The Christmas of 1991, Bob and I were living together in an oceanfront condo in Melbourne Beach which we couldn’t afford. But did you hear me say oceanfront? We weren’t yet married, and although I was 27 years old, I wasn’t yet an adult.
We didn’t have much money, but we had more than we do now because KIDS. I was working for the Vero Beach Press-Journal, and scheduled to work Christmas Day. Bob had been a copy editor at Florida Today, though he had been recently laid off. He quickly was appointed editor at a local weekly paper, which paid him a pittance. It was only my second Christmas away from my family in New Orleans.
On Christmas Eve, alone in our little condo, Bob and I opened presents. I can’t remember what I gave him, but I vividly remember what he gave me. It was a thin, delicate, gold chain bracelet, as light as a feather on my skin. I looked at it dubiously, and told him I loved it. But it didn’t seem enough.
A few minutes later, I opened a gift from my dad. It was, weirdly, a thick, heavy, gold chain bracelet, the kind of jewelry that picks up light and gleams from across the room. I put it on and made googly-eyes at it. I could see Bob’s face fall; I felt slightly justified for making him feel awful. Later, I hounded him about how much he had paid for the one gift he had given me. I cried when he admitted it had only cost $97, and that he had purchased it at J.C. Penney’s. I knew the bracelet from my dad had cost hundreds, and had come from an exclusive New Orleans jeweler. We spend the night fighting about money and worth and love.
The next day, I was assigned to visit some local homeless shelters and do a story about people volunteering to serve the needy on Christmas Day. Bob came with me; it was a glorious 70 degrees, so we rode in his fake jeep – a white Suzuki Samarai with no radio and a partial roof top from Sears. After I wrote my article and my shift was done, we had dinner with friends. The irony of visiting homeless shelters after complaining that my bracelet hadn’t cost enough was lost on me.
I thought a lot about my reaction to Bob’s gift, and tried to figure out what was wrong with me. I knew I had been selfish and materialistic; I understood how small I had made my boyfriend feel. He had literally spent all he had on this bracelet, and it literally wasn’t enough for me.
More than two decades passed. I think about the bracelets every year at this time. This will be our 26th Christmas together, and now we rarely exchange presents. Last year I gave him some socks, and I bought myself a iPhone fanny pack for him to give to me. His real present for his wife is setting up the coffeemaker each night before bed, and not caring when I bring home dogs. My gift to him is supporting his CrossFit addiction, and making sure we always have protein powder in the house. Also, I bring him coffee in bed.
I’m not proud of how I once equated money with love, but it wasn’t deliberate. My decision to stop doing that, however, was purposeful and conscious, and it might never have come without the stark, vivid contrast between a thin little bracelet from J.C. Penney’s and thick gold chain from Boudreaux’s.
That was my first real Christmas with the man who would become my husband. I’m so lucky it wasn’t my last.