MAXWELL:  A Christmas bicycle illuminates the spirit of giving

12/25/1994 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


The gift, to be true, must be the flowing of the giver unto me, correspondent to my flowing unto him.

_ Ralph Waldo Emerson

By now, most Americans have bought and received Christmas gifts. This annual ritual of mandatory giving and receiving has fascinated me since I was a young child.

Today, at age 49, I have vivid memories of some of my earliest gifts: cap pistols and colorful cowboy outfits; a hunting knife and a bolt-action .22-caliber rifle; a yellow tricycle; baseballs and gloves; footballs and basketballs; a bugle and a guitar; a Timex watch; a pedal-operated car that I drove onto a busy street, nearly getting run over by a real car; a wind-up train set; two red wagons.

Although I enjoyed these gifts, none meant very much to me at the time. They were routine, like those other boys received. Another reason these gifts were not important then was that I had gotten them while my parents were living together, when we were a normal family, when we had extra money after the bills were paid. Even though we were poor, I had yet to comprehend the true meaning of poverty.

By my ninth birthday, however, my parents had separated. Because my mother, five siblings and I had no money and lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a government housing project, I had begun to relish even the smallest gifts. For good or bad, I was learning to equate the value of gifts with the degree of sacrifice and wisdom of the giver and the appreciativeness of the receiver.

As the oldest child, I worried mostly about the cost of gift-giving in our family. Because my mother confided in me, I was fully aware of the paltry wages she earned as a maid on Fort Lauderdale Beach. My siblings and I took nothing for granted, especially gifts.

When I was 11, my mother gave me a bicycle for Christmas. It was my first bike. I had set my heart on a slick one in the window of the downtown Western Auto and had shown it to my mother one morning in late October as we waited for the bus. I do not recall the bike’s price, but it was a sum that made my mother shake her head. I had no real hopes of getting the bike.

But I was constantly encouraged when I would discover my mother secretly counting money. And my heart pounded with expectation after the bike was removed from the store window the week before Christmas. On Christmas Eve night, I lay awake listening to my mother plundering in the darkness, taking gifts out of hiding, putting them under the tree. My siblings were awake, too, whispering and giggling. As “the man of the house,” I had to pretend to be asleep. At daylight, the other kids dashed into the living room and began ripping open gifts. I strolled in, fingers crossed, praying that the bike was there.

It was not.

Instead, a turquoise monstrosity that vaguely resembled an American Flyer stood near the stove. My heart sank. Aware of my disappointment, my mother said: “I couldn’t afford the new bike. I had Mr. Dennis fix up one for you. He said it’s just like new.” Mr. Dennis was a piddler, scavenger and handyman par excellence. With trembling hands, he could put together any contraption.

Initially, I hated the bike, a hulk of discarded parts and brush-streaked paint. The neighborhood boys laughed at it, calling it the “Mack truck.” After about two weeks, though, when most of the new bikes were banged up or stolen, the laughing stopped. My turquoise monster was right at home. In fact, it was a godsend, with its three big baskets, one on the handlebar and one on each side of the rear fender. My mother did not own a car, so we rode the bus or walked everywhere. As the oldest child, I did a lot of the grocery shopping and running around for incidentals. When I shopped alone, I sometimes would have to walk to the store three times to collect all of the bags. With the bike, I could make one trip.

Why, of the many gifts I have received in my life, do I remember that bicycle so fondly? Because, for me, the experience related to it epitomized the spirit of gift-giving.

Not only did my mother know how badly I wanted a bike, she also knew that, because of my duties as the oldest child, the bike would make life easier for me. She knew that it would give me some dignity. I would not have to walk everywhere or piggyback on another boy’s bike. It gave me something in common with the boys whose families had more money.

In the spring, that bike did let me become “the man of the house.” It gave me the opportunity to become a carrier for the Fort Lauderdale News. I was able to earn enough money to help my mother pay several household bills each week. That jerry-built bike gave me independence _ a way to become self-reliant. My mother knew that, even as a child, I was driven by the desire to do for myself, and her gift was her way of acknowledging me. She has since told me so. To this day, my mother and I exchange gifts of mutual acknowledgement _ if we are inclined to exchange gifts at all.

I am certain that I view gift-giving too seriously. Even so, I am convinced that Ralph Waldo Emerson captured its true meaning more than a century ago:

“Next to things of necessity, the rule for a gift . . . is that we might convey to some person that which properly belonged to his character, and was associated with him in thought. But our tokens of compliment and love are for the most part barbarous. Rings and other jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts.

“The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me. Therefore the poet brings a poem; the shepherd, his lamb; the farmer, corn; the miner, a gem; the sailor, a coral and shells; the painter, his picture; the girl, a handkerchief of her own sewing. This is right and pleasing, for it restores society in so far to its primary basis, when a man’s biography is conveyed in his gift . . .”

Is Emerson asking too much of us? Should we, especially during the Christmas season, think more seriously about our motives for giving? Should we measure our feelings with greater care when we receive? If the day marking the birth of the Christian savior is important enough to honor, should the rituals related to this day signify more than a grand celebration of materialism?

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.


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