“Don’t say I never did anything for you,” my father announced, knocking his snow boots together at the heels like a Nazi on parade. It was the best way to get the frozen buildup off without shaking the questionable structure of our little wooden porch. Our cabin in the Canadian Laurentians was as simple thirty years after its completion as it was when built by the hand of one of the Habitant peasants. We all treated the porch with the care its sagging structure deserved.
“Just what did you do for me?” my sister asked.
“I found a Christmas present for you.” My father grinned, slapping the snow from his wool cap, deerskin mittens and sealskin jacket.
“Like…what?” My sister was ever the cagey one. A march through the new snow at dusk in the thirty-below-zero temperatures of the Canadian winter didn’t usually produce anything she’d be interested in. She was not a lover of sport or nature, so even at the age of fifteen her preference was for the glow produced by a visit to the bar and its inhabitants, rather than a hike outdoors.
“I met an attractive young man on my way back from the Chalet des Voyageurs, so I invited him to come here for a drink before dinner. He’s going to be your Christmas present.”
My sister looked delighted. “How old?” she asked. Any male was fair game as far as she was concerned. She had a voracious appetite, but those younger than she were the only exception. I have my standards, she used to say; and I always leave younger men alone; which I doubted was true but was too weak to challenge.
“Oh, he’s about thirty, I suppose,” my father said, hanging his outdoor gear on a peg in the entry. The clothes were already beginning to melt and drip on the floor next to the coal stove.
“Thirty!” I shrieked. “He’s old enough to be her father, Daddy.”
“Not exactly.” He looked a little dubious for a minute, forcing me to realize he was in fact already past his fifties.
“Well, almost,” I added, lamely.
“Perfect!” My sister lit up like a tree ornament. “Thanks, Daddy. What’s his name?”
“Can’t remember,” my father said on his way to run a hot bath. There wouldn’t be any hot water for half an hour afterwards, so I berated myself for having been too lazy to jump into one myself while he was still out snowshoeing. He’d often explained that a fifty-year-old body needed soaking much more than a ten-year-old one did after skiing. It disarmed me completely when he didn’t play the ‘respect for your elders’ card but pointed out the detriment of his age instead, so I never argued about the hot water again.
“Let’s just call him The Christmas Present,” Daddy said, looking at me sideways with his naughty sparkle giving his intent away. He disappeared into the bathroom like a triumphant actor who’s just delivered the soliloquy of his career. Avoiding the ham’s predilection for over-play, his wink in my direction was the only tip-off to the fun he was having. My sister flounced off happily to prepare herself for The Christmas Present’s arrival, and I stood alone in the hall looking after both of them, wondering how my father got away with it.
The Christmas Present arrived later for cocktails and was a hit with my sister. He wasn’t really very interesting or good-looking, but seemed to be the only man younger than forty but older than fifteen at the mountain that week. My sister’s standards moved quickly to include him as her favorite gift, and my father was delighted to get credit for something he hadn’t really planned. My mother and I were skeptical, taking The Christmas Present’s age into account, but the damage was already done so we both raised our eyebrows in the other’s direction and shrugged. It seemed to me as if my father had been a little cavalier with my sister’s feelings. He forgot his involvement in the whole incident almost immediately and moved on to other schemes; but I was left with a dilemma to consider. Watching the fun my father had, I always wondered where that fine line was drawn between a joyful tease and unpleasant taunt. Was it just the combination of my father’s outgoing personality and my sister’s self-absorption that made the play work? She didn’t know what he was up to and didn’t care anyway, and he knew it? No one was hurt and in fact, everyone enjoyed the game? Was that it?
Later that week, I found myself screeching with the agony of frostbite. Extracted from their sub-zero ski boot refrigerators to finally wake up indoors, I wept over my toes and how the numbness had been better than the feeling. “Never,” my father said. “Being numb is being dead. Feeling and being completely aware of it is always better, no matter how much it hurts.” Obviously this was not a man who was careless about feelings. I wondered if maybe that was the answer to the question of The Christmas Present. My father’s pulse was always tuned to the frequencies around him. All those nuances of understanding, both of himself and of my sister, offered a stimulus he just couldn’t resist. Perhaps that’s why The Christmas Present turned out to be as much fun for him to give as it was for my sister to receive. I never quite figured it out.