Transcript

255:

This American's Life's Holiday Gift-Giving Guide
Transcript

Originally aired 12.19.2003

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Full audio: http://tal.fm/255

Prologue.

Ira Glass

One week before Christmas, the Target store on Chicago's West Side. Middle of the day. People are rolling shopping carts full of toys and games through the aisles. Teenagers and single people. Parents from every income. And I don't really understand this, but if you talk to them, this incredibly diverse group, there's one question that always seems to get exactly the same answer.

Ira Glass

Of all these things that you have in this basket, what do you think is the most likely to get returned?

Man 1

Actually, none of it.

Woman 1

Not my stuff.

Woman 2

No. I'd say, no, not mine.

Woman 3

Well, actually, I'm not worried at all. Actually, I did a pretty good job.

Woman 4

The majority of the the stuff that I'm buying is really for my kids. So they definitely ain't going to be returning anything. So, not my stuff.

Man 2

I made a list of what I was getting everyone. And I'm pretty confident in it.

Ira Glass

When I report their bravado, their confidence, to the store manager Lee Crumb, this is his response.

Lee Crumb

[LAUGHTER] Well, the day after Christmas is the busiest day in refunds. So I don't know how true that statement is, nobody ever returns my gifts. Of course, everybody has sunglasses and rubber noses on that day when they're returning stuff so nobody sees them. It's really funny when the media's here the day after Christmas and they're filming the return center. Everybody's kind of like--

Ira Glass

He hides his face behind his arm.

Lee Crumb

Nobody wants their picture taken.

Ira Glass

Like criminals.

If you haven't had at least one drama, one stumper, one gift that has been so difficult to figure out this year that you want to cry, then you are a very unusual person leading a very charmed life, my friend. And as proof, we offer you three stories today of Christmas and Christmas presents. From WBEZ Chicago it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Our show in three gift-wrapped little acts for you today, all tied up pretty with a bow. Act one, Make a Joyful Noise Unto Your Mom, in which two sons try, once and for all, to give their mother a gift that she will actually enjoy. Act two, A Christmas Memory. In that act, Mr. Truman Capote, recorded in 1959, sounding eerily reminiscent of our own David Sedaris. Act three, Secret Santa. A Very, Very Secret Santa. Stay with us.

Act One. Make A Joyous Noise Unto Your Mom.

Ira Glass

Act one, Make a Joyful Noise Unto Your Mom. There was one other thing that everyone at the Target store I talked to agreed on. And that is that parents are usually the hardest people to shop for. They have everything already, they want nothing, they're used to doing the giving themselves. In Toronto, Ian Brown has had it.

Ian Brown

I know, I know. Deck the halls with bows of holly, 'tis the season to be jolly. Unfortunately, I keep having a certain conversation at this time of year with my 88 year old mother.

Ian Brown

For a Christmas present, would you like a new pressure cooker?

Mother

No, no. I've got a pressure cooker.

Ian Brown

What about a sweater?

Mother

I've got at least 20 sweaters.

Ian Brown

What about some jewelry?

Mother

I have more jewelry than I shall never wear. I don't like jewelry.

The whole spirit of Christmas is gone. I hate Christmas. Do you know that more people commit suicide at Christmas than any other time of the year?

Ian Brown

I didn't know that.

Mother

Well, that's the truth.

Ian Brown

I don't have this problem with everyone. I like to think I'm actually quite good at giving gifts. I am. I put a lot of effort into it. I remember what so and so said, or he or she wanted last October. I write it down in a notebook. I buy things my chosen recipients will like but wouldn't buy for themselves. But with my mother, all bets are off. She's what's known as hard to buy for. I'm not sure why. There are a million possible reasons. Maybe it's generational, all those depression raised mothers not wanting to be dependent on the kindness of others. Maybe it's a power play. As long as she doesn't like what you give her, you remain properly beholden.

I realize a lot of mothers are like this. But my mother is an especially hard case. She might say in October, this Christmas, all I want is a tablecloth. Then, when she unwraps said tablecloth Christmas day, she'll look at it, without even taking it out of the package, say, "very nice," and roll her eyes as if no one can see her. Then when you point out that she said she wanted a tablecloth, she'll say matter of factly, "I never said anything of the sort."

And if, by some miracle, she manages not to totally despise what you've given her, you're still not off the hook. Because then she likes the gift too much and feels embarrassed. My brother and I long ago decided we'd buy one gift between us. That way, at least you split the pain. We bought her a fur coat. She opened the box, sat there with her hands in the fur, and started to cry. "This is too much," she said, through her tears in a strangled voice, then ran upstairs and locked herself in her bedroom for four hours on Christmas day.

The last thing my brother-- his name is Tim-- bought my mother-- that she liked, that is-- was a wooden napkin ring. It was hand painted, with flowers. Very pretty. That was 40 years ago. He was six years old. It cost him a nickel at a fair. Sometimes I think the whole gift giving experience has scarred him for life.

Ian Brown

I heard-- I don't know who told me, but-- you're not giving gifts this year, right? You, yourself.

Tim Brown

I'm not giving gifts, except to children. I think that giving gifts to parents in this sort of desperate search for approval, you know.

Ian Brown

Is that what you think it's for?

Tim Brown

Absolutely.

Ian Brown

Really?

Tim Brown

Absolutely. Yeah.

Ian Brown

You think we're seeking approval?

