Christmas Illustrated

As a general rule, it's the thought that counts. There are limits to this.
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My family's epic and enviable thoughtfulness at Christmas—one part woodworking, one part album-making, one part Red Sox tickets, one part sentimentality—puts me in a perennial funk on December 23rds. It's too late by now to match them, to patch together an iMovie chronicling my father's early life, or quilt my mom a steering wheel cover using cloth from my old baby blanket, or secure for my older brother Stephen that walk-on part on Game of Thrones he really wants.

That anxiety began in earnest when I was 15 and attempted my first late-in-the-season thoughtful gift in hopes of, somehow, reaching their level of generosity. Not an ornament or a terrible mystery novel, this time. This thoughtful gift was going to be a life-changing, rim-rattling slam-dunk, even though it sprang from the foggy-headed desperation of a late-night December 23rd. I wouldn’t even have to buy anything.

Stephen loves sports, I figured, especially the Red Sox. So, hoping to produce a meaningful, personal, conveniently interest-based, hug-inducing, memory-clinching, kudos-generating, doorknob-punch-preventing, Christ-delighting whopper of a gift, I took out the Scotch tape and got going. I would make him a poster of nostalgia.

I gathered up all the pertinent Sports Illustrateds—Stephen kept them in a dusty basement closet, in order. Larry Bird, Mo Vaughn. Inexplicably, there was no cover featuring Irving Fryar, but I figured I’d make do. There were a half-dozen Roger Clemens’s and, brilliantly, a new Pedro Martinez cover. Three versions of Kathy Ireland also made their residence in that closet, but I was on a mission, and kept my eyes on the task at hand.

Pedro had recently been traded from the Expos and his picture, with the word "Amazing" emblazoned in white, seemed a gift-wrapped theme in itself. It would surely make an AMAZING gift when taped to other images.

As I constructed, I got a little pastiche-happy. Instead of taping entire covers together, I started scissoring-in curves to make an athletic mosaic out of our shared heroes. Then I'd emphasize certain words from the covers. "Memories” was one. Using ransom note-style cut-outs to spell out "BeSt GiFt EVer" or “SpOrTs HaS CEmenTed OuR FRaterNal bOnd” might have been more subtle.

When I was finished, I had a 24X36 masterpiece of frankly horrifying crap—ugly tape overlaps, ripped edges, sticky address labels still adorning Oil Can Boyd’s face. It was something a television cop might find on the wall of a serial killer’s hovel, provided that serial killer listened to a lot of WEEI. And, in creating this deeply felt monstrosity, I'd tarnished the jewels of my brother's allowance-sapping sports memorabilia collection, leaving coverless magazines naked in my wake. I was pleased with myself at the time. I allowed myself a quick glance of Ms. Ireland circa 1994 as a reward and went off to watch the second half of The Motor City Bowl.

I didn't realize that night that the present would come up short in the end—just like those New England teams it depicted: the ’88 and ’90 and ’95 Red Sox; the ’91 Celtics; Billy Curley’s Tarheel-stomping Boston College basketball team. I knew, Christmas morning, that my ragged poster hadn't thrilled my brother as much as I'd hoped, but that was a customary Christmas let-down for me, even by that point. Because he was kind (or because my parents were), we hung it on our basement wall anyway.

My mistake, my regret, grew in scope for about five years, and each time I'd come home from college, clamber down the basement stairs and see the poster’s Frankenstein leer on the wall, I’d feel more and more how boneheaded a present it had been. An anti-present really: I took things he liked and alchemized them into something he probably didn't. Clemens had actually given him the same feeling when he signed with the Blue Jays the year before I made the Roger-collage.

I'm making up for all of that this year. Stephen's getting something really good. It's going to be—I mean, it's going to cause great surprise and wonder, be startlingly impressive; astonishing, astounding, stunning, staggering. AMAZING, even. As soon as I think of it.

Maybe I’ll give him a framed Luis Rivera Topps Gold card. You know Luis Rivera. Light-hitting Sox shortstop of the early 1990s, currently the Blue Jays third-base coach? Stephen and I used to tease him and root for him to clear .250. This will be perfect. Luis Rivera was pretty much my favorite player growing up.

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