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11 December 2006
I looked at Walt, my mouth hanging open, as if he had spoken a foreign language.
"Do we have any white elephants around here, or should I go buy something?" he had asked me. We were getting ready to go to his annual office party, where we always play that white elephant game where you choose a wrapped gift to open and then the next person either steals what you've unwrapped or chooses a different wrapped package.
The first time we played this game was decades ago when the boss was from Louisiana and it was introduced to us as a "Cajun Christmas." I've since discovered that pretty much every office type party seems to play this game. It's a wonderful ice breaker.
But what in the world did Walt mean "do we have any white elephants around here"? We have more white elephants here than most thrift stores. Pretty much everything we have in this house is a potential white elephant!
Actually, the first white elephant I chose to take with us was still in the gift bag that it came in when we got it at a different Christmas party last year. I just had to decide which of the hundreds of white elephants was going to be the second gift.
I was about to go into the living room (doesn't everyone keep their elephants in the living room?) to look around when my eyes lit on Hamish, a bagpiper doll that I bought in Edinburgh on our way back from Orkney in 2001.
I bought Hamish for Mary, one of my favorite Breaking Barrier clients. Mary was the oldest HIV+ client at Breaking Barriers. She had contracted HIV during a blood transfusion and had outlived most predictions when she was first diagnosed.
Mary didn't suffer fools gladly and she was very particular about the people who took her to doctors' appointments. I had been warned that she sometimes refused to go with someone if she didn't like them when they showed up at her door. She and I hit it off, I think, because I was (a) female, and (b) older than most of the drivers (I might even have been older than Mary herself, now that I think of it). I also liked her. She reminded me of my aunt Mel — a hard-livin', hard-smokin', hard-drinkin' survivor who wasn't about to let life get her down, no matter how hopeless her situation seemed to be.
Mary always had a plan for bettering her life. In the months I drove her, she tried (in vain, as it turned out) to find a way to get into independent housing and out of her son's house. It was like the carrot that hung just out of reach in front of her nose and she was never quite able to grab it. A year later, when I checked on how she was doing, I was told she was still living with her son, so I guess she never did succeed.
If Mary liked you, she invited you to give her a 5x7 photo of yourself so she could put it on her picture wall . She was always after me to give her that picture and I never did. I'm sorry about that now.
She also collected dolls. When she told me of this hobby, I envisioned "collectible" dolls, but no, they were just interesting dolls that she had picked up at a flea market or that someone had given to her. Dolls that needed a bit of love, but were never going to win any prizes anywhere. They were stored in a dark cabinet, kind of piled in a heap, looking dusty. But she loved her dolls.
When I went to Scotland, I knew I wanted to bring Mary back a doll for her collection. I would give it to her with that 5x7 she always bugged me about. So I bought Hamish, a guy wearing a busby hat and kilts and playing a bagpipe. What better representation of Scotland?
But shortly after we returned from Scotland, Dr. G called me with a job offer and I went to work full time and that ended my volunteer job with Breaking Barriers. I always meant to drive out to see Mary and bring her the doll, but she lived on the far side of Sacramento — she lived the farthest away of all of my clients (nearly an hour from here) — and somehow I just never found the time.
So Hamish had been gathering dust since 2001 and had become so much a part of the background in the kitchen that Walt couldn't even remember ever seeing the doll on the kitchen counter.
We gathered up our two white elephants and set off to 30 or so miles out into the middle of nowhere to join the rest of the group for the Christmas dinner.
For some reason I enjoyed myself this year more than I usually do. For one thing, I looked around at the group and realized that of the 8 actual employees who were there, three of them had already retired and 2 others (Walt and Pat) would be retiring at the end of this year. So it wasn't like sitting around with all the guys Walt works with every day, it was more like sitting around with all the guys Walt used to work with, and whom I see each year at the Christmas party.
I concentrated on doing what someone suggested — asking people questions about themselves and not just feeling self-conscious because I don't know what to say. I had not, for example, seen Bill since his Lou Gherig's disease had progressed to where he now needs a walker and I talked with him about how much longer he would be working (since, in addition to his worsening disability, he is Walt's age and eligible to retire). I talked with Pat about what she intends to do after she retires. I talked with Rita about their kids and gave her suggestions for theatre programs they might be interested in. I asked the host about his dog, Mississippi, with whom I bonded instantly.
The food was fabulous, my chocolate/toffee trifle was a big hit, and we were home in time to see the finale of The Amazing Race. All in all, not a bad day at all.
In the morning I will be driving back into Sacramento to pick up the 9 puppies and divide them among three of us. We'll have 3 newborn (sigh) pit bull puppies here for Christmas.
Featured Holidailies Entry: An entry on Christmas cards by Visible Woman. I've found a soulmate.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
Maniacal child about to run over a cat.
This is entry #2447