…Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker!
There was a collective silence in the room broken when the sound of a very young voice stated, ‘That guy ain’t even got underpants on.’ The ice broke. The grandkids hooted and laughed. The adults tried to muffle their laughs.
Dad shook his head and told Raymond, ‘Take that damn thing off the table. Put it someplace where we can eat without having to look at it.’
Some of us began to clear the wrappings. Some began to take the plates from the pile and hand them out to be set in place. The little ones, declaring how hungry they were, moved to their chairs at the card table.
Mom hadn’t moved or uttered a sound since she had finally unwrapped her gift, and then she said, ‘Raymond’. Slow, dragging out the name softly at first and building into a shout, followed by sounds of angry crying. Everything stopped. The grandkids stopped laughing. The adults stopped getting the table. Raymond set the statue back on the table.
‘Six months! Six months,’ she said when she manged to speak. ‘Oh, I know you’ll love it, Mom. Six months he left me guess what it was. Six months waiting for that, that… I don’t even know what to call that damn thing
‘The guy in the store said it’s called The Thinker, Mom. It’s great art. A Frenchman made the original,’ Raymond told her.
‘Great art?’ she repeated. ‘Great art?
Now Mom was a small town farm girl who never went further than fifty miles from where she was born until she crossed the river into Wisconsin to watch me play in a high school football game. She had her own idea of what great art was. It was something that you would find in a church, or in a parochial school, or reproduced on a funeral home calendar. The only time she went in a museum was a high school field trip to the Natural Museum, a spooky building by the state capital, that had a real mummy in it. She never forgot the mummy. She never went into a museum again. Great art, humph.
‘A man without a stitch of clothing on…And he’s sitting on the pot.’
That observation got the grandkids laughing again. And some of the adults also.
Mom continued and everyone fell back into silence. ‘Two years,’ she sobbed, ‘Two years Raymond was gone. And, oh, how I missed him. Two years every night, on my knees praying he would be safe. Praying he wouldn’t get attacked by a polar bear or that the Commies wouldn’t bomb that radar place. Two years.’
‘Attacked by a polar bear,’ said the same young voice that mentioned the absence of underpants. ‘That’s scary.’
‘Two years and boy was I happy when he made it home from the service in one piece. And I was so happy even when he bought me a Christmas present way back in June. I figured it might be one of his tricks but I didn’t care. Then I thought maybe it wasn’t a trick. But I never thought it would be something like this. A naked guy…’
‘Sitting on the pot,’ the little voice helped his grandmother finish. ‘I’m hungry, Mommy. When can we eat?’
‘Oh, and another thing’, she said pointing her finger at her youngest, ‘You told me you bought it in a store on Seven Corners. There ain’t a store there. There’s only antique shops. Used things. Old used things. Couldn’t even buy me something new. Bought me something used.’
Raymond took the used statue into the living room and brought back another present, which he set down in front of Mom and asked her to open this present. He promised it was not a trick and it wasn’t used..
She unwrapped it down to the box it came in. It was a home-made ice cream maker. She didn’t cry but she pushed it away.
‘Now why would I ever want to turn a crank for a couple hours just to get a couple ice cube trays of flaky ice cream, when I can go to Huber’s store and buy any kind of ice cream I want. And probably cost less too. Home- made ice cream maker,’ she flicked her wrist to signal Raymond to take it away.’
Today the easiest way to give a present to a hard to please person is to give a them a gift card. Let them get their own gift. Not so in the 60’s. The idea of a piece of plastic with strange markings on it could be a substitute for cash or check was as far fetched as thinking there would ever be a contraption you could sit on the kitchen table and order anything from around the world. And the darn thing wouldn’t be connected to anything, not even a wall socket.
And Raymond had done the 60’s version of cash card. You give the hard- to- please a gift you know they won’t want, or even bother to open the box. You place the reciept in a sealed envelope with the name of the gift and the store where it was bought on top of the box. The recipient just takes it back to the store and redeems it for something they want. Oh, you could give cash or write a check but the money would just get mixed up with monies used for everyday expenses, not something special. Mom knew what Raymond had done. The sealed envelope was in plain sight on the top of the box. She just wanted another shot at him.
‘Mom,’ Raymond said, ‘Tomorrow I’ll bring you to Monkey Wards to exchange it for something cool. Okay?’
He did. She did and bought a blue flannel robe home. It cost more than what she returned and Raymond made up the difference. The robe became the mainstay of her everyday wardrobe.
The Thinker sat by the tree and we all believed that come the 6th of January, Epiphany, when the Christmas decorations were taken down, the statue would be thrown out with the tree. But not so. It sat there afterwards, a few feet away from the rocking chair where Mom fell asleep each night watching TV. Come summer when Mom wanted a cool breeze while she ironed clothes in the living room, she used the statue as a door stop for the front door.
And then one day it disappeared. Since the movie, The Christmas Story, was years from being made, Mom could not be accused of staging a variation of the accident used to get rid of the unwanted leg-lap.
‘I set up the ironing board and I must have not locked the legs because as soon as I put the iron on it, it took a nose dive and the iron flew off and smashed The Thinker’s head. Couldn’t glue it. Just small chunks and dust. Had Raymond throw it in the trash barrel when he came home.’
‘Did he feel bad about his gift being broken.’
‘Heck no,’ she said, ‘He couldn’t care less about it. The statue wasn’t the real gift. The trick he played was the gift he wanted to give me. Proof he’s still the same old Raymond we remembered. ’
And to paraphrase a show biz declaration:
And that’s an un-wrap, folks