I read the email twice. Three times. It didn’t change. It wasn’t a prank.
Which meant I really did have three and a half days of vacation I hadn’t known about.
It didn’t seem possible. Not this year, anyway. “Lucky” 2013 had been the Year of the Minor Family Emergency for our house, after all. It was like a dark version of Old McDonald’s Farm: here a flu, there a strain, everywhere a … ah, you got the idea.
With each micro-crisis, another couple of days off got eaten up. Soon sick time was gone and the rest was going, like some survivor in a post-apocalyptic movie who throws Louis XIV furniture on the fire just to hold off a blizzard.
Finally, I’d counted off the last of my time. Or thought I had, anyway. But there it was.
Part of me gave three cheers for reporter math skills.
The rest reached back to grade school. And the year of the Christmas Map.
It had been a pretty successful holiday that year, all things considered. My sisters and I had carried off our usual plot to wake Grandma on Christmas morning, who then helped us softly sing off-kilter carols as we waited for Mom and Dad:
While shepherds washed their socks by night, all seated round the tub …
Followed quickly by that seasonal favorite:
Good King Wensceslas looked out, in his pink pajamas …
The day dawned into family and fun and books and games and the sorts of childhood memories you want to have on Dec. 25. But as we started to break up the morning revelry, Dad took a glance at the tree and then at me.
“I think you missed one.”
I looked again.
Long and skinny, it looked like a forgotten roll of wrapping paper tucked out of the way. A few quick rips revealed the truth: it was a map. One of those great Rand McNally-style wall maps of the U.S., with bright colors and thick sprinklings of small towns, perfect for journeys of the imagination.
It hadn’t been on any list or in any letter to Santa. But the surprise made it all the more fun, an unexpected present sneaking in the door.
And I’d almost missed it.
It’s easy to do, and not just with the ones that look like gift-wrap. I think many of us count stresses more readily than blessings these days – the stacked-up highway traffic, the cough that takes three weeks to leave, the bill that’s waiting still one more week to get paid. We all know the list and it starts to get deadening after a while, to the nerves and the soul.
But then there are the other moments. The ones hidden behind the tree.
For me, this year, a lot of those gifts have been wrapped in people. Like the friend who unexpectedly appeared at the grocery store, in time to help change a flat tire. Or the one who sent us a puzzle book in the mail one day, just because. Or even the online acquaintance who’s never met me but sent a shoutout during the flood to be sure I was OK.
Unexpected gifts, all of them.
Wonderful to give. Even better to be, especially at this time of year. After all, what is this season about if not a present that no one was expecting?
I wonder whose gift I can be.
I suppose I’ve got an extra three and a half days to figure it out.