Little Details12/24/08

The greatest gift

Dec. 24, 2008

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

Every December, along with twinkly lights, ornaments steeped in sentimentality and assorted angels, we awaken our stash of holiday books from their off-season slumber. Charles Dickens, Clement C. Moore, Ruth Robbins, Peter Collington, Leo Buscaglia, Langston Hughes and Dr. Seuss eagerly vie for attention beneath our Christmas tree. Reading stories aloud is a holiday tradition.

One of my favorite tales is O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.” For folks who may be unfamiliar, it’s a story about a young, poor couple — Della and Jim — living in an $8 dollar a week walk-up who lack money to buy each other Christmas gifts. Della opts to sell her finest possession — her bounteous, flowing, chestnut hair — to purchase a chain for her husband’s prized pocket watch, one he inherited from his father and grandfather. Jim, unbeknownst to Della, pawns his watch to buy tortoise-shell hair combs Della admired though a store window for months. Imagine the surprise — and tears — when each offers up his and her gift to the other.

I thought of O. Henry’s story when reading this year’s Christmas letter from my husband’s uncle and aunt in Ohio. Art and Eula, married over 50 years, are in their early 80s. They’re retired federal employees who, through prudent living and healthy pensions, have realized a long, comfortable retirement. They never had children. I remember them travelling to Massachusetts to attend our wedding. My husband’s parents were deceased so it was especially appreciated when aunts and uncles made the effort to come.

We trade holiday letters with Art and Eula every Christmas. I always look forward to the notes, penned by Art, tucked into their cards. Art is a huge reader and, not surprisingly, someone who enjoys writing. Art’s letters document their lives in Ohio, travels to Florida and comment, just a little, on the politics of the day. (I think he’s a Republican.)

This year’s letter is different. Eula’s health took a turn in the spring and she is now bedridden.

“I’ve elected myself as her caregiver since I know she’ll get better attention than some nursing home,” Art writes. “Must be doing a good job since she doesn’t complain or get depressed especially since she’s confined to one room. The condo has been decorated for Christmas and the cards have all been sent. Now is time to relax — I’ve got a library of books to keep myself entertained thru the winter.”

Art’s letter brought me right back to O. Henry’s story of Della and Jim. The greatest gift we can give to our loved ones at Christmas — and throughout the year — is unselfish, unconditional love. Art is doing this for Eula in his quiet, uncomplaining sort of way. Art’s letter serves as a gentle reminder in this season of mixed messages to stay focused on what really matters.

My husband and I opted to follow up our holiday letter to Art and Eula with a small Christmas parcel. Eula is clearly not well enough to bake this holiday season. Art doesn’t appear to be the baking type. He’s also occupied with Eula’s care. We mixed and measured flour, eggs, ginger, cinnamon and cloves for homemade gingerbread, which to me evokes the aromas of the season. We added samplings of homemade caramel corn and chocolate-dipped pretzels. Finally, we tucked in a copy of O. Henry’s story, “The Gift of the Magi,” with a note about how we read the story aloud as a family each Christmas. It’s a small gesture that sends our love and greetings from faraway Vermont. Art and Eula’s story is one I hope to carry in my heart for a long time.

O. Henry ends his tale with the following observation about Della and Jim:

“… And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.”

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at or