Gifts From the Past
Does anyone remember green stamps? Back in the olden days instead of getting points on your credit card for making purchases we got green stamps. They accumulated in a drawer all year and Mom said if we pasted them in the redemption books, we could turn them in and use the money for Christmas presents. There were several books worth and the books brought $2 a piece. I have only a vague recollection of this but my two brothers’ memory of the green stamps Christmas is quite clear and precise, for good reason.
They came up with a creative gift-giving scheme. They would buy ball-point pens for everyone on the list except each other. At 10 cents a piece the pens would hardly deplete their redeemed funds from the green stamps. Then they would buy each other more elaborate gifts, gifts that were exactly what they wanted and which they were highly unlikely to get from Mom and Dad, grandparents or Aunt Margaret. They all involved toy guns of one kind or another—six shooters with holsters, rifles, and best of all a belt with a Derringer built into the buckle. All went well in the days before the holiday and they could hardly wait to open their “surprise” gifts on Christmas morning.
Somehow though, our parents got wind of the duplicitous arrangement and came up with a creative plan of their own. The boys could keep their ill-gotten toys, but there would be no gifts for them under the tree from anyone else that year. “That was the worst Christmas. I’ll never forget how we felt…” my now-generous brothers reminisced this past week.
I was not interested in toy guns, but I was always begging to buy candy bars. Baby Ruth was my favorite. No, that was almost never allowed, but my mother found a way to make my obsession for candy into a learning experience. I could make my own candy bars; that would be fine. Week after week I tried to perfect the caramel. What could go wrong combining and heating just sugar, butter and cream? Sometimes I was too impatient and ended up with soft flowing caramel, too thick for ice cream topping and not thick enough to hold a candy bar together. Then I would over cook it and it would be stiff like a Holloway bar. I was never able to reproduce a Baby Ruth, but I did learn some of the basics of cooking. More importantly, I gained confidence that I could learn to make many needed or wanted things myself.
At Bill Rihn’s recent memorial service, his son and daughter, Dennis and Jennifer, seemed to personify many of the characteristics we have learned to love about their father: quiet organization, precision, persistence, kindness, consideration. Dennis remembers first his father’s emphasis on education and hard work. Jennifer recalled a visitor suggesting what she might do when she grew up. “Are you going to be a secretary?” Bill had something to say about that. “She’s going to be the boss!” he pronounced. When she expressed an interest in math, her dad encouraged her to be an engineer (to him the ultimate profession). “Our parents let us know that we could be whatever we wanted to be; just get an education and work hard,” Jennifer reiterated.
There is sadness as older generations go off-watch and our parents no longer take their places around the holiday table. But the holidays also give us an opportunity to reflect on the thoughtfulness and creativity our parents put into helping us build our characters. Not completely gone, they live on in their gifts to us, our values and the approach to life we pass on to others.
Landscape architect Ann Christoph is a former City Council member.