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Turtle Lamps and Other Gifts

December 21, 2001

Like thousands of the other Michiana residents, I took my chances in the commercial canyons of Grape Road this week. Of course the traffic was terrible — by local standards, anyway — but I found a couple of presents for my wife. First I bought her — well, I can’t really tell you, in case she’s listening, but I think she’ll make good use of the stuff this winter. While I was wandering around on Grape Road I also bought our daughters a few small chocolate ornaments wrapped in colorful foil. Each one is shaped like a character from the Nutcracker ballet.

We took the kids to see the Nutcracker earlier this month, and since then the two of them have been staging surprising new versions of the dances and sword fights in our living room, with the cd player turned up high. The other day when I came downstairs the children, with full orchestral accompaniment, were leaping grandly off the arms of the couch. If the director of our local Nutcracker desires any really fresh ideas for next year’s production, I suggest he stop by some afternoon and take a look. I think the chocolate ornaments are going to be popular around our house, and the infusion of sugar may help our four and seven year old artistes create even more extravagant versions of the famous ballet.

While I was out there on Grape Road I visited a couple of smaller stores for the first time. One is a tea and coffee shop with the classic burlap bags of dark roasted beans open all around the room and the aroma of fresh coffee wafting out onto the sidewalk. Next door is a friendly guitar shop called Hoosierdad’s, a tuneful place with rows of cool and lovely instruments on display. When I was there a customer was picking a sweet blues-y melody on an acoustic guitar. We’ve all heard the complaints about the commercialism of the holidays, but when small businesses offer such treats for the senses, I say to any Charlie Browns out there, “Lighten up for once!” Besides, a small business with a name as playful as Hoosierdad’s deserves a good spirit award, I think. Hurray for our local purveyors of happy goods and services.

I admit that there is some pressure during the holidays. My wife and I have been anxious about our as yet unfinished Christmas letter. During my Grape Road adventure I stopped by a one-hour photo service to order reprints of a family picture that we’ll slide into envelopes along with a copy of the letter. I carefully handed the negative over to the clerk and she promptly put a fingerprint on it. I had to repeat the “Serenity now” mantra all the way back to the car.

There is also some pressure about choosing the right present. In one mega-store I saw a weary woman carrying two identical little boxes to the checkout lanes. The picture on each box showed a brown lump of stained glass, about the size of an overturned cereal bowl, roughly shaped into the form of a turtle. I gathered that this was a turtle lamp, but judging by the homely picture it was destined, at best, to keep the dust off a few square inches of someone’s knickknack shelf. Can that woman really have not one, but two friends for whom a turtle lamp is a thoughtful gift? Perhaps she was just running low on patience or money or ideas. I wonder if Thoreau had Christmas shoppers in mind when he wrote that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation? When it comes to turtle lamps, maybe it’s the thought that counts.

Or is it? In a dark corner of our basement right now there is a long, oddly-shaped box hidden under a blanket. I can tell you a few things about it: it’s not very heavy for its size, it wasn’t particularly expensive, it didn’t fit very well in the trunk of the car, and it didn’t come from a store anywhere near Grape Road. I can’t offer any more hints, in case you-know-who is listening. Somebody suggested this present a few weeks ago, and I didn’t give it a moment’s thought. I knew immediately it fulfilled all my guidelines for a store-bought birthday or holiday present. Here are the guidelines: make the present a surprise, if you can; be a little bit extravagant, if the budget allows; and most important, choose a present that fits your friend or family member’s life and also adds something to it. No matter how late the mall stays open this week, you have to know someone well to satisfy these guidelines, and that might be the best part of the holiday season.

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired December 21, 2001 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.