December 1975, I was 15 and casually dating a cute guy (actually double dating, along with each of our best friends). My gift-mad family spewed Christmas presents liberally, so I wrapped up a small gift for this boy, carefully selecting something fun and non-committal – a boxed set of 10 rolls of Lifesavers – that showed I noticed what he liked (he often had a roll of the candies in his jacket pocket).
But I suppose to a teenage boy who didn’t feel about me the way I felt about him, it must have been terrifying; he reddened, tore open the paper, mumbled thanks and departed like dry leaves before a wild hurricane fly.
I did not see him for six years until we were awkwardly partnered in the bridal party of our BFF’s wedding, and then it was another four years until Frank and I spent our first Christmas as a serious couple. I thought it might be fun to give him the same gift I had offered that first Christmas.
That was in 1986, and every year since, Frank gets “the Lifesavers gift.” Officially it’s called the Life Savers Sweet Story Book, because it opens like a book and along with rolls of hard O-shaped candies, there is a tiny storybook inside with a holiday tale, which our children loved when they were small. By now, our sons – both teenagers – know the real story.
Over the 27 years I’ve bought and wrapped the Life Savers Sweet Story Book, the number of rolls has shrunk, the artwork changes, the box is now a bit flimsier. One year, I could only find the version with the candies in gummy form, not his favorite. If I begin my search soon after Thanksgiving, I usually find one easily in my neighborhood CVS. But if I wait and let other things distract me, I’m driving all over the place, slightly panicked. One year, I couldn’t find one until the 24th, and I worried it was some terrible omen.
But I always manage.
It was under the tree in 1993 when I was nine months pregnant with our first child; in 1997 when I had pneumonia while pregnant with our second; and again in 2000 when I had spent the week before Christmas in the hospital with that boy during an asthma scare. It’s under the tree whether we’ve had a great year or a lousy one, a lean or flush year.
One December, I had it in my hand in the store, then tossed it back, not so gently, onto the shelf. That year, everything had been hard, and I thought its absence could signal my lingering annoyance at too many things. I moved on to different departments of the store, picking up gifts for people I cared a lot about and those I cared for a lot less. Then I decided to give myself a gift too, something to savor amid the buying, wrapping, cooking. I fingered a silky scarf, rubbed a soft pair of gloves, picked up a lovely leather purse at a rock bottom price. But nothing mattered, nothing seemed important enough.
Yes, I was feeling adrift from my husband, and while I never felt he’d “saved my life,” I knew he’d often saved me from myself, from some awful decision or impulsive act. And I knew he’d be there in the future to do the same, again. I wound my way back to the holiday candy aisle and the Life Savers went into my cart. In a long marriage, between patches of flat calm and sparkling blue seas, there are rough waters. The ship lists, pitches, threatens to go down. If you’re lucky, your ship always rights itself, but some lifesaving know how doesn’t go amiss.
I lied when I said that in 1975 that first Life Savers gift was just a small thing. Lovestruck teenager that I was, I had been hoping that the gift might be enough to change what he felt. We’ve been married more than 25 years now, and I know that material things rarely improve a relationship. But I want to remember that hopeful 15 year-old girl, the one who knew she’d found her true love. I want to remember she is the same girl who picks up that guy’s forgotten ice cream bowl on the family room coffee table in the morning, left there in haste the night before, by her husband, her Romeo, as the two of them sprinted upstairs to the bedroom.
This year, I found the Life Savers book the Saturday after Thanksgiving. In fact, I spied an entire stack on a shelf tucked behind some better selling holiday goodies. I was tempted to buy all 12 and store them away for future years. That would be easy, efficient, smart even. At that moment I also realized that I for the last 10 years I could have been ordering them online, in October, no fuss.
But that wouldn’t work at all. Because there’s more to it than the wrapped box appearing under the tree. The planning, shopping, hoping, searching, discovery is a year-by-year thing. You can’t stockpile that, you have to live it, day by day, year by year, season after season.
Photo of lifering: Flickr/Creative Commons