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A Christmas Carole
by Richard Rupnarain

Most people welcome holidays and special occasions. And Balram Singh was no exception. But these days he finds himself in a state of angst rather than excitement on the eve of such occasions, especially the ones that honored wives and mothers. After twenty-five years of Valentines, Easters, Mother’s Days, Birthdays, and Christmases he was running bankrupt on gift ideas for his wife and that made him feel terrible.

In the early years of their marriage it was not so difficult to concoct good gift ideas but now his creative genius was in jeopardy of becoming banal and he began to wonder if he was destined to become like his friends. Like Gobinram, who gave his wife a check for twenty-five dollars for her birthday and told her she could get herself something from the flea market. Or Jaigobind, who after decrying the greediness of capitalist merchants for making up all kinds of holidays just to get his money, gave his wife a marble belna and roti board and said it would save her a lot of time and problems. "Must test it out and let me know," he said. And she did, that very night, on his head, after a vicious fight that stemmed from his insensibilities. Or heaven forbid that he should sink as low as Ganpat Ramsingh, who upon discovering his wife was upset because no one remembered her special day, incensed her further when he suggested that she should be grateful to be alive another year and that she is the one who should buy presents for others instead of expecting gifts from them.

What frightened him even more was that the younger Guyanese men who had migrated to North America were behaving in the same manner as their patriarchal ancestors. Such was Balgrim, the son of a jeweler from Stabroek who moved to Canada when he was three years old and who had been married just over three years to a young woman named Pushmattie who hailed from Clonbrook. When Balgrim dropped by that afternoon to return a pair of pliers Balram mentioned to him the dilemma he faced in trying to find Carole a gift for Christmas and was shocked at the young man's response.

"Look, bai," Balgrim replied, "them gal over here spoil bad. They watching Oprah and too many soap operas and they getting all these ideas! You mean to say that after all these years you have to give your wife a gift and tell her that you love her for her to know that you love her? When Pushmattie brings that stupidness to me and tell me that I don’t say I love her I say, ‘look around girl. I buy big house for you and you driving around in your own SUV, and I give you five children, and you asking me if I love you?"

"Well, my friend, you will soon learn that women want more than just the security of having material comforts," Balram replied. "They want constant assurance that you love them and those little gestures, like flowers, or a romantic email, a heartfelt conversation about things that matter, or a gift that requires thoughtfulness, give them such assurance.”

“To tell you the truth I don’t think they even know what they want! If you don’t have anything you think they will want to marry you even if you profess the greatest love? Remember what Ivy tell John in that Sparrow song?” He said, “We can't love without money.// We can't make love on hungry belly. //Johnny you'll be the only one I'm dreaming of. You're my turtledove.// But no money no love.”

Balram laughed. “Well, to a certain extent you are right. Women want a sense of material well-being but not as much as they desire constant affirmation and validation from their spouse. They want to know that you love them and that you appreciate the things they do for their family. We men on the other hand get ourselves preoccupied with work not just to provide for our families but often as an excuse to avoid intimacy with our families. We find ways creative of avoiding meaningful conversation with our wives and children, and work is the most justifiable of them all. I am doing this for you, we say, be thankful!”

“I spend time with my family. I drive the boys to soccer and pick them up from school sometimes.”

“But do you really know them? Do you know anything about their dreams or the challenges they face at school? Do you have a relationship with them where they feel comfortable to talk to you about their fears and frustrations? I think we Guyanese men have a problem expressing our feelings and so we think that others will not open up to us. Maybe we have been socialized to think that is not something macho men do. But I dare you to go home, look Pushmattie in the eyes and say, I love you. Spend some time with the kids, not just playing XBOX, but just talking about life, and I am sure you will be pleasantly surprised at what you will discover. Give them yourself for Christmas.”

“I don’t have a problem telling Pushmattie that I love her or spending time with the children. It is just that I don’t see the need for it. I do enough for them. Besides, I never heard my father saying to my mother, I love you, or saw him bringing her flowers or even once celebrating her birthday and, as far as I am concerned, they are happy together. The young people today walk around hand in hand and profess how much they love another and, before you know it, they are divorced. So what love got to do with it?"

“Well, maybe my relationship with Carole is different, not in the least because of my doing, but because she keeps reminding me that we need to invest in each other emotionally, because when the children leave home it will be just me and her, and the way we live then will be determined by how strong a relationship we nurture through the years."

