... tis the season for shopping ...
In every family there is a person who challenges your ability to choose a good Christmas gift. In my
family it was Uncle Walter. The trouble was that we did not know one another very well.
Uncle Walter was the bachelor brother of my stepfather. We did not get introduced until I was seven years
old. Since he lived with his mother in South Portland, Maine, we only met on holidays. I have never seen
his house. Walter was a traveling salesman calling on small stores up and down the coast of Maine. He
would talk about being in little towns like Kittery and Freeport long before they were shopping meccas. He
joined the Masons so he would have a place to socialize as he set his schedule to coincide with their
delicious bean suppers.
Walter always loved a bargain. At Thanksgiving he would open his trunk to sacks and sacks of apples which
we could store in our underground storage closet. At Christmas it was potatoes, enough to feed our family
of seven all winter. He could make three cups of tea with one tea bag and be happy. During his off time at
home, Walter worked in a nearby service station pumping gas. He was paid in cash and would throw the
envelopes into a bureau drawer.
As Walter had little to spend money on, he began to invest in the stock market. Telephone stock attracted
him, which split and split over the years. He had early International Harvester stock as I found out when
I was in college and received a welcome check from him every so often. Walter had everything he needed and
didn’t really want anything he didn’t need.
My favorite part of Christmas had always been buying gifts for other people, trying to determine what they
would like to have even if they hadn’t thought of it yet. Many times I must have been very wrong, but
everyone was too polite to tell me. Uncle Walter was my particular challenge. One year pet rocks were
popular, but he had his choice of hundreds of rocks at the end his street, so I passed. But the year that
a Pet Gouda was around, I couldn’t resist. Walter did get a chuckle out of that – especially since he
could eat it. The gift of choice became either a pen or cheese both of which he seemed to like.
The year(1958)I took a course in oil painting I thought I had it. I found a picture of Portland Head Light
and set about copying it for Walter’s gift. I began in the spring so I would have lots of time. The
lighthouse itself was not too difficult, but the rocky coast was beyond me. So in the summer I took my
“masterpiece” to Gloucester and painted Massachusetts boulders under the Maine buildings. I was beginning
to like the painting. It was greatly enhanced by a wooden frame. My family was anticipating Walter
unwrapping the gift that I had labored over for so long.
Christmas Day came. The anticipation is so maddening and out of proportion that there is always plenty of
room for something to go wrong. But I was confidant that I had finally got the perfect gift for Uncle
Walter. The day was proceeding in its traditional way with opening of presents and special Swedish
coffeecake at breakfast. I could hardly wait for Walter’s gray Pontiac to arrive from Maine in the early
afternoon. Finally the moment arrived. He was opening my gift. The room was suddenly silent as everyone
waited for his reaction. And his words were, “Is this the kind you paint by numbers?”
December 6, 2013