"It's the Thought that Counts . . ."

Is there any wisdom left to squeeze from this dried-out old bit of gift-giving advice?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. You've heard it all before. After searching through forty-two stores in twelve different shopping malls, standing in line for hours, and shelling out a huge bundle of your hard-earned bucks to buy your kid that extra-special present for Christmas, some high-falutin' parent-education professional like me says you're spending too much time and money, you're missing the point of the season, and you're encouraging your child to develop a seriously flawed value system. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Let's face it. No effort is excessive if it brings happiness to your child. You know it, and nothing I can say is going to stop you. So I won't unleash yet another tirade about rampant materialism, sermonize once more about the real meaning of the holidays, or even supply an additional lecture about choosing politically correct toys. If you're willing to consider whatever it takes to bring a smile to your child's face on Christmas morning, go ahead. Search the stores. Stand in line. Shell out big bucks. You should be congratulated, not condemned.

But before you go, let me tell you a story. Don't worry. It's not the tired tale of poor but devoted parents purchasing a simple, inexpensive present that their child cherished forever. It's the story of my middle-class mother and father spending an enormous amount of time and money in order to give me the best gift I ever got.

I was twelve years old, and my life revolved around baseball. Since my idol was Yogi Berra of the New York Yankees, I was determined to be a catcher. Unfortunately, I was left-handed, and standard baseball wisdom dictated that southpaws should not be positioned behind the plate (because most batters are right-handed, a left-handed catcher might have a slightly obstructed view when throwing to second or third base to nab a potential base-stealer). In fact, there was no such thing as a left-handed catcher's mitt.

However, the coaches were impressed with my powerful and accurate arm; and besides, no one else on the team wanted to play that dirty and dangerous position. So equipped with improvised extra padding in my regular glove, I took the field and squatted in the back of the batter's box. My immense pride helped me overcome the sharp pain I felt every time a pitcher's fast ball plopped into my palm.

There was only one problem. My shoes. Everyone else on the team wore cleats just like the pros. I had to wear sneakers. A pair of cleats cost over $20--a princely sum in those days. Neither I nor any of my teammates could afford to purchase a pair on our own, even if we supplemented our allowances with the profits from our paper routes. But after ardent begging, pleading, and promising to clean out the garage, everyone had convinced his parents to buy him the special shoes. Except me.

It wasn't like my mother and father didn't have $20 to spare. They spent that amount every week for my violin lessons--which I hated. For cryin' out loud, they had spent ten times that much all at once to buy the stupid violin in the first place. But $20 for a pair of shoes--that I would probably grow out of in less than six months--to play a game? Not a chance. As far as they were concerned, that was not merely improper, it was ridiculous. Large sums of money were for food, clothing, shelter, education, and cultural enrichment--not for dressing up a boyhood pastime. My $5 sneakers would just have to do.

I had anticipated their reluctance. When I first whined that I would be the only kid on the team without cleats, I didn't expect them to surrender right away. After all, they never understood or appreciated anything that was really important to me. They paid a lot of attention to my academic abilities and musical skills, but they barely acknowledged and did virtually nothing to encourage my athletic pursuits. They were incredibly old-fashioned and totally out of it.

But I badly underestimated their resistance. I assumed the usual begging, pleading, and promising wouldn't be enough, and I was right. I then tried several weeks of general surliness and prolonged sulking. When that didn't work, I got desperate. I did additional household chores voluntarily, raised my grades in school, and even forced myself to play my violin with as much false enthusiasm as I could muster. All to no avail.

Then the holidays rolled around, and my hopes soared. Surely they wouldn't be able to resist the generous spirit of the season. My drawers were well-stocked with socks and underwear, there were plenty of warm sweaters in my closet, my shelves contained a sufficient supply of books, and I hadn't even hinted I might want anything other than those cleats. They had no choice. They had to buy me the shoes.

As soon as the religious observances were completed and we retired to the living room for the gift-giving ceremonies, I began to rummage feverishly through the pile of neatly wrapped presents to find the box with my name on it. When I found it, I was taken aback for a moment. It was bigger than a shoe box. Then I remembered my mother's penchant for practicality. She indubitably had obtained a larger container so she could place a bottle of polish and a spare set of laces alongside the cleats. The smile returned to my face as I eagerly ripped at the paper and ribbon.

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