"Me and Pushmattie gon be just fine. See you later, man! Merry Christmas!”

Balram watched him leave and felt sorry for him, even sorrier for his wife, but then again, many of the women had come to accept that that is the way things are and did not expect anything more from their husbands. But not Carole! She determined that her husband will not wind up like "them Guyanese coolie man" whose wives were chattels to serve them and wait on them hand-and-foot, but one who will learn to respect and honor all people, including women and marginalized groups, regardless of their gender, or social or economic status in life. And over the years she had been patient and relentless in her attempts to overwrite faulty conditioning that for him were natural truths and, now that he had seen the light, he felt almost ashamed at the way he used to think about women. But that was in the past, in the pre-Carole years, when he did not know any better. Now he was beginning to reap the fruits of investing in his marriage and the two of them, after twenty-five years, were still lovers and best friends.

Not that he had by any means attained perfection as a husband and partner. This year, for example, he remembered her birthday only the day before and then began to wonder what was wrong with him – how is it that he could not remember something as important as that, after twenty-five years? Was he that insensitive, that indifferent, that uncaring and that ungrateful? Thank God he did remember in time to get her a gift and save himself a black mark in her books. Well, not quite! Despite doing all he could to camouflage the near-miss birthday, buying an extra expensive cake, her favorite take-outs, an expensive Hallmark card, Chardonnay wine, her favorite perfume and consciously made every effort to remain calm – to hide the anxiety of the near-miss, and to ensure she did not hear him mumbling prayers of thanksgiving to the good Lord – still she was not fooled. When he gave her the card that morning she looked him straight in the eyes, smiled and said, "You almost forgot my birthday, didn't you?" And before he could sink any lower she grabbed him and kissed him and said, "Thank you, darling. I love you!"

But how did she know? He wondered about it as he lay in bed that night. Intuition perhaps. Women see through us. They read our eyes. They know when we are not listening to them even when we are looking at them. They know when we are bluffing even when we appear sincere. They know when we do something hurriedly even though we appear calm and deliberate. They just have this sixth sense.

Well, Christmas was once again around the corner and this time, with the near disaster that he survived with her birthday Balram decided to go the extra mile, as if to make amends to his guilty conscience, to secure the best gifts for his wife and children.

Buying gifts for the children was a walk in the park. There was always an abundance of toys and gifts for children, though the inventory for teenagers was not as bountiful. Nevertheless, he knew what they wanted and got that out of the way early in December so that he could concentrate on getting her the best gift he could afford.

A full five days before Christmas he had completed his shopping and felt as though he had won a war. This was the first time he had ever actually put thought and planning into Christmas shopping and he felt satisfied. He could now enjoy the days leading up to Christmas rather then being stressed out on last minute shopping and becoming frantic upon discovering that the shelves were empty of all the good stuff and then being forced into buying gifts out of desperation.

In fact, he felt he had gone one better than Carole as she was still busy hunting the malls and power-centers for gifts for him and the children. At least that is what she told him although he very much doubted it, as she never believed in last minute shopping. She would scour the shops just prior to Christmas but only for stocking stuffers and for reduced merchandise, like Christmas decorations and wrapping paper – things that she could use in the future.

His early victory celebration came to abrupt end when on Christmas Eve he opened her closet door and saw the pile of gifts already wrapped neatly lying on the floor. Nevertheless, he was satisfied that at least he had won a battle within himself, being able to plan and execute a program that had eluded him for years. He was able to complete his shopping in time, with thoughtfulness, with care, and without stress and anxiety. That for him was a psychological victory. At least for now, this time around, he had not won but he hadn't lost either. In matters of the heart he was closing the gap on his wife.

That night he and the children lazed around the house, careful not to disarrange the myriad of decorations and colored lights that lined the stairways and framed the windows and doors. The house looked like one from a fairy-tale land. Lights were everywhere, and so were hollies, and angels and mistletoes and poinsettias. A train track encircled the base of the Christmas tree and a little red and green electric train continued to make its dizzying rounds as the conductor waved rhythmically from his cabin. A small, lighted village set up near to the train track boasted a church, bowling alley, ski hill, and manger scene. It had its own activities with carolers signing yuletide songs in the street, congregants leaving a just concluded service at the church, and little children skating on a magnetic rink. Meticulously set in cotton wool, with pines and streetlights, the village took one look back to the time when life was simple and when pleasures were inexpensive.

