the gifts you don’t keep

December 8th, 2017

Growing up, finances in our family were tight, so there were limits on Christmas. But one year we woke to a stack of gift boxes that seemed to appear from nowhere.

My father had been given a surprise Christmas bonus and spent it on presents for everyone. He was especially generous to my mother, who had always made do with less. The whole thing was like magic.

The next day my dad drove south for a job that would have him on the road for two weeks. The day after that there was a knock at the door and several members of our church came in to talk quietly with mom. After they left, she asked my sister and me to go for a drive with her. We ended up in the parking lot at Dairy Queen.

There she told us the truth about the bonus that wasn’t really a bonus. About the road trip that wasn’t really a road trip. About the money that had gone missing while my dad had been church treasurer. And that he was missing now. She told us this because she’d been given a chance to repay the theft and save us from further trouble. That meant that our Christmas gifts weren’t really gifts because we’d have to take them back.

I was 16. I got a part-time job and started saving money. At home, I mowed the grass and washed the car. From then on, I knew I couldn’t ask mom for anything because she didn’t have anything. But I always got by with what I had. Those are useful lessons to take into your life.

One day my father came back. When I was older, I forgave him, because forgiveness frees you from the past and its shadows. Neither he nor my mom ever talked about those events again. I rarely remember them myself. Still, I wonder what good he thought could come from such a false display. Whatever he got from us that morning—redemption, gratitude, or what he thought was love, it cost us in shame.

When this time of year comes around, I feel unprepared. I don’t like thinking about the holidays before, and I don’t like thinking about what happens after. But that’s my problem to let go of.

Sometimes people give you a gift that isn’t a gift at all, but a debt—a box of bottomless want, tied in a ribbon of pain. Those are the gifts you don’t keep.


  1. A truthful sharing during this dicey season. Thank you ~ you’ve done it again. <3

    Comment by Cathlyne — December 8, 2017 @ 12:40 pm

  2. This left me speechless.

    Comment by Ranya — December 8, 2017 @ 12:49 pm

  3. It is interesting that in the Christmas story, there is a guiding light and 3 gifts, most have focused on the gifts when we would, as always, be better off focusing on the light.

    I can’t imagine the trauma/suffering and am awed by your true gift, that of forgiveness. So much grace in your story.

    Comment by MJ — December 8, 2017 @ 4:08 pm

  4. I really appreciate this insight about the light.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — December 8, 2017 @ 8:20 pm

  5. Ah – a glimpse of truth in this holiday season. Thank you for the lesson.

    Comment by holly — December 8, 2017 @ 8:03 pm

  6. I appreciate this post more than I can express. And I also appreciate MJ’s comment about the light.

    Comment by Kathryn — December 9, 2017 @ 10:46 am

  7. What a complex and moving story. How difficult it must have been for your father to love you all and yet to feel that he fell short in giving you what he wanted to give to you.
    It is the disease of our time to confuse giving love with giving things or giving money, it creates the heartbreaking impression that those who cannot give in the material sense cannot truly love.
    While in reality our most precious heartfelt experiences are seldomly material.

    Comment by Sim — December 10, 2017 @ 5:37 am

  8. Because forgiveness frees you from the past and its shadows…thank you for this reminder

    Comment by Trish — December 10, 2017 @ 8:33 am

  9. This is my kind of Christmas story. That sounds weird, I know, because there is a lot of heartache in it. But it makes me feel less alone in my own feelings about the time of year, and I consider that a gift. Thank you for your generosity and wisdom, Maezen. XOClare

    Comment by Clare — December 24, 2017 @ 4:33 am

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