I remember it all too well, Christmas of 1977. My family was stationed in Plattsburgh, New York which during winter feels like the North Pole. Being raised in a military family, “extra money” was nonexistent. My parents were on a very tight budget but somehow, they seemed to always manage to provide us with the things we needed, not necessarily the things we wanted.
That year, snow fell hard and we woke up to a very white Christmas. I remember the excitement I felt thinking something big was coming. I couldn’t wait to open my presents that morning because I knew—without a doubt– I was on the nice list.
My parents did a good job wrapping things my brother and I needed and making them presents. We always got new socks, maybe a jacket, new underwear, some gloves or hat and other basics. And then there would be like 3 or 4 toys. Not too much but enough that we felt like the day was wonderful. We opened things that year like a new bop bag, walkie talkies with a 3-foot range, the charged up Evil Knievel stunt bike, and the board game Connect Four. Instead of video games, we each got a Water Game that occupied us for hours trying to push a stream of air bubbles to move the tiny basketball into the hoop or play Tic Tac Toe. Life was simple, and life was good.
I remember that Christmas because my parents had splurged. They had a big gift for each of us and when we finished opening our presents, they made us close our eyes and led us to the garage blindfolded. The anticipation was killing us, we couldn’t imagine what they could have gotten us. Was it a new air hockey table, the highly desired Green Machine or perhaps a big pogo stick to bounce all over the driveway with? My parents could hardly contain their excitement and we felt the same–Christmas joy washed over all of us as we were standing there, eyes covered, in front of the gift I just knew was going to make this the best Christmas ever.
On the count of three my parents told us to take off our blindfolds. There, before us, stood two of the ugliest bikes you have ever seen. Not just ugly, but fugly. Like ugly to the max.
Both bikes were brown, like poop-brown, with my brothers being a little darker than the lovely light shade of brown I was blessed to get. The color was atrocious and seemed ironic because my mom prefers cheery, bright colors. Brown is the last color she would have picked, unless it the bikes were on sale, which they were. They were big and clunky and no one on my street had a bike that looked like our new treasures. Truly, they were one of a kind, but not in a good way.
My brother looked at me and I looked at him. And with big smiles, we told our parents that we loved the bikes. They were overjoyed and there was no way we would tell them anything different. Knowing that my dad grew up so poor and never had a new bike in his life, we appreciated things differently. He was living a childhood dream through us and there was no way we were going to be a buzzkill. Not to mention, there was no Target or quick place to run to exchange the bike even if we had spoken up and said that we didn’t like them. After my parent’s initial reaction of shock (and a possible knock on our head), they would have proceeded to tell us that we were fortunate to get new bikes and if we didn’t want them, they would be happy to give them to someone else who would appreciate them. End of story.
We knew our parents well enough to keep our mouths shut and pretended to like the bikes we affectionately referred to as Big Brown and Little Brown. We rode those two dreadful looking bikes all over the military base we lived on and we learned to be grateful for where they took us. Was it what we wanted? Not in the slightest. There were way cooler bikes and ours ranked near the bottom when kids compared bikes. No one ever asked to borrow our bikes or to trade bikes for the day. I went to bed many nights praying someone would steal my bike, so I would have to get a new one, but no one ever did. Thanks thieves.
That bike became the best Christmas gift and I have never forgotten that present or that day. It taught me more about life than any fabulous gift. Little Brown was a teacher and I was its student. I learned humility (“Why is your bike so ugly”), compassion (“Sorry you have to ride that thing”), creativity (“Maybe if I add handle bar tassels and a basket no one will see how ugly it is”) and acceptance (“Yes, it really is my bike”). Those lessons transcended from childhood into adult life.
Life gives us Little Browns all the time, only in different forms like a first car, a teacher, roommate, relationships, or job. If there is one predictable thing in this life, it’s that you will be disappointed somehow. No one gets through life without disappointment. Rarely does life bring us exactly what we want. If we are to make be successful, we must learn to accept and adjust. It’s not about settling, it’s about appreciation for what you have and gratitude for those people around us.
Getting a gift you don’t like isn’t a bad thing. It’s a life lesson. There is no rule that says we must love everything we get. In fact, most of the stuff we get is just nice or good. Few “things” cause us to be truly excited or giddy. Learning to show gratitude with a hug or a “thank you” is respectful, regardless if you like the gift. I learned how to appreciate something I wasn’t thrilled about receiving and to find appreciation for the thought, not the gift. My parents worked hard to get me Little Brown, and even though it wasn’t what I wanted, I knew it was more than many others had. I also learned that if I wanted a different bike, I had the ability to save up my own money and get it. No one was going to hand me what I wanted, it was up to me to work for it.
Gift giving should be about effort, not execution. Sentiment should trump stuff. Thought should over shadow things. It’s never really about the gift anyways. If someone has taken the time to think about you, at the very least they should feel warmth and appreciation. While we don’t always get what we want, gratitude can be found in anything. Gifts that come from the heart are far more valuable than those that come from the wallet.
What has been a Little Brown in your life? When did you experience disappointment and what did you learn from it?
Happy Holidays. May the true spirit of Christmas bring you peace, joy, and blessings.