Tim Brown

Yes.

Ian Brown

It's a bit late.

I mean, and her disdain for gifts, when you give them, is pretty bad, don't you think? Here, Mom. Here's a beautiful new spring hat. I hate this. What sort of a gift--

Tim Brown

Where do you expect me to wear that?

Ian Brown

It's really horrible.

But do you think she's a good gift giver? I mean, here we are, sort of trying to get--

Tim Brown

Yes, I think she is. She is a very good gifter, very generous. I mean, she's almost blind. She's got cataracts, she's knitting socks for people. I told her I wanted a pair of argyle socks last year, she made a pair. That's very difficult, argyle socks.

Ian Brown

You asked her for argyle socks?

Tim Brown

Yeah. Well, I like the hand-knit socks.

Ian Brown

I like the hand-knit socks. Well, I'm sure you do.

That was on the sixth of December, and still, we had no clue what to give Mom for Christmas this year. But then, I had this idea. A potentially brilliant idea. Maybe, after all this time, the perfect Christmas present.

When my brother and I were kids in school, we sang in the choir. Tim was talented. He was a treble and then a tenor. I was a tenor, then a bass. And when we came home from school for the holidays, and were doing the dishes after Christmas dinner, say, we'd sing Christmas carols. We get my sisters, Maude and Daisy, to sing the melodies. And we'd sing the harmonies.

We liked doing it. Better still, our mother liked it. She started to ask us to do it every time we came home. We were pretty good, too. Our choir had even cut a record, which my mother owned about 17 copies of and played all the time.

And that's what gave me the idea. Instead of buying her something she'll hate, my brother and I will drive out to our parents' place-- something neither of us does enough-- and, as grown men, we will sing her some carols in harmony. The sheer sound of our soaring voices will, as they say in the Anglican hymn book, lift up her heart and transport her back to those days when we were her boys.

Neither my brother or I have sung in a choir in years. But we harmonize now and then. We even make harmonies up. And I've always been very impressed.

Ian Brown

And how do you think the singing is going to sound?

Tim Brown

I think that it might be fairly putrid.

Ian Brown

Putrid?

Tim Brown

Yeah.

Ian Brown

Really? I've had this impression that we sound great singing the harmonies.

Tim Brown

Yeah.

[SINGING - "O LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM"]

Ian Brown

I hear my brother, and I think, it's all up to me.

[SINGING - "O LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM"]

Tim Brown

Oh my God. That is hideous.

Ian Brown

Was it hideous? Does it sound bad?

Bad? We sounded like people who'd been lost in the woods. But how could we fix it? 24 hour emergency carol-singing repair isn't a service listed in the Yellow Pages where I live. So I did the only thing I could think of. I called Eric Hanbury. Hanbury had been at boarding school with my brother and me. He was in the choir, too. He was an eccentric character even then. Very serious and strict, almost terrifying. He knew how to play the organ, for starters. And that was an unusual skill for a teenager to have back in the days when Led Zeppelin were releasing their first album. Hanbury's musical taste stopped at Gershwin and favored Bach. Plus, he was six foot two, even then, and had full mutton chop sideburns at the age of 12. I hadn't seen him in nearly 35 years.

Eric Hanbury

Hello?

Ian Brown

Eric Hanbury?

Eric Hanbury

Yeah, Ian. Come up, 1204.

Ian Brown

All right.

But by 10:30 on Saturday morning, the very day we're to sing for our mother, we are in Eric Hanbury's two bedroom apartment on the 16th floor of a high rise in the Northwest end of the city. The spare bedroom-- the one we're all packed into-- is mostly taken up by a church organ the size of a Ford Taurus, complete with foot pedals.

Eric Hanbury

Now.

[SINGING - "JOY TO THE WORLD"]

Terrible. Let's do verse three. And I'll just play really loudly.

Ian Brown

It doesn't take long for Eric to lose hope, which is more depressing than I anticipated.

[SINGING - "O LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM"]

Eric Hanbury

No, no, no. How silently, how silently means that you don't yell.

[SINGING - "O LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM"]

Ian Brown

We're so desperate, we consult three other experts. The only helpful advice we get is from the greatest of them, John Tuttle, the choir master at Saint Thomas's Anglican Church, which everyone around here knows is one of the two or three best choirs in the city. He's famous for his high standards, his hours of practice. He gives us a few phrasing tips to make it sound like we actually mean the words we're singing.

John Tuttle

You wouldn't say, and heaven, and heaven, and nature sing. And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing.

[SINGING - "JOY TO THE WORLD"]

Ian Brown

And it works.

[SINGING - "JOY TO THE WORLD"]

Tim Brown

Much better.

John Tuttle

Yeah, that's better.

Ian Brown

But it doesn't last, because just as this thin ray of hope peeps forth, just as we feel good for the first time all day, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant, and my brother checks his cell phone for messages. And there is one from my father. He sounds pretty frosty. And this is when I find out that my brother has had a fight with my mother. They haven't spoken in three weeks, which is why my father is making the call for my mother. I mean, it's really bad. You can hear my mother in the background telling my old man what to say.

"Timmy," my dad says. And I can hear the edge of displeasure in his voice. "I understand you're coming out here. We have to go out in 15 minutes. We don't know where you are, so there is no use you coming out. We're not going to be here. We're not going to wait around for Ian. And incidentally, incidentally, we will not be coming to your Christmas dinner party next Sunday night." And then he hangs up. He doesn't even bother to say goodbye, but then, he never does.

