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Phil Gulley: The Terrible Gifts I’ve Given

I was cleaning out a closet this fall and came across the first Christmas present I ever bought my wife: a stuffed rabbit made out of a tube sock. At the time, she seemed pleased, but now I suspect she was just humoring me, because it went missing a few years later and she never seemed all that sad about it.

“Look what I found in the basement closet,” I said, showing her the rabbit. “Do you remember this?”

“Well, what do you know? I had no idea that was there,” she said, in the tone of voice someone might use if they were trying to act surprised after being caught doing something sneaky.

That rabbit is now in our bedroom, occupying a chair in the corner along with the sock monkey I gave her our second Christmas together. My wife and I were broke our first dozen years together, so there were lots of sock presents. Then I began earning more money and started buying her jewelry for Christmas, which she seemed to appreciate, though I noticed she seldom wore it. It reminded me of when I was in the second grade and bought my mom a pair of plastic yellow hoop earrings from Hook’s drugstore. She said they were the prettiest earrings she’d ever seen, but she was afraid she might misplace them, so she was going to keep them in her dresser drawer where she wouldn’t lose them. She was right. After she died, I found them in her dresser, safe and sound.

In 1999, I made enough money to buy our first house at Christmastime, and had enough left over to buy a motorcycle for myself. The next summer I was riding my motorcycle through the town of Roachdale, saw a hardware store, and pulled my bike to the curb. I went inside, and there I met Charley Riggle, chief executive officer of Roachdale Hardware.

What does Roachdale Hardware have to do with Christmas gift-giving? Only everything, because every year since I have purchased my wife’s presents from Charley Riggle’s store on the 23rd of December, and she couldn’t be more pleased. The first year I gave her a retractable five-string clothesline, which I attached to the side of our garage. She still uses it to air out sleeping bags or when our dryer is broken. For the past several springs, a robin has built its nest atop our clothesline casing, so now we are deprived of its use until the baby birds are hatched and launched. It’s always advisable to take nature into account when selecting Christmas presents.

After the Year of the Clothesline, I began buying her cast-iron cookware—a pair of skillets one year, a pancake griddle the next, a chicken fryer the Christmas after that. It was, if I do say so myself, an inspired three years; indeed, almost magical. My wife opened the gifts each Christmas morning and stared at them, speechless. “I hardly know what to say,” she said. Each year, dumbstruck. That’s when you know you’ve touched someone’s soul.

One memorable Christmas, I presented her with her a toilet snake in case the boys plugged the toilet while I was away from home, which I often was. I showed her how to use it on Christmas Day, then left the next morning for a week-long spiritual retreat in Naples, Florida. Sure enough, the upstairs toilet overflowed, and water ran out into the hallway and down the stairs into the kitchen before my wife got the toilet unclogged.

“Just think how bad it would have been if you hadn’t had the plumber’s snake,” I said when she phoned to tell me.

I made sure to tell the retreat participants how God had saved our home from catastrophe, and everyone clapped and exclaimed “Praise the Lord!” It’s a great comfort knowing the Lord is watching over our plumbing while I’m away.

Probably the best present I’ve ever given my wife was purchased the year I was running late and Charley opened his store on Christmas Eve just for me. I hurried in and saw two perfect gifts—a wet-dry vac and a Bunn coffeemaker. Just the week before, she had complained about not being able to reach the cobwebs in-between the floor joists in the basement ceiling.

“What you need is a wet-dry vac with an extension wand,” I told her at the time.

Just as I was reaching for the vacuum, I noticed the coffeemaker. That very morning our coffeemaker had gone kaput, leaking coffee through the base, spilling across the countertop.

“It’s clogged up,” I yelled to my wife. “Hand me some paper towels! Bring me the plumber’s snake!”
Unfortunately, it was beyond repair.

We desperately needed a coffeemaker, but there sat the wet-dry vac with an extension wand and all those cobwebs in the basement. Decisions, decisions.

“Do you mind if I make a suggestion?” Charley asked. Charley is the consummate salesman—discreet, knowledgeable, always with the customer’s best interests in mind.

“Go with the coffeemaker,” he advised. “I’ll knock off $5 and throw in a free box of filters.”

I hesitated.

“Plus a keychain that says Roachdale Hardware,” he added.

I don’t know how the man makes a living.

The next morning, my wife and I unwrapped our presents. I made Joan guess what I gave her before she opened the sack from Roachdale Hardware. She wasn’t even close. She guessed a Bose Wave Radio, as if I had a savings account to afford such extravagances. Then she guessed a garden hose, which upset me because I hadn’t thought of that. Fortunately, she seemed pleased with the coffeemaker and filters. I kept the keychain for my trouble.

This year, I have my eye on a set of Case kitchen knives for my wife. Seven knives of various sizes and a ceramic sharpening rod, housed in a walnut block. Made by hand in the U.S. of A. Up until now, we’ve gotten our knives from Family Dollar and church pitch-ins, so it will be nice to have quality cutlery for a change. I won’t lie, the knives aren’t cheap, and I won’t be able to buy them unless Charley cuts me a deal. But he likely will, him being a faithful Presbyterian and me being a man of the cloth.

Charley has only one set of Case kitchen knives, so I might have to buy them before the 23rd to make sure no one else snatches them up. Otherwise, my wife will be getting a garden hose—50 feet of genuine rubber, with solid brass fittings, made in America by Americans for an American man to run over with a lawn mower and chop into pieces, which is what happened to our last hose.

The best gift I ever got was a practical wife from the Midwest. If I had married a woman from either coast, I would have been divorced years ago.

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