The Best Christmas Present Ever
Like many children, Christmas was my favorite day of the year, aside from birthdays. Because that’s when I got stuff—lots of it. Toys, games and, of course, the obligatory clothes. I didn’t realize how fortunate I was to receive such Christmas bounty—it just came from Santa and later, I realized, from my mother acting as Santa.
My mother was in charge of Christmas at our house, from the buying of presents to the food. She did it all. My brothers and I got almost all the stuff we asked for, within reason. We weren’t rich by any means, but certainly comfortably middle class. We knew not to ask for things out of reach, like puppies, televisions, cars, or our own phones in our rooms—we did not exchange extravagant gifts in our house.
Except for one year: 1975, when I was 15.
My relationship with my dad was…complicated. I didn’t see him very often because he wasn’t around very much. The man worked six days a week. He was the manager of a music store by day and a sought-after trumpet player by night and on weekends. He busted his ass providing for us, as did my mother at her state job. They were children during the Great Depression and their work ethic was ironclad.
I inherited the music gene from my dad and at 14 started playing guitar. I learned by playing along with the radio and the albums I bought. At that time, singer/songwriters were popular, so I played along with Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel, and many others. I practiced hours every day. Hearing Janis Ian for the first time was revelatory. But I hit a wall with my playing—and I knew that to take the next leap forward I needed lessons.
Cue my dad—music lessons of all types, including guitar, were offered at his store. I had taken private piano lessons from the age of six, but I stopped in my early teens because it was just…boring. I played the violin in the school orchestra for a few years. But the guitar was freeing—I could play just about anything I heard in my head. I had started writing my own songs and began to sing as well.
So I started lessons with a cool guy at my dad’s store. He taught me different fingerpicking styles and how to play barre chords. The guitar I had was a hand-me-down from my older brother—a nylon string classical. I needed a steel-string acoustic guitar in order to play what I heard in my head and on my stereo.
Of course, there were a bazillion acoustic guitars at my dad’s store. So, naturally, I played each of them one by one before each weekly lesson. One fall afternoon, I found The One. She was a Martin 0-18. Martin guitars were still mostly hand-made at the time. Translation—way out of my price range. Oh, but the sound! The rich lows, the bright highs—and she fit my body perfectly. She was beautiful, too. Mahogany body, Sitka spruce top, rosewood fretboard, shining silver Grover tuning pegs. My dream guitar. Plus, my musical shero (and not-so-secret crush), Janis Ian, played an 0-18.
I played this guitar before every weekly lesson in the store and fell more in love each time. I even visited her sometimes on weekends. But one December day I showed up for my lesson and she was gone. I looked everywhere but she was nowhere to be found. It never occurred to me that, well, she was for sale…. My dad came over and told me in a gentle voice that someone had bought her. Devastated and jealous, I tried to put on a good face because it was, after all, my dad’s business to sell musical instruments. It was Christmastime, the store’s biggest time of year.
I went on with my lessons and tried to forget about her. I kept playing the classical and continued practicing every day.
Soon enough it was Christmas day. At 15, I no longer woke my parents up at the crack of dawn to open presents. I hadn’t asked for much that year—albums, books, a new winter coat. Yawn. But in the back, way under the tree, was a large, wrapped present with a big bow. Dad said it had my name on it. Reaching for it—it was heavy. I pulled some of the wrapping paper off, and saw a silver-colored “Mar” on a blue heavy plastic—was that a guitar case? I whipped the present up and around and ripped off the rest of the paper. OMG—it was her! I was overcome and started to cry. It really was my 0-18. I looked over my shoulder and yes, my dad was beaming. My mother snapped a photo. In it, I’m in my pink flannel pajamas, with a red face, swollen eyes, and a huge grin, cradling my beautiful guitar. My best Christmas present. Ever. ▼
Beth Shockley is a public affairs specialist and a former editor of Letters.