me,  “Mrs. R has been working on something for you. When you get a moment, come over so she can give it to you. Spend some time with us.” I told him that would be great, but I needed to get through finals at UT, then I’ll have more time.

School finals passed, and I got busier with work and dating. About a week before Christmas as I was walking to my car, I heard the familiar booming voice of Mr. R. “Hi Mark. Don’t forget. Mrs. R has something for you.”

I replied back, “Thank you! I’ll see you guys soon!” Soon is a relative term for a young person. It can mean in the next hour or the next month. I had replied “soon” to avoid committing to a definite date. My response was impulsive, not genuine; it got me off the hook for now. I was utterly consumed with what I was doing and what was important to me.

 “Soon”, as it turned out, was the second week in January. I hadn’t seen anyone in their driveway since the week after Christmas. It had appeared they had entertained guests or hosted several parties the first week of the new year. Good for them, I thought. By the second week of January, after taking all our Christmas decorations down, I remembered Mr. R asking me to come by. He had mentioned that his wife had something for me…and maybe we could spend some time together.  So, I made my way up to their door and rang the bell—no answer.

Months passed. My busy life occupied my time and thoughts. Mr. and Mrs. R were pushed to my back burner.

On into spring, I noticed Mr. R’s car in the driveway. I walked over his house and rang the doorbell. Despite the slow response, I waited. Eventually Mr. R opened the front door.

“Hi, Mr. R. Sorry it’s taken me some time to get over here, but you know how busy things get—plus I haven’t seen you guys around much.’

A slight smile crossed his face, but his eyes remained distant. “It’s so good to see you, Mark. Come in.”

I walked into the living room and immediately felt the warmth and comfort of my surroundings. Yet, it was eerily quiet. In the corner, their artificial Christmas tree, surprisingly, still stood fully decorated.

Mr. R didn’t say much but walked over to his chair and sat down, then, asked me to have a seat.

“Where’s Mrs. R?” I asked hesitantly. I knew something was wrong.  

His reply took some time. He slowly turned his head to face me, and said, “I lost Mrs. R, Mark, a few weeks ago.” I was stunned, no words came to me.

Mr. R continued, “She had a cough that I thought was allergies, but it turned out to be cancer…in her lungs. The doctors told us it was inoperable because the tumor was between both lungs. The doctors suggested radiation. A few days before her death, they gave her a second treatment. It killed her. So very sudden. The doctors told me the tumor exploded or something like that.”

Mr. R and I sat silent for some time. I’d never been in a situation like that before. I didn’t know what to say or do. Mr. R’s eyes were fixed, staring at the Christmas tree.

I finally managed to utter, “I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”

He turned to me with the warmest of smiles and said, “I know.” I felt his pain and mine…deep inside my soul. The silence was broken by Mr. R. “Mrs. R made something for you.” He got out of his chair, reached behind the tree, and grabbed a wrapped box. “Mrs. R was excited for you to have this. Open it up.”

As I took the present, a sharp, emotional jab of pain went through my body. The pain felt like a constriction around my lungs. It was hard to breathe. My body became numb; my head felt dizzy. I found myself feeling something I’d never felt before—massive guilt. I felt stuck—caught—busted—sickened—mad—saddened. I wanted to flee—run—escape. It was the most concentrated surge of emotions I’d ever been through; I wanted this moment to end.

Mrs. R had wanted me to come over at Christmas to give me a gift she’d made for me. I realized she had wanted to watch me open her gift, to enjoy my surprise. But I’d robbed her of that moment.

I opened the present. Mrs. R. had knitted a scarf for me. It was orange and white with UT Vols embroidered at the end near the fringe. She had crafted it especially for me. Sitting quietly on the couch, I looked down and saw Mrs. R’s knitting basket. In it I saw the yarn that she must have used to knit my scarf. I thought…’this was last placed there by her when she had completed this project.’

A different feeling now coursed through my body: loss—grief—immense sadness—finality. I knew there would be no more summers of lemonade, cookies, or brownies.

I looked over to Mr. R, my pain apparent to the elderly man. A gentle smile crossed his lips as he looked at the UT scarf and said, “and she was an Ole Miss fan.”

Being young, you can recover quickly, and I certainly did. The arrogance of youth helped me forget—pushed that painful moment back into the dark corners of my mind. I don’t think I ever wore the scarf; I’m sure I hung it up somewhere or stuffed it into a drawer. I never looked at it again.

As life moved me in different directions, the UT scarf disappeared. Hopefully, someone enjoyed it, wore it with pride. For years, I tried to put those sad memories out of my mind. But occasionally around Christmas, I think of Mr. and Mrs. R. I wish I could turn back the clock and visit them that long-ago week before Christmas.

I’ll always question ‘Why didn’t I?’ ‘What was so important?’ My guilt resoundingly answers those questions, ‘Nothing. Nothing should have been more important.’ I know that now looking back through the lens of age and experience.

Christmas is a time of joy—the joy of being with friends and family and the joy of giving. After seeing my kids open their presents on Christmas mornings, I realize the joy I feel comes from seeing them open those gifts. My biggest joy is seeing the joy of others. Now I understand my shame and guilt. Now I understand why this memory persists…why it haunts me. Mrs. R had taken the time to make me something special and had wanted to see my joy when I opened that gift. I had robbed her from experiencing that joy.

But healing starts with forgiveness and you first have to forgive yourself.

This Christmas…reach out to others you haven’t seen in a while. Take time. Show them, love. Let them experience the joy because sometimes we don’t get a second chance.

Don’t be late to love, otherwise, your gift will be the last present under the tree.

By Mark Griffith
Mortgage Investors Group Branch Manager- Oak Ridge Co-Host of The Housing Hour

Special thanks to Dana Williams Nance:

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