It's a 40 minute drive to my parents'. They live in a small house in the country beside a river. All the way out, we practice trying to hone the edge we picked up from John Tuttle.

Ian Brown

[SINGING] There is no gas station over here.

Tim Brown

[SINGING] I apologize. You must turn left--

Ian Brown

--[SINGING] to get into it. Would let me go ahead? Thank you very much. What a nice guy.

We finally pull up to my parents' house. It's cold outside, around zero Fahrenheit. It's one of those filing cabinet gray Canadian days that feels colder than it would if there was snow on the ground. We walk up to the front door.

Ian Brown

OK, wait. Where's the doorbell?

Tim Brown

There is no doorbell. They'll know we're here. They'll know we're here.

Ian Brown

How will they know? OK. Ready? Wait. OK. Ready?

[SINGING - "JOY TO THE WORLD"]

As we sang, I thought to myself, so, it has come to this. The bottom of the barrel. Two grown men in their 40s, standing outside in the sub-freezing winter, singing to a closed door. Begging, essentially.

Mother

Thank you very much. That was very nice.

Ian Brown

Shall we come in? Can we come in? It's freezing outside. Can we come in?

Mother

Don't breathe your germs on me.

Ian Brown

What's that?

Mother

Don't bring your germs in here.

Ian Brown

Don't bring your germs in here. That's nice. All right, here we go.

[SINGING - "O LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM"]

My mother moves from the doorway to a dining room chair and sits down. She's looking at the floor, but I think she's ever so slightly crying. My brother can see it, too. I don't want her to cry. But then, it doesn't seem to last.

Ian Brown

This is your Christmas present.

Mother

Thank you very much. That was very nice. Reminded me of when you were nice boys who went to school and sang in the choir.

Ian Brown

And? You're implying that we're not like that anymore?

Mother

I don't know. You don't even come to see me unless you want something, so. Do you want a cup of tea?

Ian Brown

Yes, that would be nice. Yes, a cup of tea.

We go into the kitchen.

Ian Brown

So how does that compare with other presents we've given you?

Mother

Very nice. Very exceptional. Thank you very much.

Ian Brown

What's the best present we've ever given you?

Mother

I'd ask for help.

Ian Brown

What? Help?

Mother

Do you know what I would really like? I would like you all to come in the spring, help me clean up the garden, help me clean up the house, re-paper the house. That would be lovely.

Ian Brown

Re-paper the house?

Mother

Re-paper.

Tim Brown

Re-paper the living room?

Mother

The living room, the bath, anywhere.

Ian Brown

So this has been my problem, gift-wise, all along. Here I was trying to satisfy my mother with some $60 blouse, when what she really wanted was an $8,000 wallpapering job. I am so distracted by this revelation that I don't notice her trying to reverse the gift giving polarity in her favor. Even before the carol is over-- before we finish giving her our gift-- she starts reciprocating, giving us items she has harvested from all over the house. Not just our Christmas presents-- two envelopes of cash-- but other stuff. A calendar of coupons, half a round of Swiss cheese. And what's this? A beautiful cashmere scarf. The same one I had given to my brother at Christmas last year.

Ian Brown

Oh my God. Where did you get that?

Mother

It's been up in the cupboard.

Ian Brown

For how long? That's a cashmere scarf. I gave you that for Christmas last year. And you left it here? You haven't even-- why do I bother?

So much for my famous gift giving abilities. No one in my family appreciates my effort. And this was true, it suddenly became clear, of this gift of song as well.

Tim Brown

Shall we do one more?

Ian Brown

Yeah.

Mother

No, I haven't got time.

Ian Brown

You hear that? She hasn't got time.

Mother

Go in there and do it.

Tim Brown

We're doing it for you.

Ian Brown

It's your Christmas present.

Mother

That's enough. You've done enough.

Ian Brown

You don't want to hear "Blest Are The Pure in Heart"?

No. She was not interested in "The Pure In Heart." And you know why? Because she was about to miss her favorite TV program. She was giving us the bum's rush.

Mother

Very nice. Thank you both very much indeed.

Ian Brown

You're missing your TV program.

Mother

Lovely seeing you.

Ian Brown

Yes, lovely to see you. What's the name of the program?

Mother

Pie in the Sky.

Ian Brown

Pie in the Sky. Goodbye. See you, Dad. Goodbye, Ma. Love you.

So we drove the 40 miles right back to the city. We devoted a whole day to giving our mother the perfect gift, only to get kicked out of her house after 26 minutes in favor of Pie in the Sky, an English TV series about a country detective who makes the best steak and kidney pie in the world. Actually, my mother used to make excellent steak and kidney pie herself, and give it away as Christmas presents. Of course, no Christmas story is complete without a grand, final realization. And on the way home, I had mine.

We'd been going about it all wrong. We'd been trying to find the perfect Christmas present. But the perfect gift was a terrible idea, because the perfect gift upsets the delicate truce of failure and imperfection that holds every family together like a trussed bridge. You move one timber, the whole thing can come crashing down. Whereas if you leave that rickety old span as it has always been-- with a little too much need over here, and a little too much eagerness to please over there, all offset by an overhang of standoffishness-- then everyone is happy.