Everyone had already completed their gift-wrapping and the children were already in their festive pajamas, huddled in front of the TV watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas for the hundredth time. Balram sat with them until Carole summoned his assistance. “Hon, I need your help,” she called out, not asking him if he wanted to see the show but taking it for granted that what she was doing was more important.

That Christmas, as all other Christmases, they were having turkey and its associated trappings, curried duck with dhal puri, baked ham layered with pineapple slices, tossed salad with devilled eggs, low alcohol wine, chicken chow mien and vermicelli. They were also having the added pleasure of dining at the rarely used dining table and using otherwise untouchable fine china and crystal ware. It was a meal to die for and naturally everyone anticipated Christmas dinner like salivating Chihuahuas.

Carole passed him a large enamel basin with flour, poured in unbeaten eggs, tossed in two blocks of butter, some sugar, and almond essence and asked him to beat the mixture until not a grain of sugar could be felt by her ultra sensitive fingers. Then she returned to her chopping board where with the dexterity of a butcher she began to carve the duck into bite sized pieces. He watched her at work and was amazed at her ability to multi-task. She appeared to be doing her work on some sort of automatic pilot as though she was pre-programmed with a batch file of instructions. One minute she was removing innards from the duck, next she leaves the kitchen and adjusts a holly on the door that only she saw was not perfectly vertical, then she returns to the duck and belts out instructions to the kids about something that they had neglected to do.

She was preparing for Christmas day with the fervor and carefulness of a young wife who knew her mother was visiting and wanted to impress her with her culinary skills. But she was not expecting her mother, or any family or friends. All the energy, and preparations, and decorations, and cleaning, and painting, and food were for her immediate family – just the four of them. She lived for them and bore them continually in her thoughts each and every moment of the day. If ever she seemed lost in thought and Balram asked what she was thinking about it was almost always about one of their kids. She sought their happiness as if it were hers and would not cease in her strivings to help them back to wholeness. She studied the dynamics of relationships, brushed up on family systems, researched issues affecting teenagers and married couples, ploughed through old sociology books and lecture notes she used in University, all in her quest for a functional family. And, based on the observations and compliments intermittently thrown her way by those not too insecure to admit their own shortcomings she appeared to be getting closer to her objective.

“What’s on your mind?” he asked, hands aching from the incessant beating of the cake mixture.

“Oh, nothing, just thinking that I didn’t get you anything for Christmas,” she replied.

“I know you are just kidding. I happen to look into your closet after I saw the lights on and noticed all the gifts you had wrapped sitting on the floor.”

“Oh, those! Those are for the children. I really did not know what to get you and next thing I know the time went by and I was out of time.”

Balram did not believe her as she had done this before just to outwit him and, when Christmas morning arrived and they all began to open their gifts, she would wait until the end and then surprise him with some expensive item he wanted but would never buy for himself. And he would feel bad that he did not spend the time and money on getting her something as thoughtful and maybe even more expensive. There was no worse feeling than receiving an expensive gift in return for a cheap one and he had all too frequently experienced that feeling and, for that reason, determined that it was not going to happen this Christmas!

How could she do better than the cache he had secured for her this Christmas? After much Googling on the Internet he had found and secured her rare fragrant scented perfume. He had gotten her pieces of jewelry, silk pajamas with matching slippers, and various items she used regularly at work and home. He had gone over the top this time and was anxious to see the outcome, to see her expression come Christmas morning when she realizes that for the first time since they were married she was finally outdone.

The children retired to bed earlier than usual, as if hoping that sleep will shorten the wait for Christmas morning when they could open their presents, and he followed shortly after. It seemed he had hardly closed his eyes when he was awakened by the sound of clanging pots and pans coming from the kitchen area. He wiped his eyes and squinted across the room to the large digital display on the clock radio. It was 5:45 AM He was alone in bed. Carole had already started on Christmas breakfast. He felt bad to close his eyes for a few minutes more knowing fully well that he may sleep for another three hours and then he would rise and feel even worse knowing he slept while she labored. So he got up, threw on a robe and swaggered down to the kitchen.

"Hi, good morning, merry Christmas," he said and then kissed her lightly on the cheek.

"Merry Christmas, hon," she replied, "There is fresh tea in the pot. Help yourself!"

