Life Notes: Outside the (Gift) Box
Letters to my grandchildren are the real gift

Hanukkah is a delightful holiday, steeped in history and meaning. But then there’s this tradition of gift-giving on each night of the festival that is sweet – but also challenging.

Seven grandchildren. Eight days of Hanukkah. One gift per child per day. You do the math.

No way was I going there. Not when our grandchildren are blessed with loving families who see to their needs, and then some. So I’ve devised a quite different holiday plan.

I get each grandchild a purchased gift. One. It may be as trifling as a small game or book or, depending on recent birthday gift history, something a bit more major. It is never of such magnitude that I worry about the object being injured, maimed or destroyed. Mind you, four of the seven are boys who lack the gentle touch. Then I work on what I’ve come to think of as my “real” gift.

Because Hanukkah is about miracles, and because these seven wondrous creatures are just that, I devote myself to this challenge: I spend hours, sometimes weeks, preparing a letter to each child, even (in the past) the ones who were pre-verbal, to say nothing of pre-literate.

I sit at my computer and “talk” to it about Sam or Hannah, Jonah or Zay, Danny or Emily and, the family caboose, Carly. I chronicle who they are at this moment in their emerging histories. I catalogue conversations we’ve had, stories they’ve told me, names of their friends, their adored toys and stuffed animals, endearing habits, bedtime rituals, school anecdotes, even favorite articles of clothing. I illustrate my ramblings with pictures, a motivation for photographing these adored ones at every opportunity and stage. And then I store it all away until Hanukkah arrives. By then, there’s a keen interest among this clan about what grandma will tell them – about themselves.

What does all of this have to do with Hanukkah? Nothing at all. And everything. Not now, but somewhere down the road, my grandchildren may understand why they didn’t get the mountain of gifts their pals may get from their grands. After some years, they have figured out why their grandmother asked them endless questions, and sometimes frantically scribbled down their answers on scraps of paper, eager to get every word.

In the beginning, my gift to these seven was obviously not what they might have expected. And because these are children exposed to the galloping gift frenzy of the season, they have shown and expressed disappointment in the past. And I got it. They wanted, in Hannah’s immortal words as spokesperson for the clan, “cool stuff” for this eight-day potential gift bonanza. And they’re not getting it.

I once heard Sam talking to a friend and comparing notes about the annual haul. His pal had gotten some video games and a pretty high-end cell phone from his grandparents. Sam was left to explain what he had gotten – or in this case, hadn’t.

He fumbled. He struggled to explain what he’s been told each year. Grandma is creating something special for him, and that when he and his cousins are older, they’ll have something even better than “cool stuff.” They’ll have memories, history, reminders of who they were at 2 and 5 and 8 and on and on.

Sam’s friend didn’t understand. Nor, I’m sure, did Sam then. He does now.

As the second-oldest grandson, a college graduate now who is working at his first real job, he has his past history with him, at least figuratively, in his tiny Manhattan apartment. The next installment is ready to be delivered.

Does he wish he’d been handed a snazzy sweater or tech device? A terrific computer accessory? I’m sure to some degree he does. But I think Sam was sincere when he thanked me with what may actually have been a tear in his eye last year. He even endured a smooch from me when I presented him with “Sam’s Story.”

This gift of my grandchildren’s lives, frozen in time, somehow seems perfectly right for Hanukkah, the season of history, hope and miracles.

December 2019
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