The secret, obviously, is to give an imperfect gift, that lavishes enough attention on your old mom that she knows you still care, but that's also fundamentally flawed, so that no one goes home feeling indebted or beholden or lonely. Instead, they can go home reassured. Nothing changes. And that's a Christmas present even a mother could love.

Ira Glass

Ian Brown, normally broadcast on the CBC.

Act Two. A Christmas Memory.

Ira Glass

Act Two, A Christmas Memory. We heard about this next recording because the in-laws of one of our producers play it every Christmas when the family gets together. And every Christmas they all cry. It's Truman Capote's story, "A Christmas Memory," about his own childhood growing up in rural Alabama in the 1920s and '30s. This is an abridged version of the story, shortened a bit for the radio.

Truman Capote

Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than 20 years ago. A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. "Oh my," she exclaims, her breath smoking the window pane. "It's fruitcake weather." The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven. She is sixty something. We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together, well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives. And though they have power over us and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other's best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880s when she was still a child. She is still a child.

"I knew it before I got out of bed," she says, turning away from the window with a purposeful excitement in her eyes. "Help me find my hat. We have 30 cakes to bake." In addition to never having seen a movie, she has never eaten in a restaurant, traveled more than five miles from home, received or sent a telegram, read anything except funny papers and the Bible, worn cosmetics, cursed, wished someone harm, told a lie on purpose, let a hungry dog go hungry. Of the ingredients that go into our fruitcakes, whiskey is the most expensive, as well as the hardest to obtain. State laws forbid its sale. But everybody knows you can buy a bottle from Mr. Haha Jones.

And the next day, having completed our more prosaic shopping, we set out for Mr. Haha's business address. A sinful, to quote public opinion, fish fry and dancing cafe down by the river. We've been there before, and on the same errand. But in previous years, our dealings have been with Haha's wife, an iodine-dark Indian woman with brassy, peroxided hair and a dead tired disposition. Actually, we've never laid eyes on her husband, but we've heard that he's an Indian, too, a giant with razor scars across his cheeks. They call him Haha because he's so gloomy, a man who never laughs.

As we approach his cafe-- a large log cabin festooned inside and out with chains of garish, gay naked light bulbs, and standing by the river's muddy edge under the shade of river trees, where moss drifts through the branches like gray mist-- our steps slow down. Even Queenie stops prancing and sticks close by. People have been murdered in Haha's cafe, cut to pieces, hit on the head. There's a case coming up in court next month. I knock at the door, Queenie barks, my friend calls, "Mrs. Haha, ma'am? Anyone to home?"

Footsteps. The door opens. Our hearts overturn. It's Mr. Haha Jones himself, and he is a giant, he does have scars, he doesn't smile. No, he glowers at us through Satan-tilted eyes and demands to know, "What you want with Haha?" For a moment, we are too paralyzed to tell. Presently, my friend half-finds her voice, a whispery voice at best. If you please, Mr. Haha, we'd like a quart of your finest whiskey.

His eyes tilt more. Would you believe it? Haha is smiling, laughing too. "Which one of you is a drinking man?" "It's for making fruitcakes, Mr. Haha. Cooking." This sobers him. He frowns. "That's no way to waste good whiskey." We pay him with nickels, and dimes, and pennies. Suddenly, jangling the coins in his hand like a fist full of dice, his face softens. "Tell you what," he proposes, pouring the money back into our bead purse, "just send me one of them fruitcakes instead."

"Well," my friend remarks on our way home, "there's a lovely man. We'll put an extra cup of raisins in his cake." The black stove, stoked with coal and firewood, glows like a lighted pumpkin. Egg beaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar, vanilla sweetens the air, ginger spices it. Melting, nose-tingling odors saturate the kitchen, suffuse the house, drift out to the world on puffs of chimney smoke. In four days, our work is done. 31 cakes, dampened with whiskey, bask on window sills and shelves.

Who are they for? Friends. Not necessarily neighbor friends. Indeed, the larger share are intended for persons we've met maybe once, perhaps not at all, people who have struck our fancy, like President Roosevelt, like the Reverend and Mrs. J. C. Lucey, Baptist missionaries to Borneo who lectured here last winter. Or the little knife grinder who comes through town twice a year. Or the young Wistons, a California couple whose car, one afternoon, broke down outside the house and who spent a pleasant hour chatting with us on the porch. Young Mr. Wiston snapped our picture, the only one we've ever had taken.

Now a new December fig branch grates against the window. The kitchen is empty, the cakes are gone. Yesterday we carted the last of them to the post office, where the cost of stamps turned our purse inside out. We're broke. That rather depresses me, but my friend insists on celebrating with two inches of whisky left in Haha's bottle. Queenie has a spoonful in a bowl of coffee. She likes her coffee chicory-flavored and strong. The rest we divide between a pair of jelly glasses. We're both quite awed at the prospect of drinking straight whiskey. The taste of it brings screwed up expressions and sour shudders. But by and by, we begin to sing, the two of us singing different songs simultaneously. I don't know the words to mine, just, "Come on along, come on along, to the dark-town strutter's ball."

But I can dance. That's what I mean to be, a tap dancer in the movies. My dancing shadow rollicks on the walls. Our voices rock the chinaware. We giggle, as if unseen hands were tickling us. Queenie rolls on her back, her paws plow the air. Something like a grin stretches her black lips. Inside myself, I feel warm and sparky as those crumbling logs, carefree as the wind in the chimney. My friend waltzes around the stove, the hem of her poor calico skirt pinched between her fingers as though it were a party dress. "Show me the way to go home," she sings, her tennis shoes squeaking on the floor. "Show me the way to go home."

