The Christmas Present

Copyright © 1993, 2011 William Mego

"Honestly, Jason, you don't think she's in trouble, do you?" Helen Meyer looked up from the big cardboard box in which she was rummaging.

"No. No, I don't think so," said Jason. "she's just been doing some project down at the library. It's something Mrs. Novak thought up, said it was like a library club." Jason Meyer and his book were settled into a the older of two soft leather chairs that faced the fireplace. He didn't enjoy trimming the tree, so he would usually read while his wife dug the old ornaments out of their equally ancient newspaper wrappings.

Jessica was late again. For the last four months, two or three times per week, she had been returning home just before supper, acting tired and somewhat crabby. At first Jason thought that she had simply found some new friends, even a boyfriend perhaps, although Jessica usually acted as though she could barely tolerate the boys in her class. However, the regularity of her absences eventually began to worry him.

Jessica said that she was spending this time at the library, an explanation that had at first seemed reasonable because she was known to share her father's love of classic novels, and the glimpse into a slightly more elegant civilization they contained. Since she never lied, Jason was at first reluctant to pursue it any further.

However, his concern eventually got the better of him, and he had called the librarian, who was also one of Jessica's teachers, and a family friend. Although Mrs. Novak had been unusually abrupt, she assured Jason that his daughter was indeed engaged in an activity at the library, and that he shouldn't be at all concerned.

Helen Meyer had finally reached the bottom of the box, to the last layer of ornaments. These were the most familiar, and she could identify each by the vague outlines that revealed its shape through the yellowed newsprint. She picked up one of the oldest, and gently removed it from the paper. It was one she had made on a bleak December afternoon when she was in the second grade. She had named it "Pappy." It did not actually resemble her father, although that had been her intent at the time.

In fact, someone seeing it for the first time would have been hard pressed to identify it as to species, much less as an individual. But Pappy always found his way to a special hidden niche on the tree, from which vantage he had watched his daughter Helen enjoy Christmas for a great many years.

Both parents felt that familiar wash of relief when Jessica came in the kitchen door. She was all legs and hair, with a nose that seemed determined to grow to adult size all by itself whether the body followed or not, and dark eyes that were unsettling to people unaccustomed to her unusually direct manner.

Jessica walked into the living room. She didn't take off her coat, and didn't bother to brush the snow from her hair. "Daddy," she announced, "I did something weird again."

Living with Jessica, thought her father, made all other aspects of life seem dreary and uneventful. He removed his glasses, and raised his eyebrows, but couldn't immediately think of anything to say.

"I've got your Christmas present," she said, "but I have to give it to you now. I got you one too Mom," she added, turning toward her mother, "but it's regular." Jessica turned back toward her father. "Your present isn't," she said, "and it's outside now. Can I bring it in?"

Jason just nodded, and the girl disappeared back into the kitchen. Leaning forward, he gave his wife a puzzled look. She looked back with an expression of amusement. "Lucky you," she said.

When Jessica reappeared, she was followed by a large, bearded, middle aged man. Jason rose from his chair as the two approached. "Dad, Mom," said the girl, "this is Mr. McGruder."

At the Meyers' invitation, the man occupied the other leather chair. When he spoke, his voice had the rough sound of a man who has worked many years outside, in the cold. "Mr. Meyer," he began, "Jessica tells me that I am your Christmas present." Jason just blinked. "What it is," the man continued, "is that I think that she wanted to prove something to you. You see, for the last four months, Jessica here has been working real hard, teaching me to read."

McGruder pulled a small book from his pocket. "But right up front," he said, "we had a deal. If she could get me to pass my test before the first of the year, I would come read to you, to prove that she did a good job."

Helen Meyer started to speak, but McGruder interrupted her. "I'm not embarrassed to do it, Mrs. Meyer," he said. "Embarrassment is being a grown man who has to ask his kids what the newspaper says. No, I'm not embarrassed to read." And with that he opened the book and began to read from it, slowly but steadily. From long practice, Jessica stood behind him, looking studiously over his shoulder, making sure he got it right.

Later, Jessica sat on the sofa, her long legs folded under her, and her head on her father's shoulder. "Jess, I have to ask you," he said, "where did you ever get the idea to do that?"

"Off TV," she answered. "There was this show about what parents want out of their kids. The guy said that it was to learn to take responsibility, do things for other people, and stick to something until it's finished. He said that seeing a kid grow up like that was the best present a parent could get. It was a lot harder than I figured, but I thought you would be proud of me."

Helen Meyer looked at the two of them sitting together. How that strange wonderful girl loved her Daddy, she thought. Jessica was like no other. She was so funny, so bright, so determined, so self-assured. She was everything Helen had ever hoped for, the treasure of her life. As she reached down and picked up Pappy, her eyes filled with tears. And there, kneeling behind the tree, in the flickering light of the fire, Helen Meyer bowed her head and offered a silent prayer of thanks.