A Christmas present, delayed
Having a sister is like having a best friend you can’t get rid of. You know whatever you do, they’ll still be there.
I was ten the summer my dad helped me buy my first ten-speed bicycle from Father Allen. I put up $60 of my grass cutting and snow shovelling money, and my dad put up the other half. I would pay him back in instalments over the next six months. Although it was the kind of bike you’d expect a priest to have (dull silver, slightly worn, no baseball cards in the spokes), it was my ticket to the adult world.
I spent that summer and autumn riding as if to put Greg LeMond to shame. My sister Liz, a prisoner of her five-speed and banana seat, never had a chance to keep up. We’d always been stuck with hand-me-downs from our older brothers and sisters, a few of whom had notoriously bad taste in bikes. Now, however, I was able to ride to every corner of town, sometimes even as far as the beach. In those heady days before one acquires a driver’s license, a good bike is a magic carpet.
Just before the Christmas deadline to pay my dad back, we were hit with several snowstorms. This allowed me to shovel enough driveways to pay off my debt. I was now officially a bike owner; it was a feeling unlike any other.
It’s important to note that while my mom and dad were fantastic parents, they couldn’t be trusted with the awesome responsibility of buying appropriate Christmas presents. They were too quick to pass off gloves, sneakers, and shirts as “presents.” And while we might say a prayer over the Baby Jesus in the manger on our way to church, He seemed too busy at this time of year to leave presents under the tree. We outsourced our requests for the really good presents to Santa.
For her family of seven kids, my mom developed a system in which she decorated the outside of seven large boxes with different types of wallpaper. We each had our own box that contained six or so presents, and we’d close our eyes and reach in to grab one when it was our turn. This cut down on hours of wrapping and satisfied my dad’s Naval sense of order.
The downside was we opened one present at a time so everyone could “appreciate” each other’s gifts. Neither Liz nor I “appreciated” this system because we went last. After the obligatory “oohs” and “aahs,” each of us held up our present for family review, a process that averaged about five minutes or so. This meant Liz and I had to wait about forty-five minutes between each present, so patience was in short supply—when one of us pulled out a belt or package of underwear, we seethed the entire time.
My dad, a master showman, liked to keep a few of Santa’s better presents for the end. On that fateful Christmas morning, he gave me a used portable record player. I was ecstatic—I was finally untethered from the “family stereo” that all of us fought over.
Alas, my elation was short-lived after my dad called my sister to the kitchen. “We have one more gift for you,” he said as he opened the door that led to the garage. There, on the steps, stood a brand new ten-speed Schwinn. I didn’t hear her screams of joy—all I could hear was the sputtering engine of the lawnmower, the endless scraping of the metal snow shovel on concrete. I’d endured far too many hours of indentured servitude for my used bike; that Santa could give Liz this sparkling machine less than a week later was a sign that he was losing his touch. Could Mrs. Claus be putting something in his food?
I slumped onto the floor. My ten-speed chariot had turned into a pumpkin in the time it took my sister to hop on the gleaming leather seat.
“Let’s go for a ride, Rob!” she sang, my dad holding the bike upright as she put her feet on the pedals.
“Too snowy to ride,” I muttered, pushing the record player farther away from me. The symbolism seemed lost on my dad.
I seethed for the rest of the day, then the rest of the week. My dad was not someone to whom we complained about presents (not if we ever wanted to see another, anyway). Santa always seemed to lose interest after Christmas, rarely accepting returns or trade-ins. That left the Baby Jesus, but He wasn’t answering my prayers—I could tell because Liz’s bike had yet to crumble into a pile of rust flakes.
After a few weeks of watching me pout, my dad finally pulled me aside. “Everything okay?”
“It’s not fair,” I whined. “I worked so hard for my bike, and it’s not even new. Then Liz gets a brand new bike as soon as I make the final payment. She didn’t have to do anything for it.”
My dad smiled. “She didn’t have to do anything for it because it’s not really for her,” he said, and then left the room.
What did that mean? I didn’t want her bike—it had the girly bar that sloped down to the ground and a flowery white basket on the handlebars. I could turn it in for a new set of action figures, I figured, but she’d been on it every day since Christmas—no way they’d let me take it back now. I eventually got over it, chalking it up to elf error (the naughty and nice list can be cumbersome).
By spring Liz and I were riding all over town together now that she could keep up. Sure, I’d lose her on the steep slopes, but I always let her catch up when we went downhill. Initially, the youngest children in a large family form a bond out of necessity—older siblings can be taxing, and there are only so many locked doors one can hide behind. Sometimes, you need someone else in the foxhole with you.
As we grew, Liz and I became true friends. We biked down to swim at the local pool, then put in seven miles to take the free town tennis lessons together. We planned secret parties when my parents went on trips and played a game of “Who can leave less gas in the tank” when we finally got our drivers’ licenses. I relied on her to put names to faces when we were at parties, and she treated my best friends as her personal dating service. We ended up at the same college, and even graduated the same year.
Still, I wasn’t smart enough to figure out what my dad meant until years later. That brand new bike was not a gift for Liz—it was a gift for me. He’d given me the gift of my sister’s company, the ability to stay together rather than drift apart in the face of my ability to travel. He gave me my best friend.
It’s a gift I’ve treasured every day since.
—Robert F. Walsh