I suppose that the Christmas traditions we cling to the most as an adult are the ones we enjoyed the most as children. This means that, for some people, pine trees covered with lead-foil tinsel are a must. For others, if the family wassail doesn’t contain fresh pineapple juice, why, it’s simply unacceptable. And, of course, if somebody doesn’t sing about the time their Grandmother got run over by a reindeer—what kind of holiday season is that?
This being the case, you can imagine what it was like for my wife and me when my parents invited us to spend our 1972 holiday season with them in their new home. This meant that the celebration wouldn’t be held in Northwestern Washington where I had been raised (and where Christmas was done correctly), but in the red rock town of Peach Springs, Arizona, where Dad had taken a job managing the local trading post—a place, I surmised, that would not be the least bit in sync with our family’s time-honored traditions.
“I suppose joyfully sliding down the snow-covered foothills of Mt. Baker atop an inverted car hood is out of the question,” I mumbled to my wife as I envisioned the scratchy, dry, red sandstone celebration Dad was promising us. “Plus,” I continued, “you can bet that I won’t be stuffing myself with the Hoag’s (our Washington neighbors) delicious smoked salmon. You can get excommunicated for less than that,” I mumbled in Louise’s direction. “I’m pretty sure that not eating smoked salmon during the holidays is a vegan sin.”
“Venial sin,” Louise corrected me.
“Either way,” I responded, “I’ll miss the sockeye.”
This whole “let’s expand our horizons” holiday was about to take place because earlier that year, Dad had accepted a job offer to run the Hualapai tribe’s retail businesses located forty-two miles northeast of Kingman, Arizona, just off Route 66. And now, after living almost a year in Peach Springs, he and Mom couldn’t wait for us to come celebrate the holidays with them.
“We also have,” Dad shouted over the phone, “a magnificent gift for you. I swear it’s going to knock your . . . ” but then Mom cut him off: “Hang up the phone before you ruin the big surprise!” Click.
When my parents first arrived at the trading post, Mom immediately fell in love with the Native American artwork that the store proudly displayed. Clay pottery, fancy leather work, turquoise squash blossoms, and other art pieces, all caught her attention. But it was the locally produced basketry that most impressed Mom. Unfortunately, the beautifully woven baskets were expensive. But then again, maybe if she cut back a little here and a tad there she could buy a basket for Louise and me. She’d have to wait and see. A hundred dollars was a lot of money.
And then, as if she had been reading Mom’s mind, Lucy (one of the local basket makers), asked Mom for a favor.
“You own a van,” Lucy observed. “I was wondering if you’d drive me a few miles north to an area where the shoots I use to make my baskets are now the right size to be harvested. I’ll cut them and load them into your van. You just need to haul me and the shoots.”
Of course she would haul the shoots, Mom thought to herself. Better still, she’d help cut them as well.
Two days later, with visions of baskets dancing in her head, Mom and her new friend Lucy climbed into Mom’s Volkswagen van and merrily headed off in pursuit of northern Arizona tree shoots of some sort. It was a miserably hot day, the work would be difficult, and Mom’s heart was soon to be tested (cue ominous music).
After working arduously for eight hours in the heat, cutting enough basket material to nearly fill the Van, Mom signaled to Lucy that she felt sick. Then, to prove her point, she passed out. Lucy thought Mom was dead. (She wasn’t, of course, but she did suffer some sort of episode.) Notwithstanding the frightening setback, a few minutes later when Mom eventually came to, she insisted on finishing the job.
“Plus,” she told Lucy, “I want to buy all the baskets these shoots will make. I almost died for them. I want to purchase every single one of them.”
“Why, Mrs. Patterson!” Lucy responded. “The shoots we’ve gathered today are barely enough to make one basket.” And thus, Mom was introduced to the harsh economics of making handcrafted baskets. Lucy not only gathered an entire van full of shoots, she also dried them, split them, dyed them, and wove them—until one day, after several weeks of taxing labor, she presented Mom with her finished one-hundred-dollar basket. This was the present Mom couldn’t wait to give us. This was the gift that had almost stopped her heart.
You can imagine the scene that unfolded that Christmas Eve as we sat cheek-to-jowl in the cramped space behind the Hualapai trading post. At the first stroke of gift-giving time, Mom reached under the tree, gathered up a beautifully wrapped box, and placed it at our feet. I had no idea what was inside.
“It’s a handmade Hualapai basket!” Mom explained as she helped Louise tear through the tissue paper. “My friend Lucy made it! Isn’t it gorgeous?” Then Mom went on to explain the meaning contained in the basket’s design and the story of how she had collapsed—all the while staring intently into our faces—taking pleasure from knowing that her gift had brought us joy. That’s right, she wasn’t looking for praise for having given us such a special gift (as is often the case) she was simply reveling in our delight.
It was on this day I realized that all gifts, thoughtfully and lovingly given, are similar to Russian nesting dolls. I know this sounds silly, but it’s true. The basket Mom gave us wasn’t covered with hand-painted babushkas, but it was a nested gift all the same. The external component was the Hualapai basket itself—perfectly shaped and gorgeously designed. Nested inside lay the fascinating Native American history captured in the basket’s intricate pattern. Nested within this lay the story of Mom’s harrowing sacrifice. And finally, if you continued for long enough, you’d come to the centerpiece—the hardest to get to and, in some ways, the loveliest addition. It was the radiant look on Mom’s face.
This concept of nesting several elements into a single gift was made even clearer to me five years later—in a rather odd way. Someone stole our beloved basket. I couldn’t believe that somebody had actually taken our precious art piece. Fortunately, I was now mature enough to realize that only the basket itself was gone. We still had the lion’s share of the gift.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” my nine-year-old granddaughter asked as I told her about my red-rock epiphany.
“Nested, one piece inside the next,” I explained, “we had the appreciation for native history and art, the tender story behind Mom’s sacrifice, and the glorious look on her face as her love washed across the trading post.”
“But the basket’s gone,” my granddaughter exclaimed.
“Not to me,” I answered. “Not to me.”