It was a normal December afternoon in the mid-1970s in Wichita. The wind was bone-chilling as usual, and the falling snow was not enough to cancel school.
On days like that, the mandatory walk home from school required careful planning. There was the direct route, always the parent-preferred, and the faster route that involved weaving in and out of backyards and crossing the dreaded one-way streets in Wichita.
This faster route was not without risk; there was the possibility of being spotted crossing three lanes of traffic by a well-meaning neighbor who would, of course, "do the right thing" by calling my parents.
On that day, I decided a faster route home would be worth any punishment if caught. Plus, I had lost my pair of mittens, and my hat was too small to help keep me warm.
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By the time I arrived home from school, my father's car was pulling into the driveway. My heart stopped, as I could not imagine being caught taking the shortcut home would warrant my father coming home early from work.
My father was a supervisor at an area meatpacking plant. I was not completely sure what he did, other than that he often worked the night shift.
I walked inside our house to find my mother knitting and our basset hound, Duffy, asleep at her feet. My mother was gifted when it came to knitting. She designed her own patterns, and this year's project was something she had always wanted to do, an afghan blanket.
My father entered from the back of the house and called out from the kitchen that he was home. Surprise ran across my mother's face when she heard his voice. She carefully put her pride and joy down and met my father in the kitchen.
I tried to hear their low voices and concluded one of the neighbors had broken parent protocol and gone directly to my father by calling him at work.
I walked as quietly as possible to my room. I slowly closed my door and waited for the inevitable to happen. Surprisingly, dinnertime came and went with no mention of the shortcut. I was really confused but was not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.
The weeks before Christmas passed without much fanfare. Our Christmas tree was up early that year, thanks to my father being home more than usual. I did not understand at the time why my mother did not seem happy to have my father home more. In fact, she seemed almost sad, and I noticed she had stopped working on her prized afghan blanket.
My family never went overboard for Christmas, so it was not uncommon to see only a few gifts under the tree. However, this year seemed different. We had a couple of gifts each, but each gift was wrapped beautifully with large bows and candy canes attached — obviously, the work of my mother. My excitement rose, as I assumed such splendor meant my three carefully wrapped presents were going to be something spectacular.
On Christmas morning, my brother and I tore open our presents with great anticipation. The beautiful wrappings were tossed with little regard, then silence. We looked at each other and could not believe what we were seeing. Both of us received a knitted hat, gloves and a scarf. Worthy gifts for maybe a birthday, but Christmas?
We looked at our parents, knowing better than to show any sign of disappointment. My mother had a smile on her face, and my father just sipped his coffee. My mother came over and wrapped the scarf around my neck and said, "Maybe now you will not need to take the shortcut home from school."
I was busted on Christmas Day.
As Christmas Day progressed into New Year's, I assumed my hat, gloves and scarf were my punishment for taking the shortcut home. It wasn't until several weeks later that I learned the reason my father came home early on the day I took the shortcut. He had been laid off from his job on that day.
It took me a little longer to find out and understand that my mother lovingly wrapped our gifts with extraordinary care that year because to her, inside each gift was a treasure — the makings of what was once her prized afghan blanket.
The reality was there was no money for gift giving that Christmas. My mother knew that by giving up something so dear to her in order to make something special for my brother and me, she was giving the true gift of Christmas.
My family and I shared many more Christmases together, but that Christmas in my home state of Kansas is the one I will always remember.
I took the shortcut home several times after that Christmas, but not because I was cold. I wore the hat and gloves until they no longer fit me, and the scarf lasted through my sophomore year of college.
I know everyone has a story like this — a story where you missed something important right in front of you and later learned how important that message was. My Christmas wish to everyone is: Take a moment and think about Christmas and gift giving. On that Christmas Day in Kansas, I learned that the actual giving of the gift was the real treasure.