EVERY CHRISTMAS DAY at about 5 o'clock Daddy is discovered on a sofa in front of the television set in a recumbent posture suggesting a paramecium in the time before the advent of cell division. Every Christmas day at about 5:01 Daddy is jostled by a cattle prod disguised as his spouse's right forefinger and propelled by that same wifely digit in the direction of a living room engulfed in a maelstrom of billowing wrapping paper.
Daddy is handed a box of modest dimensions and importuned to stuff all the paper inside it, an assignment akin to being asked to channel the Adriatic Sea into a hot-water bottle. Daddy grips the box firmly with his left hand, closes his eyes and sweeps everything that his right hand touches into the box. In this manner Daddy sweeps into the box each year silent butlers, gift certificates, ashtrays, treasured bibelots and the tags in the shape of snowmen that identify the donor of each Christmas present, all of which are irretrievably lost when Daddy makes his one annual pilgrimage to the garbage can and throws away the box. And so it is each year that Mommy and Daddy's collection of treasured bibelots emerges from Christmas minus such items as a tomahawk from Roadside America, a candle in the shape of a golf ball, a candlestick in the shape of a golf tee and a candle snuffer in the shape of Lee Trevino.
The loss of the tags always leads to a certain fondness for periphrasis in Daddy's thank you notes. In these notes gifts, like Yahweh, can be referred to but never named. Such a note is the one that Daddy composed last Christmas after rapidly bringing his labors to a close only to be reminded by an amplified macaw disguised as his wife's voice that there were dishes to be washed in the kitchen.
"DEAR AUNT MAUDE," he begins after conspicuously dating his letter Dec. 25, "you will note that I am sending you my bread and butter letter a little earlier than usual this year." (Last year's was written as a precautionary measure five days before Daddy's birthday.) "Thank you for the bread and butter." (Daddy decides against, "Some bread and butter! It was more like crepes suzettes!" Aunt Maude is not much of a gourmet, living as she does in Waco, Tex., and Daddy knows that exclamation marks, long discredited by The Elements of Style, have become extinct in all written works other than magazines read by women under hair dryers ever since the last sentence of Candy was set in galleys. Furthermore, while it is not likely that Aunt Maude would actually send bread and butter all the way from Waco as a Christmas gift, it is best not to take chances. There have been years when she did send baby alligators, cactus plants, goldfish, orange trees and dehydrated fruitcakes.)
"I am sitting here looking at your thoughtful gift even as I write this letter." (Daddy does not consider this statement a lie. Everyone's gifts are plainly visible in the living room. The statement would only be untrue, Daddy reasons, if Aunt Maude sent no gift. If Aunt Maude sent no gift, however, Daddy would have no reason to write her a thank you letter. It is a reductio ad absurdum to suppose that Daddy would write to Aunt Maude if he had no reason to do so. Therefore it must be concluded that he is looking at Aunt Maude's gift as long as he is writing her a thank you letter in the living room. Daddy smiles superciliously, mutters cogito ergo sum, feels as if he should have a pipe and continues.) "It constantly amazes me," he writes, "how the gifts you find down in Waco are so novel, interesting and decorative and yet so suited to the needs and desires of the person receiving them in the philosophical sense." (Aunt Maude's last three gifts have been a candle in the shape of a golf ball, a candlestick in the shape of a golf tee and a candle snuffer in the shape of Lee Trevino.) "Why, just the other day I was remarking to the 'little woman,' 'Little woman, Aunt Maude's sense of taste is truly remarkable, isn't it?'y dialogue never hurts when the writing takes a philosophical turn.)
"Speaking of the 'little woman,' goes on in a new paragraph, "She is just fine and so are the kids. They enjoyed their gifts from Waco as much as I enjoyed mine and will soon be writing to tell you so themselves. It constantly amazes them how the gifts you find down in Waco are so novel, interesting and decorative and yet so suited to the needs and desires of the person receiving them in the philosophical sense."
"I hope you have had a pleasant Christmas," concludes Daddy, "despite the loss of your parakeet, Lycidas. I am sorry that the family could not be there for the ceremony, but we thought it might be too much for the children. I know you have been able to carry on, and have even forgiven the cat, and I predict that 1975 will hold nothing but good in store for the Most generous soul in Waco."
Daddy was going to incorporate a passage from grandfather's Christmas Grace but is weeping too hard to continue. So he signs the letter "cordially" and breaks off. Daddy then spends several minutes rummaging for stamps among the bent paper clips and keys to forgotten locks in a desk drawer. As is often the case when Daddy searches for objects such as subway tokens and quarters for exact change lanes, inspiration seizes him. He decides to add a "P.S."
"P.S.," he scribbles, "I thought the idea of a family bus trip to Roadside America was a fantastic suggestion and remarked as much to the 'little woman' the other day. 'Little woman,' I said, "listen to this; Aunt Maude has done it again!" (Upon further reflection, Daddy has decided to stick in an exclamation mark or two. Aunt Maude spends a lot of time under hair dryers.)
"Unfortunately, travel is a little awkward right now," continues Daddy, "what with Abelard constantly practicing his body checking in order to make the junior varsity, and Eloise into soft-core porn ever since her boyfriend streaked through Abercrombie & Fitch. I am certain, however, that the little woman would join me in saying that your idea is novel, interesting and decorative and yet so suited to the needs and desires of this family in a philosophical sense."
"Remember the Alamo yourself," concludes Daddy before signing the postscript "somewhat More Cordially" and drifting off to sleep without having found a stamp.