A big boy at Christmas

by Brian Clarey

He’s practically vibrating in the seat next to me, this kid. Just 9 years old, recently made privy to the Big Christmas Secret, and he’s beside himself on this, his first Christmas mission on the other side.

I told him the truth a couple weeks ago, how Christmas morning in our house is not, in fact, orchestrated by some fat, red-suited snowbird and his team of tiny toymakers and flying, horned mammals but is actually the product of much scrimping, planning and secretive deliberation on the part of his mother and me, that his older brother has been on it for a couple years, and that if his little sister finds out we will know damn well who told her.

“I can keep a secret,” he said to me before we left the house, a statement we both knew to be the most bald-faced of lies, coming as it was from our family’s loudest mouth, enthusiastic messenger of breaking household news from punishment details to upcoming dinner menus. When confronted with this fact, he was reassuring.

“I can keep the big ones,” he said to me. Now, in the car, on the last real Saturday before Christmas, he’s experiencing conspiratorial bliss as we tick the names off our list. And I realize that his role as house crier makes him uniquely suited for this shopping trip.

“She wants a big-girl scooter,” he says of his little sister. His brother, he knows, loves video games and Legos, in that order. And though he is unaware that his Christmas needs are already covered this year, this beautiful kid makes no mention of the things on his own list, which I know includes a starter pack for the newest collectible craze and, perhaps, a drum set. His generosity of spirit is exactly what I need right now.

I do this every year: grumble about the holiday — the traffic, the crowds, the crass consumerism and phony spirituality — and then actually go out to mindlessly answer the commercial clarion call by dropping a few hard-earned dollars on those closest to me. And every year it makes me feel… better. Better about plowing through our savings in service to the culture, better about the year that has passed and the one that is to come, better about the relationships I’ve tended, better about the frantic hustle-bustle as the shopping days wind down, better about the whole damn thing.

I’m riding this emotional high when I suggest to my son that we do something I am generally loath to do this time of year: venture into the belly of the beast.

“You wanna go to Toys R Us?” I ask him.

He totally does.

The trip goes against my better judgment. When I was a kid on Long Island, you couldn’t get near the Toys R Us from Thanksgiving until a couple days after New Years, the parking lot clogged with hun-like ravagers looking for hot toys, the aisles like a shopping-cart demolition derby, the checkout lines longer than the one at the gates of hell.

I steel myself for battle, and ready my son for the same.

“Stay close to me when we get inside,” I say as I traverse the back roads, trying to avoid what I know will be a ferocious bottleneck near the store’s entrance on High Point Road.

When we get to the store and find the parking lot maybe a third full, we are almost disappointed.

We cruise through the big-kid toys and find exactly what we’re looking for on big brother’s list — I decline to mention it here because I know he is a sporadic reader of his father’s columns. And for his little sister, who could not care less about her father’s creative output or how he makes a living, my boy finds something that I didn’t even know she wanted, and because it’s adorned with the logos of her current favorite series of toys, I know she will freak when she sees it.

Usually it’s at the point of sale when I have my annual yuletide epiphany. Today I realize I started to get in the Christmas spirit as soon as I got into the car with my youngest son, a very good boy in his own right who I hope will love his presents we so carefully chose.

We load the presents in the trunk to make sure the other kids will not see them early, like they did a few years ago when they all three found our secret Christmas stash and we told them the toys were for orphans. In the car driving towards home, I suggest we make one more stop.

“How about a little Walmart action?” I ask him.

“It’s going to be crazy crowded,” he says. “Yes, it is,” I say. He bounces again in his seat, excited as a puppy who’s just discovered bacon.

“Okay,” he says. “Let’s go!”