Enter two relatives. Very angry. Potent with eyes that scold, tongues that scald. Listen to what they have to say, the words tumbling together into a wrathful tune. "A child of seven, whiskey on his breath. Are you out of your mind? Feeding a child of seven, must be loony. Road to ruination. Remember cousin Kate, Uncle Charlie, Uncle Charlie's brother in law? Shame. Scandal. Humiliation. Pray. Beg the Lord." Queenie sneaks under the stove. My friend gazes at her shoes. Her chin quivers. She lifts her skirt, and blows her nose, and runs to her room.

Long after the town has gone to sleep, and the house is silent except for the chimings of clocks and the sputter of fading fires, she is weeping into a pillow, already as wet as a widow's handkerchief. "Don't cry," I say, sitting at the bottom of her bed and shivering, despite my flannel night gown that smells of last winter's cough syrup. "Don't cry," I beg, teasing her toes, tickling her feet. "You're too old for that." "It's because," she hiccups, "I am too old. Old and funny." "Not funny, fun. More fun than anybody. Listen, if you don't stop crying, you'll be so tired tomorrow we can't go cut a tree."

She straightens up. Queenie jumps on the bed, where Queenie is not allowed, to lick her cheeks.

"I know where we'll find real pretty trees, Buddy, and holly too, with berries big as your eyes. It's way off in the woods, farther than we've ever been. Papa used to bring us Christmas trees from there and carry them on his shoulder. That's 50 years ago. Well, now I can't wait for morning."

Morning. Scented acres of holiday trees, prickly-leafed holly, red berries, shiny as Chinese bells. Black crows swoop upon them, screaming. Having stuffed our burlap sacks with enough greenery and crimson to garland a dozen windows, we set about choosing a tree.

"It should be," muses my friend, "twice as tall as a boy, so a boy can't steal the star." The one we pick is twice as tall as me. A brave, handsome brute that survives 30 hatchet strokes before it keels with a creaking, rending cry. After weaving and ribboning holly wreaths for all the front windows, our next project is the fashioning of family gifts. Tie dye scarves for the ladies. For the men, a home-brewed lemon, and licorice, and aspirin syrup to be taken at the first symptoms of a cold and after hunting. But when it comes time for making each other's gifts, my friend and I separate to work secretly.

I would like to buy her a pearl handle knife, a radio, a whole pound of chocolate covered cherries. We tasted some once, and she always swears, "I could live on them, Buddy. Lord, yes I could, and that's not taking his name in vain."

Instead, I am building her a kite. She would like to give me a bicycle. She has said so on several million occasions. "If only I could, Buddy. It's bad enough in life to do without something you want. But confound it, what gets my goat is not being able to give somebody something you want them to have. Only one of these days, I will, Buddy. Locate you a bike. Don't ask how. Steal it, maybe."

Instead, I am fairly certain that she is building me a kite. The same as last year and the year before. The year before that we exchanged slingshots. All of which is fine by me, for we are champion kite flyers who study the wind like sailors. My friend, more accomplished than I, can get a kite aloft when there isn't enough breeze to carry clouds.

Christmas Eve afternoon, we scrape together a nickel and go to the butcher's to buy Queenie's traditional gift, a good, gnawable beef bone. The bone, wrapped in funny paper, is placed high in the tree near the silver star. Queenie knows it's there. She squats at the foot of the tree, staring up in a trance of greed. When bedtime arrives, she refuses to budge. Her excitement is equalled by my own. I kick the covers and turn my pillow as though it were a scorching summer's night. Somewhere a rooster crows, falsely, for the sun is still on the other side of the world.

"Buddy, are you awake?"

It is my friend, calling from her room, which is next to mine. And an instant later, she is sitting on my bed, holding a candle.

"Well, I can't sleep a hoot," she declares. "My mind's jumping like a jack rabbit. Buddy, do you think Mrs. Roosevelt will serve our cake at dinner?" We huddle in the bed, and she squeezes my hand I love you.

"Seems like your hand used to be so much smaller. I guess I hate to see you grow up. When you're grown up, will we still be friends?" I say always. "But I feel so bad, Buddy. I wanted so bad to give you a bike. I tried to sell my cameo Papa gave me. Buddy," she hesitates, as though embarrassed, "I made you another kite." Then I confess that I made her one, too, and we laugh. The candle burns too short to hold. Out it goes, exposing the starlight. The star spinning at the window like a visible carolling that slowly, slowly, daybreak silences. Possibly, we doze.

But the beginnings of dawn splash us like cold water. We're up, wide-eyed and wandering, while we wait for others to awaken. Quite deliberately, my friend drops a kettle on the kitchen floor. I tap dance in front of closed doors. One by one, the household emerges, looking as though they'd like to kill us both, but it's Christmas, so they can't. First, a gorgeous breakfast, just everything you can imagine, from flapjacks and fried squirrel to hominy grits and honey in the comb, which puts everyone in a good humor, except my friend and I. Frankly, we're so impatient to get at the presents we can't eat a mouthful.

