I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings the first time when I was in Grade 4. Yes, I was a bit precocious, but I also had older sisters. And I skipped the chapter “The Council at Rivendell” that first time through.
I went on to reread all four books two more times before I started high school — and then to read everything else I could find. Heck, I had A Guide to Middle Earth memorized long before they even published The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales in the US!
My feats were nothing compared to my sister’s though. She could speak Elvish. She knew what her name was in Elvish!
But this post isn’t about my sister, or even Tolkien, per se. It’s about my mother. And Christmas.
My sister and I used to asked for the Ballantine Tolkien Calendar for Christmas every year, and that calendar was the gift that mattered most.
The first several were made with Tolkien’s own art, images that are in the book my friend linked to, and they were nice and big.
Art-sized, not calendar-sized.
Our sweet mother never questioned whether it made sense to have two identical calendars hanging in one home. She just bought two of them and wrapped them up.
But I was a Christmas snooper. That calendar mattered! I’d dig through the presents under the tree to make sure I was going to get it, and I couldn’t relax until I’d identified an obviously calendar-shaped present under the tree with my name on it. Of course, it made it easier to find since there were two identical gifts.
My mother may have been sweet enough to buy two identical calendars every year, but she was diabolical enough to make me squirm until Christmas morning, thinking that this year, I wasn’t going to get it.
The calendars were the size of a record album — remember those? If you’re too young, they were like CDs in that the shape and size was immediately recognizable through the pretty paper. Unlike CDs, they were too big to easily hide in a box though.
One year, she added cardboard to the package, and I spent weeks worrying that the Tolkien-calenderesque gift might be a Moody Blues album — a great gift, mind you, but no Tolkien calendar! One year, she rolled them into tubes to wrap, but we figured that out pretty quickly, especially since there were two identical gifts. One year, she didn’t put tags on them, but again … since there two identical packages … I didn’t worry much.
One year she put mine (and only mine) in a big box that dominated the space around the Christmas tree, and I did worry a little that year. But only a little because the package was just too lightweight to truly justify that big a box.
One year, however, she won. It was the last year we played the game because her win was so overwhelmingly a rout that there was no way to ever trump it. Or maybe it was the last year Ballantine made the calendars — they’d long ago used up Tolkien’s artwork, and while the art of Tim Kirk and the Brothers Hildebrandt was fabulous, some of the later artwork was just weird.
Regardless the reason, the year she won was the end of the game.
The thing is … and thirty-odd years later, this still bugs me … I don’t know how she won.
All I know is that there was no Tolkien Calendar under the tree that year with my name on it. I started checking the day after Thanksgiving, when the tree went up, and I checked last on Christmas Eve before I went to bed.
There was nothing that could, under any stretch of my oversized imagination, be a Tolkien Calendar. Nothing.
At least, nothing with my name on it. My sister’s calendar was there, wrapped with no attempt at disguise. But nothing for me.
She must have sold it to me, though I do not remember. She must have spent the month telling me I wasn’t getting a calendar that year, that I was too old for the frivolity (as if that’s possible!), that it didn’t make sense to buy two calendars every year, that my sister was really more into Tolkien than I was (true), that I was disappointed with the art in the last couple anyway (also true).
Still, I just couldn’t believe it. She wouldn’t do that! Would she?
Ah, and there’s the rub. No matter how strenuously I told myself she would never do that to me, the insidious little doubt crept in.
Still, I more than half expected one of my gifts to be the calendar. I was desperately afraid she would do something drastic, like … gasp! … fold it in half to hide the shape, but I truly expected it to be there.
I don’t remember what I received that year — I’m sure I opened gift after gift I would have loved if they hadn’t been fogged over by fear.
But I remember well that final, endless moment when I looked under the tree and realized all the presents had been opened. All of them. And I did not have a Tolkien Calendar.
It was devastating.
Then (yeah, you can see this coming), my mother said, “Are you sure? I think there might be one more gift there.”
So I looked again … but no. There was nothing under the tree but carpet.
Then she looked … and lo and behold, there was one more gift under the tree. An iconic shape and size, with my name on the tag.
She insisted it was there all along. She insisted it was just hidden.
Really, really well.
But I had looked. I had lifted and hefted every package under that tree, more than once. Heck, I probably scoured the branches! And I just don’t see how it could have been there all along.
Oh, I know. You’re thinking that she just didn’t put it under the tree that year, that when she pulled the gift out from under the tree, she did whatever the equivalent of palming would be for something the size of a 33 LP.
But I don’t think so. That would be against the tacit rules. It wasn’t a game of Hide and Seek — it was a game of outsmarting. The trick was to hide the gift in plain sight. Hiding it somewhere else, somewhere I wasn’t allowed access, wouldn’t be fair because I wouldn’t have a fighting chance.
Plus, she said it was under the tree all the time. And my mother never lies. At least, not directly.
So it’s a mystery. A lifelong mystery that still irks me.
Except when I think about it now, it makes me smile.
I love that she was kind enough to understood how important that calendar was to me — and devious enough to pretend she didn’t.