We're all of us standing in lines this time of year, which gives us an opportunity to listen in to conversations around us. At Sears, an older salesman ringing up a line of customers in the men's shoe department turned to a man patiently waiting to try on sneakers and spoke to him in Spanish. “Como estas?” he asked, like it was the most natural thing in the world. It was so friendly, and unexpected.
In line at Barnes and Noble, The Observer told a friend in the line that we'd been looking for a Scrabble game but all we could find was the “Pirates of the Caribbean” version. Friend said, “Pirates of the Caribbean? Does it come with extra RRRRs?” The ladies at the wrapping table cracked up.
Then, at Kraftco, this conversation:
OLDER WOMAN: “I need two plumber's friends.”
SALESMAN: “Oh, having some plumbing problems?”
OLDER WOMAN: “No, but my grandchildren are coming for Christmas.”
Speaking of Christmas, The Observer just returned from a two-hour lunch/hooky session, in which we completed one of our longest-standing Xmas errands: the buying and engraving of Spouse's Christmas spoon.
Though it seems like we've been married to our still-lovely bride forever, there was, in fact, a time when Spouse and The Observer were just dating. Before the mortgage. Before the kid. Before any of it.
Back then, both of us were dead broke. The Observer was working on a roofing crew to pay our way through college, and soon-to-be-Spouse was toiling in a shoe store and clandestinely selling plasma to make her rent. (She only told us that years later. Had we known, you can be assured it would have been our plasma being sold to make her rent.) Not to get too “Gift of the Magi” on you here, but our first Christmas together, the two of us literally didn't have enough money to buy each other much of anything.
The Observer has always been good with our hands, however, and one afternoon, we kicked back with a jackknife and a hank of walnut filched from a jobsite and carved her what we thought was trapped in the wood: a spoon. The Observer is no artist. Looking at that first spoon now — yes, she still has it — it strikes us as a crooked thing. As we told her then: It cost us nothing but time and care, but every moment we worked on it, we thought of her, and of our love for her.
Since then, the Christmas gifts have gotten better, but the one thing she still receives every Christmas Eve is a spoon, engraved with the year. She's got 12 or 13 of them now, though our bloodied fingers thought it prudent to start buying them ready-made. We've found her Christmas spoons just about everywhere over the years — junk stores and flea markets and yard sales. The ones from the first few Christmases were strictly utilitarian affairs — sturdy tablespoons and nicked teaspoons and at least one old warhorse lifted from our kitchen drawer on Christmas Eve-eve, when The Observer dang near forgot about the whole shebang.
One spoon — given 20 days after Junior was born — swirls with delicate lilies and cattails. Bound to that one with silver wire is a tiny sterling baby spoon. The past few Christmases, it's been all sugar shells — the grand dame of any table — shot through with piercework and curlicues. For 2008, it's a dainty scoop, adorned with wild roses.
When we hold it in our hand, each one of them brings back a distinct memory and place: Little Rock; Iowa City; Lafayette, La.; the Christmas our son was born; the Christmas our father was dying. You'd be amazed how many kinds of spoons there are out there if you look. As we told our wife, we're fairly sure we'll run out long before they do.
We mentioned to one of our snarkier pals at a party that we were going to find that darned ivory-billed woodpecker this winter, even if it is only 20 degrees outside. There's a $50,000 reward, we reminded him.
“Why don't you just buy a lottery ticket?” he asked. It would be warmer.
Oh, ye of little faith. We're feeling lucky. We're going to find the bird and win the lottery and we'll be filing this column from Tahiti. Just you wait.