Well, I'm disappointed. Who wouldn't be? With socks, a Sunday school shirt, some handkerchiefs, a hand-me-down sweater, and a year's subscription to a religious magazine for children, The Little Shepherd. It makes me boil, it really does.

"Buddy, the wind is blowing."

The wind is blowing, and nothing will do till we've run to a pasture below the house, where Queenie has scooted to bury her bone. And where, a winter hence, Queenie will be buried too. There, plunging through the healthy waist-high grass, we unreel our kites, feel them twitching at the string like sky fish as they swim into the wind. Satisfied, sun warmed, we sprawl in the grass and peel Satsumas and watch our kites cavort. Soon I forget the socks and hand-me-down sweater. I'm as happy as if we had already won the $50,000 grand prize in that coffee naming contest.

"My, how foolish I am," my friend cries, suddenly alert, like a woman remembering too late she has biscuits in the oven. "You know what I've always thought," she asked, in a tone of discovery, and not smiling at me but a point beyond. "I've always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord. And I imagine that when he came, it would be like looking at the Baptist window. Pretty as colored glass with the sun pouring through. Such a shine, you don't know it's getting dark. And it's been a comfort to think of that shine taking away all the spooky feeling. But I'll wager it never happens. I'll wager, at the very end, a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself. That things as they are--" Her hand circles in a gesture that gathers clouds, and kites, and grass, and Queenie pawing earth over her bone-- "Just what they've always seen was seeing Him. As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes."

This is our last Christmas together. Life separates us. Those who know best decide that I belong in a military school. And so follows a miserable succession of bugle blowing prisons, grim, revelry-ridden summer camps. I have a new home, too, but it doesn't count. Home is where my friend is, and there I never go. And there she remains, puttering around the kitchen, alone with Queenie, then alone. "Buddy dear," she writes in her wild, hard to read script, "yesterday, Jim Macy's horse kicked Queenie bad. Be thankful she didn't feel much. I wrapped her in a fine linen sheet and rode her in the buggy down to Simpson's pasture, where she can be with all her bones."

For a few Novembers, she continues to bake her fruitcakes single handed. Not as many, but some. And of course, she always sends me the best of the batch. But gradually in her letters, she tends to confuse me with her other friend. The Buddy who died in the 1880s. A morning arrives in November, a leafless, birdless, coming of winter morning, when she can not rouse herself to exclaim, "Oh my, it's fruitcake weather." And when that happens, I know it. A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string. That is why, walking across the school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky, as if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.

Ira Glass

Truman Capote, recorded in 1959. "A Christmas Memory" was broadcast with permission of the Truman Capote Literary Trust. Alan U. Schwartz, trustee. This version of the story was abridged for radio. Coming up, more proof that the perfect gift, like the perfect crime, is an elusive thing. In a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. It's our guide to holiday gift giving in which we guarantee you will find no practical advice for your last minute shopping. Instead, we have stories of holiday presents. We're at act three of our show. Act Three, Secret Santa. Caitlin Shetterly has this story about one gift leading to another, leading to another, leading to another, and then stopping.

Caitlin Shetterly

I grew up in a small town called Surry on the coast of down-east Maine. At Christmas, most everyone in our town bought their trees at Jordan's Tree Farm. $5 per tree, cut at your own risk. Thinking back, it seems funny to me now, since after all, this is rural Maine, the pine tree state. And you'd think everyone could cut their own trees on their own land. And it's not like the trees at the Jordan farm were so special. Pretty much everyone called them Charlie Brown trees. People came because of Robert Jordan. They were loyal to him, and they figured he could use the money.

Every year the drill was the same. You'd get out of your car with your family, trudge for what seemed like miles in sub-zero wind, searching for the perfect tree. Drag your prize back through the snow, and then, finally, you'd go find Robert. This was one of the only times of year most of us saw Robert. He seemed to live an entirely reclusive life in his ramshackle house, perched above the road and bordering the thick trees that fanned out behind his barn.

Many of us know someone like Robert, our own Boo Radley, a poor old man who has lived with his parents his entire life until one, and then the other, died. Here is what we knew about Robert from these short, yearly transactions. He had a very strange voice. He wore Coke bottle glasses, an orange hunting cap, and in my memory, a red and black Buffalo plaid jacket. But somehow Ron Hamilton and his wife Brenda came to know Robert better than most people did. Here's Ron.

Ron Hamilton

A lot of people thought Robert was retarded because his father was hard of hearing, and he kind of talked like this. You know. I kind of mimic him a little bit, but every now and then he'd say something like, "Well, how are you today?" And I'd say, "Pretty good, Robert." "Well, what are we going to do today?" And it kind of reminded me of, Katharine Hepburn is it, that's got that same kind of broken spot in her voice. But he never knew he done that until later in life. Because his father was almost deaf, Clyde. He'd have to look at you and went, "What? What?" And Robert would belt it right out.

Caitlin Shetterly

The farmhouse and the Jordan's lifestyle on the farm was primitive. The house had no hot water. Clyde and Robert ate canned cold beans for breakfast. Their porch was overflowing with junk and cats and smelled like cat food and urine. Robert slept in a chair in the living room, and Clyde slept on a small cot next to the wood stove in the kitchen. Robert's mother Bessie had passed away in 1987, in one of the small bedrooms upstairs. Since then the two men were on their own.

