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I know what I bought you for Christmas in 1978

Susan Moeller

One Christmas, my son opened a 1,000-piece Lego pirate ship and then disappeared into an upstairs bedroom, only to emerge eight hours later with it complete. But how old was he? Now grown, he figured 6. I was skeptical.

But I actually had the answer in one of the ledgers of holiday gifts I’ve kept for almost 50 years. There it was in 1990: Lego pirate ship. He was 10.

It was listed in a cheap notebook – one of a hodge-podge of Christmas notebooks I’ve kept since 1975. My mother had always organized Christmas, but that year I was a newly married woman with a new set of in-laws and apparently responsible for whether we bought the same gift twice or forgot someone.

My system would make Marie Kondo faint. The first notebook is a plastic-covered yearly planner in which I ignored the days and wrote on the lined paper. Next, come two spiral-bound notebooks I purloined from my employer’s supply cabinet. There are a couple of Christmas organizers that never organized things the way I wanted. My latest is a blue-leather travel journal that has never left home.

Each holiday, I make a list of recipients and make some note of their gifts. Most years it’s 20 or so people, but in the 1980s it ballooned to more than 40 with aunties and cousins and dog walkers and teachers and children’s friends. The lists have spanned five generations, and I have a shot at six. The notebooks also include gifts we received; Christmas card lists (many never sent); some random phone numbers; letters to Santa written by the grandkids; menus and notes for an astounding number of parties and holiday dinners; and, no surprise, newspaper clips on making time for yourself during the holidays.

Like a family Bible, the lists register births, deaths, marriages and divorces. Couples who are on the same line one year are on separate lines the next. New nieces and nephews, children and grandchildren joyfully appear. Friends and neighbors come and go like characters in a play. My parents and a nephew disappear within four heavy, grief-stricken years.

The notebooks are neither tidy nor detailed nor complete, and one entire year - 2006 - is missing. Some entries are tantalizing. In 1980, I gave my mother a “Vonnegut book.” Which one? Why? I have no memory of her ever mentioning Kurt Vonnegut.

And the notebooks make several things clear. First, I was insane. Why was I shopping for so many people? And the entertaining! In 1979 I hosted my husband’s office party on Friday, a “cocktail” party for 40 on Sunday (cocktails, really?); and Christmas dinner for 15 on Tuesday. Did I mention I was commuting from the Cape to Boston and four-months-pregnant?

Also, most gifts are fleeting. Here are some things I have bought my former sister-in-law: a trivet, strawberry plants, a book on Alice James, bee earrings, a raincoat and a whistle. A whistle? Again, why? The raincoat seems important but neither of us remember it. However, she still treasures the Italian plates I gave her in 1987. So that’s a win. And these days, the pirate ship Legos are continually reincarnated by my grandson.

Mostly, the notebooks only hint at the real holiday. My notes from 1998 describe opening presents with our three kids at home then seeing my mother-in-law at her retirement home and my father-in-law at his nursing home and then driving to New York for a family dinner. I omitted that the neighbors stopped by our house while we were gone and called the police because the house was such a mess they thought it had been “ransacked.” Then there’s the pirate ship Christmas, which fell 10 days after my mother died. The adults were so exhausted that I’m sure it felt desultory to the kids. No wonder my son disappeared all day.

I’ve got the list for this year and I’ve learned some lessons. Gifts are fewer and simpler. There are no cocktail parties. My siblings and I now donate to a favorite cause and mail each other socks or tea towels. And good news, there have been no losses this year, just one happy gain – a new baby. I’ve written “book” next to his name.