"Is there anything I can do to help with breakfast?"

"No, not really, I am just about finished. Actually, there is something you can do. Just set the table and rouse the kids."

Fifteen minutes later they were all at the breakfast table and, save for Carole, they were just nibbling anxiously at a slice of toast as though they were on the run for some important business, which they were, their destination being the pile of gifts under the tree. Parents watched with glee as the children unwrapped their gifts and kept high-fiving each other with passionate slaps that said, "Got it!" Then Balram watched with anticipation as Carole unwrapped her gifts, one by one, and stacked them in a neat pile beside her in the sofa. With each gift she expressed her delight followed by question, how much did you pay for this?

Then it was his turn to open his gifts. His pile was smaller than the others but that he did not mind. He felt bad when he had more gifts than the others. This time, however, he did not get any surprises. His gifts were all basic necessities.

After everyone had packed away or, in the case of the children, had become engrossed with their presents, it was time for lunch. The table was royally spread, with hardly any room for cutlery and they, after a prayer of thanksgiving and sharing of new year's resolutions, they began to fare on the sumptuous harvest, unhurriedly, enjoying each other's company, sharing experiences, recalling funny and sometimes embarrassing moments and, of course, contemplating the future. Then Balram's daughter brought up the issue of gifts.

"So, Tony," she said to her brother, "did you like your gifts?" she asked.

"Yes!" he replied, "love them all, the sweat shirts, the watch, and most of all the DVD player for my car. Now I can keep myself occupied on those long trips. And what about you?"

"Well, I knew what I was getting because I picked them out myself. So, yes, I am happy. What about you mom? I see dad went overboard this year with that perfume and silk pajamas."

"Yes, I must say your dad surprised me this year. Thank you, love," she replied.

"And you, dad, did you get the perfect gift?" his son asked.

Balram swallowed hard. Time froze and it seemed that in just a few seconds his entire life passed before him. He saw himself before he met Carole. He was lost, depressed, on the verge of moral and spiritual bankruptcy, inevitably bound for a life of licentiousness and possibly a premature end. But she had saved him, reformed him and transformed him into a kinder and gentler person. He was now less mean-spirited and more empathic to the marginalized, less judgmental and more sympathetic to the human plight. She had become so integral to his existence and completeness that her absence for a few days left his home and heart empty, and he would wander around aimlessly until her return. She was his best friend, his missing rib, his confidante and the incarnation of all that he lacked. His friends complained that they were bored with their spouses. But not him! Not after a quarter of a century. He loved to get away with her to coffee shops, restaurants and on long drives, not because he loved coffee or food or touring but because he loved her company. She made him comfortable. He could ask her any question or tell her what was on his mind without fear of repercussions. She always had a response, and it was never judgmental or critical of his person, but always full of insight as though she had researched the matter. And she made him look good, not just in attire, but in perception. He was bigger and wiser and smarter and more capable than he really was because she magnified him, whether it was because it was the way she saw him or the way she wanted him to see himself he did not know and did not want to ask. Instead, he saw those affirmations as targets to strive for, as potential to be released, and as challenges to become a fully realized being.

She had not only given him children but had also raised them with moral values and ethical uprightness rarely seen among their contemporaries. They had grown a strong sense of self, a holy reverence for sacred things, deep respect for all humans and, most of all, great love for one another. She loved her children passionately, never curry-favoring one above the other, affirming them daily and, as a result, never had to deal with the common problem of sibling rivalries. She had decorated her home with warmth and peace and had made it a haven of rest that everyone looked forward to after a hard day at work or school. She worked frantically every day, as though she was an angel in disguise, commissioned from heaven with a mission to make one human family complete, and time was running out.

He watched her pick at the Caesar salad and the delight on her face as the children complimented her on the tastiness of the meal, and he thought about her, the difference she made in his life, the greatly revered mother she was to their children, and he realized that she was the truly perfect gift, to him, to them, and to countless other lives. The sound of his daughter’s voice snapped him out of the hypnotic trance that the spell of her life had cast over him.

“Dad, Tony asked you a question! Did you get what you wanted for Christmas?”

"Oh, sorry, honey! Yes, son!" he stuttered, his eyes still locked unto Carole’s, "Indeed, I love my gift. It is the perfect gift! Merry Christmas kids! Merry Christmas Carole!"

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