About 15 years ago, Ronnie Hamilton and his wife Brenda met Robert and Clyde. Brenda was making and selling Christmas wreaths. And when Robert saw them, he invited the Hamilton's first to get brush from the farm to make their wreaths and later, to sell them at the farm. They ended up spending a lot of time together. Despite the Christmas tree farm, Robert and his late mother were Jehovah's Witnesses. And so the family didn't actually celebrate Christmas. But Ronnie and Brenda wanted to include them into their holiday. One day Ron noticed Clyde was wearing two different boots and that on the coldest days, they weren't keeping his feet warm.

Ron Hamilton

So I went and bought him a pair of boots. And we bought Robert a pair of sneakers, because I knew Robert liked the ones that you didn't have to lace up, that just had the Velcro. Anyway, we got several little things in a Christmas stocking. Well, day before Christmas, I had come over and knocked on the door and I says, "Santa's here." And they had come in. And he says, "What did you do that for?" I said, "Because I want to." And I said, just because you like to do things for people. And I asked what did you do that for. And he says because he wanted to. So I kind of put it right back to him that way. He liked Christmas.

Caitlin Shetterly

After that first Christmas, Robert began exchanging gifts each year with Ron and Brenda. As Clyde got older and started to rely on Robert, Robert started to rely on the Hamiltons. Late one night, Clyde got so sick, Robert called Ron for help.

Ron Hamilton

And he says, "Father's sick. Can you come get him?" This was like 11:30, 12 o'clock at night, and snowy and stuff. I went over and got him, picked him up, and put him in the truck, and took him to Blue Hill Hospital. Well, needless to say, he had cancer. And that went on for about a year. And finally, Robert's father was in the hospital real bad there. And Robert called me up. And he said, would you take me over to see Dad. I says, yeah. Went in and the doctor said, it's just a matter of time. And I said to Robert, if you want to say something to your father, you want to say it now.

We got a kick out of this, because we chuckled about it afterwards. He said, but I can't get him awake. I said, I can get him awake. He said, you can? And he said, how? And I said, you watch. And I said, Clyde, there's somebody in your Christmas trees. He opened up one eye. And he looked at me, and said, I'm not dead yet. I said to Robert, you want to say something to your father, you want to talk to him now. So they talked for a few minutes, then Clyde dozed off. And Robert called me the next morning and told me his father had died.

Caitlin Shetterly

Robert asked Ron to take care of the burial arrangements. So Ron dug the hole for Clyde's remains, gathered some friends, and said a few final words. Then Robert asked Ron if, when it came time, he would do the same for him. Ron said yes.

Robert was 65 when his father died. He had struggled with diabetes for most of his life. He had had heart problems. And he was in and out of the hospital. He stayed with Ron and Brenda for a couple of months in the winter of 2000 because he couldn't take care of himself. He loved the hot showers and the television with a remote control they had at their house. Eventually, Robert went back to the farm and to his independence. He started walking four miles a day and lost some weight. Then in mid April of 2001, Ron went over early one morning to pick Robert up to take him into town. He found Robert lying on the floor. He was dead.

Ron kept his promise to Robert, and held a small ceremony on a sunny April afternoon. He scattered Robert's ashes out back at the farm among the Christmas trees. A few days later, the Hamiltons were contacted to come to a reading of Robert's will, along with representatives from five local nonprofit organizations. As the lawyers started to read out the will, people were stunned. It turns out Robert Jordan was a millionaire. Robert had inherited a couple hundred thousand in AT&T stock from three neighbors. Wealthy sisters who had a summer place across the road.

When Robert was growing up, he had mowed lawns and run errands for the sisters. And when they got older he had taken care of them. When the last sister, Betty, died in 1984, she left Robert the stock and her house. Robert sold the house, and as for the stock, his timing was perfect. It boomed. Robert had divided up his money between local organizations he was interested in or had been kind to him. But the largest gift was left to Ron and Brenda Hampton. Robert Jordan had left them the farm.

Ron Hamilton

Well, I was flabbergasted. I couldn't believe it. To this day I don't believe it, because I didn't look for nothing from nobody. We were so excited. So we packed up our stuff, and started cleaning on the farm, and fixed the farm up a little bit, and the barn and stuff. Moved in, and it was just a lovely spot.

Caitlin Shetterly

The tree farm Robert left to Ronnie and Brenda sits on top of a hill looking over Route 172. It has 66 acres of trees and a natural spring. The house is white, and from the road it looks bigger than it really is. The only sink was in the kitchen. And the house had no heat besides the wood stove. In August of 2001, Ronnie and Brenda moved in. They were excited, not daunted, by the task that lay ahead of them.

A year later, I went to visit Ronnie and Brenda. It was the first time I'd actually been able to walk onto the porch. The clutter was gone, a small gray kitten lay curled on a couch, and three dogs met me at the door. It was as if Ronnie and Brenda's world had opened up. Ron told me that Robert's gift had completely changed his life.

Ron Hamilton

I don't have so much tension on me, you know, thinking that, what am I going to do. Now I know what I'm going to do. I'm going to work on these Christmas trees most of the rest of my life and enjoy it like he did.

Caitlin Shetterly

When I left that night, Ron walked me to my car.

Caitlin Shetterly

That's great. Thank you so much.

Ron Hamilton

Well, thank you dear.

Caitlin Shetterly

I think I'll come back at Christmas.

Ron Hamilton

OK. Are you going to get your tree?

