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Holiday Guide Feature

The Gifts That Count

The presents that have stayed in our writers' thoughts

By Raymond Cummings, Lauren Bender, Charles Cohen, Alex Epstein and John Barry | Posted 11/18/2009

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Zelda's Revenge

By John Barry


Deanna Staffo

Two years ago, I got a worrystone for Christmas.

I was sitting around the Christmas tree, going through the annual ceremony of unwrapping presents from old friends of my parents. For many years there had been a small group of random people who had known me (and liked my parents) while I was still in diapers. When I was much younger, they used send me gifts regularly, weeks in advance of Christmas, with cards enclosed. Over the four decades of my life, that select group grew smaller and smaller. I rarely acknowledged their gifts and never sent them presents. I assume that most of them--at least the ones who are still alive--are a little resentful. I don't blame them. As a young man, I never cared much about presents in the first place. It was like somebody buying you a beer. It's just an invitation to buy them a beer back, or risk a long, simmering period of bitterness.

But there was one friend of my parents who never stopped sending presents. And she was the one who sent me the worrystone. She was a second- or third-tier friend of the family, from my parents' generation. I'm calling her "Zelda," to avoid getting in trouble, but her real name wasn't Zelda. I never knew what she saw in me, but ever since I was 4, or maybe even 2, she had sent me Christmas presents. And she kept it up, without fail, for four decades.

I remember the presents Zelda sent me as a child. Most of them were Newbery Award-winning children's books (she was a children's librarian at a public school). Even as a child, I wasn't much of a fan of children's books. I tended to browse through my parents' books, like Fear of Flying ("Mom, what does 'zipless fuck' mean?") or Ball Four (where I learned what "beaver chasing" meant), but the children's books with awards kept coming, well into my second decade. Sometimes I ridiculed her gifts. Sometimes I defaced them. And once, when I was 14, I got in a long and bitter argument with her about underlining and scribbling comments in books. She thought it was a desecration. I thought it was a little like pissing in a bathtub: It was my own business, and I wouldn't want her to take a bath with me anyway.

I don't think she really liked me, either. I don't blame her. But the presents kept coming. Even when the children's book phase was indisputably over, she would send me books that could be read by children as well as adults who appreciated a good child's book. Most of them involved architecture. Even that dried up, however. Then, she started sending boxes of homemade fruitcake. That resonated a little like the children's books: I didn't like fruitcake, and she probably knew it, too, but fruitcake was good for me, at least in theory. They were about the size and weight of bricks, painstakingly wrapped, and I don't know how they tasted, because I usually left them in my refrigerator, waiting for nature to take its course. I never thanked her for them, either in person, or by card.

But they kept coming. I don't think it was necessarily out of any charitable feeling for me. Nor was it out of a sense of obligation. I wasn't born in the era of chivalry, but I'm assuming that even in the old days, no one was expected to send unrequited gifts to their friends' children into middle age. But the fourth decade came and went, and still the 8-ounce bricks of tightly packed grain, fruit, nuts, and whatever, kept coming. I never touched the stuff, but I became more thoughtful in my advancing age. By the time I hit 40, I didn't have a lot of presents to unwrap, and I rarely had a tree to unwrap them under, so I tried to figure out what she saw in me.

Then, it hit me. Zelda wanted to keep sending me Christmas presents until she reached a nice round number--something like 40. I would know, and she would know, that I had received 40 presents, without the slightest acknowledgment or even a hand-written card in return. Then, she could take that number to the grave with her. She was a practicing Unitarian, so maybe she also assumed that instead of going to hell (which I probably deserved), I would wind up in the same indeterminate afterlife that she did. The first thing I would realize once I arrived there was that I had not written her a single thank-you note. There is nothing you can do about that in the afterlife, either. No purgation, no blanket condemnation. You just live with it.

It was a paranoid theory, I know, and kind of nasty.

Then, on my 43rd Christmas, I started opening my presents. I didn't have many of them, so it didn't take me long. But the accustomed brick of fruitcake wasn't to be found. Instead, there was a small, matchbox-sized gift, with a small card attached. The card was signed in a slightly trembling hand. The gift itself was a small gray stone, packaged in a box, imported, apparently, from Ireland. It was a worrystone.

I didn't really get it. There was a lot of fine print, in a piece of paper neatly folded into the box, but I threw it away. It had something to do with worrying, obviously, and it had been bought, en masse, during a recent trip to Tralee, or some place along the white, windswept beaches of Ireland.

At Christmas dinner with my parents, I pulled that puny, zipless stone out of my pocket and joked a little about what seemed to be an odd little gift. My mother looked it over studiously, as though it was a piece of forensic evidence. "I think," she said, "that Zelda has given up." I wasn't sure what she was talking about. You mean she'd given up on life? No, at 77 she was still doing pretty well. But she had given up sending presents to children of her best friends. I remarked that it was about time.

But then, I went home with the worrystone. I started to feel it in my pocket, the smooth, eminently skippable geologic deformity. I considered throwing it into the Patapsco, where it would probably have a better home. But it stayed in my pocket.

The worrystone, at least according to the outside of the box, is supposed to let you "rub all your worries away." I tried it. That wasn't what was happening, though.  Global warming was still a big problem. I wasn't earning a lot of money. My funeral would be poorly attended. I mean why wouldn't it be? I hadn't sent a single Christmas card, much less a present, in a decade. And now I had gotten old enough that even my parents' oldest friends, the ones who had felt some essential obligation, pounded in by their childhoods in the Great Depression, had stopped giving me presents. My whole generation had lived in a swamp of perpetual adolescence. I had signed a few paltry cards, some snarky, some written by my wife, but I doubt the feeble scratch of my signature would do much to my credit.

I could go on with that list, but I won't. Somehow, it had all been consolidated in a small, freckled, gray stone, 1 inch in diameter, a stone that would outlast me.

I put it in my sock drawer. But it kept returning. Then, I left it on my desk. It would peek up, through the papers. I considered throwing it out my window, or burying it in the backyard. But that wouldn't do a damn thing. It was indestructible. I could conceivably swallow it, but then . . . no, I would have to deal with it later. Send it back? Tell her it wasn't working? I toyed with the idea, but I didn't have her address, and she wasn't on Facebook. I came up with another plan. I would cook her a brick of fruitcake and place the stone inside it, and she would gnaw on it, and chip her remaining . . .

No. That would be small-minded. I dropped it in a coffee cup, the one filled with pens that don't work, and that's where it remains. And I haven't received a present, or even a proactive acknowledgment of my existence, since then.  

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Holiday Guide Feature archives

More Stories

Stuffed (11/18/2009)
The 2009 City Paper Holiday Guide

The Wish List (11/18/2009)
Gifts we wish we could afford

Present Tense (11/19/2008)
City Paper's 2008 Holiday Guide

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