My Uncle Mike is my Godfather. Growing up, our family tradition was that, among extended family, only the Godparents provided Christmas gifts to the kids. For this, my Uncle Mike was also the Godfather. Of giving the best gifts.
(I must acknowledge here my Godmother, Aunt Carol, who also gave fantastic Christmas gifts. I truly lucked out in the Godparent gift department. Many a Christmas Day my younger sister bitterly lamented my good fortune while unwillingly wearing an ill-fitting sweatshirt with a bedazzled giraffe on it.)
There were two hallmarks of an Uncle Mike gift—unexpected and masculine. Regarding the former, they weren’t unexpected in that I didn’t expect to get a gift. Oh no, I definitely expected a gift. But it showed poor taste, apparently, to request a specific gift, something I discovered when I innocently asked my mom if I could make a Santa list and an Uncle Mike list. So my mind would race with the possibilities of what it could be, and I was always way off, and what he got me always seemed to be better than anything I had imagined.
Regarding the latter, there could never be any mistake that my gift from Uncle Mike would clearly identify me as a boy. He was in the same blue-collar, plumber/pipefitter trade as his brother-in-law, but while my dad had to toe the line and share billing with Santa (and, by that point, my dad must have been well aware of my manly inadequacies), Uncle Mike was free to indulge in purchasing strictly masculine gifts for his nephew. He got me my first Hess truck. There were Matchbox cars and train sets. He introduced me to baseball cards. If it were up to him, I’m pretty sure he would have been content to buy me a bottle of Old Spice cologne and a hacksaw every year. While these gifts inherently prevented me from having to share with my sisters, they also gave me a fleeting, false expectation that I may one day grow up to be an actual man, an idea I abandoned a long time ago.
In fact, by the early 90s, as I embarked on the awkward teenage years, it had become clear I was inept at anything that involved building stuff or exploring the intricacies of manly modes of transportation. The only shred of hope left was my love of sports. Especially basketball and baseball. Especially the Yankees. Especially their iconic first baseman, Don Mattingly.
I was sitting in my grandfather’s recliner—an unheard of risk that I somehow survived—that Christmas when Uncle Mike handed me my gift. I tried to open it as casually as a too-cool-for-school pre-teen could, but my excitement got the best of me. And it was warranted, as inside the box was an authentic Don Mattingly-signed baseball.
“WHO DID YOU KILL TO GET THIS?” was what I would have screamed had I been able to verbalize my emotions. Instead I guffawed like a doofus while simultaneously wondering if there was some mistake, if this was all real.
It was definitely real. As real as the ball that remains on a shelf in my home today.
But that wasn’t the best Christmas gift Uncle Mike ever gave me.
Last year, so many Christmases removed from him buying me my last gift, he sent a package in the mail. It was a video that featured, among many things, the Christmas scene described above.
Uncle Mike had converted all of his camcorder-taped Christmases to DVD, and there I was, in an ugly-as-sin, blue and white
Cosby cardigan opening my signed baseball. We watched as a family, and my
girls got to see me as a boy, their aunts as girls, their grandparents as young
parents, and a great-grandmother they were never able to meet.
Me? I got to indulge on a trip down memory lane, and experience once again the sheer joy of opening that gift. Fighting back nostalgic tears of joy while watching the video, it was the first gift Uncle Mike ever got me that didn’t make me feel like a much of a man. But that was quite alright. I abandoned that idea a long time ago.
Note: This column appears in the 12/18 issue of The Glendale Star and the 12/19 issue of the Peoria Times.