Caitlin Shetterly

Yeah, I'm definitely going to come get a tree. For sure. Thank you.

Ron Hamilton

Thank you dear.

Caitlin Shetterly

Test, test.

Four months later, it's Christmas Eve, and I'm back at the tree farm.

Caitlin Shetterly

Hi.

Ron Hamilton

Come on in, dear.

Caitlin Shetterly

How are you? Boy, your house looks great. It's coming together. Oh, look at the tree.

Is it going well, though, living here? Are you feeling good about it?

Ron Hamilton

I had nothing but trouble over here all summer long.

Caitlin Shetterly

Tell me why.

Ron Hamilton

Some people broke into my pickup truck and had taken my pills. And come in here.

Caitlin Shetterly

After the Hamiltons moved in, things got complicated. The house and the barn needed a lot of work. And the Hamiltons needed money they didn't have to do that work. Tending to 66 acres of farm that stretched over a mile back from the road was hard for Ron. One day he fell while surveying the land, and he pulled the muscles and tendons in his neck. Ron went to the hospital and was given painkillers, which he brought home. And a day later, some kids broke into his truck and stole his medicine. Then, believe it or not, things took a turn for the worse.

Ron Hamilton

They tried to arrest me and charge me with growing marijuana, which wasn't mine.

Caitlin Shetterly

Where was the marijuana?

Ron Hamilton

Somebody had planted it out back in the Christmas trees, two or three different plots of it.

Caitlin Shetterly

The police came?

Ron Hamilton

Oh, helicopter, the whole nine yards.

Caitlin Shetterly

Who planted that, do you think?

Ron Hamilton

I don't know. I have no idea.

Caitlin Shetterly

Ron had to hire a lawyer to prove that the plants weren't his, putting him into even more debt. And on top of all that, Ron had a heart attack. This all happened within four months. Finally, Ron and Brenda decided to sell the farm. With the money they got from selling the farm to their neighbor, Bill [? Kidue, ?] they built a small, one level house on seven acres of land, over closer to Ellsworth on a busy road. Ron has been back a few times to cut brush for Brenda's wreaths. But when I asked Ronnie to take me back to the farm, he refused, saying it was just too painful.

Ron Hamilton

Well yeah, it kind of bothers you.

Caitlin Shetterly

Why does it bother you?

Ron Hamilton

I don't know. Just thinking it was mine. I wish that I could have kept it.

Caitlin Shetterly

This is Brenda, Ronnie's wife.

Brenda Hamilton

It was nice and sunny. You'd go out and sit on the porch there. And we'd watch traffic go by. It was [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. It was [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. It was all screened in. It was nice out there. Nice porch.

Ron Hamilton

When we first moved to the farm it was just like we remarried. Everything was just cozy, and the colder it got, the more we snuggled. It was different. It was better. It was more-- it's a country life. Every morning she'd get up and have a coffee pot going, and take a cup of coffee with her and the dogs. And she'd walk out back. And she'd say, well, we've got several deer crossings out there, or you ought to see the turkey tracks, or there's coyote droppings out there.

And we had visions. We talked about, we wanted to take this little pond, and it would make a beautiful ice skating pond. We thought, well, we could have the kids come over. And they could ice skate over there, get them off the streets, you know. And then eventually, that we could have a horse and a sleigh and give sleigh rides over there. But it didn't turn out that way. But we dreamt of it. Didn't we, dear?

Caitlin Shetterly

Later, Brenda tells me that she doesn't like the new house they've built. She says it doesn't feel like a home and she doesn't want to decorate for Christmas this year. Their whole idea of Christmas is still tied up in the dreams they had for the farm. In the Dylan Thomas poem, "A Child's Christmas in Wales," there is a point toward the end where the narrator and his childhood friends go carolling in the dark. They walk up a long driveway to a large house, and although they are afraid, they soldier on. And as they begin to sing, a voice joins theirs from behind the dark door. Thomas writes, "A small, dry voice, like the voice of someone who has not spoken for a long time joined our singing. A small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door. A small dry voice through the keyhole." The boys run, and never finish their song.

When I was little, I used to go with the Surry Elementary School to sing carols outside Robert Jordan's house. And I always confused the voice in the poem with the real life Robert Jordan, someone isolated, someone people don't stick around for. But that wasn't really who he was. He reached out to people. He helped out his neighbors across the street without asking for anything. In return, they made him a millionaire. And when Ronnie and Brenda helped him without asking for anything, in return, he gave them the farm.

So much of his life was about a kind of selfless giving. And sometimes it didn't work out, sure. Ronnie and Brenda are definitely going to miss the farm this Christmas. But Ron still has hope for the holidays. He thinks their house won't feel so much like a motel once they get the tree up, put some lights outside, and have some family over. Already, Brenda has nearly sold all her wreaths. And when I called this week, Ron was already ahead of the game. His shopping is all done. And he was busy wrapping presents for his wife.

Ira Glass

Caitlin Shetterly is the artistic director of the Winter Harbor Theater Company in Portland, Maine.

Act Three. Secret Santa. Very Secret Santa.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Jane Golombisky and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, and Starlee Kine. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help from Todd Bachmann and Kelsey Dilts.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

You know you can download audio of our program at audible.com/thisamericanlife, where they have public radio programs, best-selling books, even the New York Times, all at audible.com. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, or as he likes to be known--

[SINGING - "O LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM"]

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.