Grandpa's Greatest Gift




Soft voices wake me this cold December morning. “Is it time yet, Dad? Is it time?” Outside our darkened window a white quilt blankets the ground. Inside three excited children are pulling at my covers, hopping on bare feet, and calling through the darkness: “Come on, Dad, come on.”

     Ah, yes. Now I remember. It is Christmas day. It is also ridiculously early.

     Down the hall we go, coming to a halt before five stockings, concealing delectable and forbidden treasures.

     “What about we eat ‘em?” Jeffrey is three and speaks for the others.

     “Not yet,” I reply. “Wait ‘til Mommy wakes up,” and “Ssshhh.”

     We plug in the Christmas tree lights, then sit quietly on the couch. And while the world sleeps I tell them a tale from my childhood. A tale of Christmas past, largely true,  and translated here for grownups...



Once a year we children searched the skies for Grandpa. He always touched down during the Christmas season, so we would wait in the airport, our noses pressed against the frozen glass in painful anticipation. Then, sure enough, the silver bird would appear, cutting through the clouds just for us.

     Our tradition at this point was to slap each other’s hands and jump up and down until our heads hurt. And with good reason: Grandpa always brought a gallon of genuine maple syrup and a brown leather suitcase heavy with brightly-wrapped packages (mostly for my sister).

     We admired Grandpa for other reasons, too. For one thing, he was the only one I knew who drank cough syrup straight from the bottle, oblivious to its high alcoholic content. And you couldn’t help but admire his head, too. It was as smooth as polished brass—only it grew less hair. My brother Tim claimed the barber merely glued a stainless steel bowl to Grandpa’s head one day and said, “That will be $1.50,” but whatever the case, we couldn’t get enough of running our hands over it and gazing at our reflections.

     We also loved Grandpa for his size. He was...well...a big man, poundage-wise. Grandpa Callaway could never be found far from a box of chocolates, and the years had charged him for it. There were definite advantages to Grandpa’s girth, however. It was perfect to hide behind during certain games we’d play, and when he laughed--which was often--he put his whole body into it. Perhaps best of all, the five of us found room on Grandpa’s lap simultaneously to hear the Christmas story year after year.

     But this Christmas, it looked like Grandpa’s plane had arrived without him. This was cause for concern, particularly for us young ones who couldn’t help but wonder where maple syrup went which didn’t come down. Of course, we weren’t concerned only with maple syrup. No, we were far more sensitive than that. We wondered where the presents were. So we waited and we watched.

     Other grandpas arrived to the hugs and kisses of kids like us. But not Grandpa Callaway.

     Then Dad noticed someone off to one side. Could it be? He was the right size. He had the right face. But he also had hair.

     “GRANDPA!” we yelled.

     “What in the wor...?” said Dad.

     “A wig...” replied Mom, her hand over her mouth, “...sort of.”

     Moments later a restroom mirror told Grandpa why he had escaped our notice. The wig was a good one. Expensive gray with streaks of black. But it was on sideways, the black streaking sideways, the Made In Canada tag sloping neatly over his left ear. “Oh say,” said Grandpa, over and over. “Oh say.”

     But the news would not get better. Grandpa’s luggage, it seemed, had not made the journey with him. “OH SSSAY!” said Grandpa, through his false teeth.

     As the ensuing commotion died down, I began to piece the implications together. No maple syrup. No brightly-wrapped presents. No chocolates maybe. And then the strangest thing happened. I realized it didn’t matter.

     Christmas would come without maple syrup. Christmas would come without presents. Games would be played. Songs would be sung. Stories would be told. And, much more, Grandpa would be there. He had brought us the best gift of all: himself.

     Of course, Grandpa wasn’t taking it quite so well. As we climbed into the car, I heard him mutter, “Oh say.” And I watched him reach for the cough syrup.



“Didn’t you get anything at all?” asks Stephen.

     “Yes, we did. But I don’t remember much about the presents. I just remember Grandpa.”

     “Did he tell you lots of stories?”

     “Oh yes. He especially loved to read us the Christmas story—of the Light that came blazing into the world, landing in a most unusual place, just for us. Of the Son of God, in a barn. And he told us that God could have given us anything He wanted. But He gave us the best gift of all: Himself. That’s what I hope you remember when you think of Christmas.”

     Above us, suspended from red string, is a row of Christmas cards. In the very center hangs my favorite:


          “If our greatest need had been information,

               God would have sent us an educator.

          If our greatest need had been technology,

               God would have sent us a scientist.

          If our greatest need had been money,

               God would have sent us an economist.

          If our greatest need had been pleasure,

               God would have sent us an entertainer.

          But our greatest need was forgiveness,

               so God sent us a Savior!”


     In the glow of the Christmas tree, Rachael and Stephen sit quietly, in wonder. “Tell it again, Daddy,” they say. 

     Jeffrey sits quietly, looking at the stockings, and wondering about something else. “What about we eat ‘em,” he says.  


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