A HOOSIER CHRISTMAS, PART II OF IV
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They knew what I wanted. It was no secret. They had asked, and I had told them. They had no children of their own and were marvelous about giving their nieces and nephews what we asked for. Besides that, they owned a general store, which meant that whatever we wanted was probably in stock. The only possible glitch was that I had reached the age of "practical gifts," underwear and flannel shirts and blue jeans and four-buckle galoshes. Those they had in great supply in the long, glass-fronted cases in the dry goods section of the store. Not being parents, however, they were likely to give a practical gift or two to appease our parents and then go ahead and give us what we asked for as well. They were the relatives of every child's dream. My brother and sisters and cousins and I were blessed not only with Uncle Ted and Aunt Nora, but with dozens--literally--of grandparents and aunts and uncles whose generosity was just like theirs. Uncle Ted and Aunt Nora, however, were the ones I was counting on for the basketball.
Most of the relatives sent their gifts or brought them by in the days before Christmas. They were piled under the Christmas tree, awaiting the grand opening on Christmas morning. Uncle Ted and Aunt Nora lived only a few miles away, however, so they liked to bring their gifts by in person, to share in the excitement as we ripped open the packages while our mother tried to get us to slit the paper neatly so it could be folded and stored and used again next year. Ours was not their only stop, so we were never sure exactly when they would come.
So it was early afternoon on that particular Christmas day before they arrived. I was already dressed in a practical gift or two and just hanging around in the front yard, in the uncommonly warm winter sun, waiting for them. I could hear their blue Ford, the one with the trunk big enough to hold gifts for all the basketball players in Gibson County, before I could see it. When it topped the rise in the road, it was all I could do to keep from jumping up and down. They pulled into the driveway, and as they got out of the car, they were right in line with the new iron rim my father had already mounted on the side of our barn. It was a perfect picture for Christmas day.
By the time they got the trunk open, the rest of the family was there, and we all helped carry in the wondrous array of happy packages. Mother was sure they must be tired by now and should have some coffee and Christmas treats before anything else, but Uncle Ted and Aunt Nora knew that they were not there to drink coffee, at least not yet. They started handing out packages, and we children opened them as fast as we got them. Although Uncle Ted had been a high school basketball star himself, in the days when he was the high point man in games that ended in scores of six to four--literal “barn burners,” since they really played in a barn--they had no idea how much having my own basketball meant to me. Consequently there was no special drama as they presented that particular square box to me; it was just one in a line of presents they were handing out.
I suppose that was what saved me. They were still handing out gifts, and everyone else was opening gifts, each person concentrating on his or her task.
I ripped the paper from the box and saw the picture and the word, in bold black letters on an orange background. No mistaking what this was! It did not say "stupendous spheroid," but that was all right. It said basketball; that was good enough. I gently lifted up the hinged lid of the box and looked down at what lay in a bed of thin tissue papers. My wish had come true. I had a basketball.
It was not, however, the basketball I had pictured. All the boys I knew had vulcanized rubber basketballs with pebble grains and deep, black lines between the sections. They were a bright reddish-brown in color. They were easy to grip. They bounced high and true, at least on a smooth surface. But the ball in the box before me was an old-fashioned basketball, with a big, black bladder, and an inch-long inflating stem sticking out, and thin, light tan sections sewn together with white thread, so that some of the sections were depressed and some were upraised; it looked like a crazy-quilt. It was a basketball for little kids, or old men, maybe.
I hoped my face did not betray my disappointment. I don't think anyone noticed. There were still more presents to open. I set the ball aside and opened up packages of underwear and socks. I was happy to see them. They gave me something to do while I tried to make sense out of what had happened. I had received the gift that I wanted more than anything in the world, but it was not what I wanted. What was I going to do now?
Each of us got to hold up our gifts and thank Uncle Ted and Aunt Nora for them. I was truly thankful. They were good people, as good as any I would ever know, and they had done me the honor of listening to my desire and doing their best to fulfill it. They had probably been tremendously pleased that they had something on their store shelves that I wanted, probably felt that it had been waiting there for a long time just for me, and they were glad to give it. I was glad to have it, too, because it was a symbol of their love and a symbol of belonging to this big, generous family that made me feel at home in a world that often tried to make poor kids feel out of place. But it wasn't the "magical moon" of the sports columns.
"Well, if you'll excuse me, I'd like to go outside to play with my new basketball," I said.
Everyone smiled. On snowy Christmas days, kids were supposed to go outside to play with new sleds. On sunny Christmas days, they were supposed to go outside to play with new basketballs. I needed to do the proper thing for the day. I hoped no one could notice my lack of enthusiasm.
I went to the barnyard. I threw the ball up toward the rim. The light breeze caught it and veered it off toward the chicken house. I ran after it, picked it up, and started to dribble back toward the barn. On the first bounce the ball hit with the long inflating valve down and bounced crazily away toward the coal shed. I tried again, being sure the valve was up. The ball hit the ground flush and bounced back up about six inches. I couldn't shoot it and I couldn't dribble it.
"If I had a real ball," I said to it, squeezing it as hard as I could, "you'd be in the morgue."
PART 3 OF 4 TOMORROW