Every year at Christmas, my mother sets aside one gift for me to open last. This gift, regardless of size, is always wrapped in pink foil paper, and instead of a bow, it has the white feather angel from 1950 that sat atop her Christmas tree as a little girl. This present is called, appropriately enough, my angel present. As hokey as this all may sound, I always look forward to my angel present, because it’s consistently hands-down the best present under the tree. The angel present is either the most special or expensive thing I asked for, or something I never even thought to ask for, but is so incredibly kickass or touching that all other gifts pale in comparison.
There has only been one year that the angel present failed to deliver, and that was 1990, when I opened it to discover a box of calligraphy pens.
There was nothing inherently wrong with the calligraphy pens. I didn’t specifically ask for them, but, you know, whatever. I played around with them, because I was a pretty artsy kid, and fond of writing utensils. However, I made the grave mistake of teaching myself calligraphy one winter afternoon, and actually excelling at it, and then telling my mother about this, and thus this angel present became the cross I had to bear throughout the rest of my youth, even into my adult life.
My mother told her friends I could do calligraphy. Suddenly I had clients, upper-middle class women who wanted me to whip out a Kahlil Gibran passage for a wedding gift; bible verses or Henry David Thoreau quotes suitable for framing. Whenever I was low on cash and there were no babysitting gigs in sight, my mom would bring up the calligraphy. “Why don’t you make signs, and hang them up at church, or at dad’s office?” This invariably led to me spending an evening or six sitting at the dining room table, scowling, while my mother stood over me, using a ruler to make VERY EXACT AND MATHEMATICALLY PRECISE LINES that were dark enough to use as guides, but light enough to be erased later. And also? The fun part about calligraphy? Is that you write it on parchment, so when you mess up, you get to start over completely, because they don’t make parchment wite-out. Thanks, angel present!
Aside from various heartlifting surburban mom quotes, I did my father’s company Christmas cards for twelve years in a row. My college roommates would always look at me like I was crazy when, in the dead of finals week, I’d sit hunched over at the kitchen table until 3 in the morning, writing return addresses in red ink on the backs of foil-lined envelopes. It gave me calluses and muscle cramps and headaches. It made me irritable. I hated it, but that Christmas money wasn’t going to earn itself.
After college, once friends started getting married, I was asked to address a lot of wedding invitations. I didn’t mind this at all, since it’s generally well-known that I have nice handwriting and they were my friends, but if anyone ever even thought of mentioning calligraphy, I would shoot lasers out of my eyes and they’d suck the rest of their sentence back into their mouth before they even got to the offending word. I loved them, but they should have known better. I don’t uncap that fucking pen for anyone anymore.
Or so I thought until last week, when I emailed my dad and asked him what he wanted for Christmas.
“Remember that poem I wrote for your mom on our 20th anniversary? I thought it would be a nice gift for our 30th if you did it up in calligraphy and we had it framed.”
I grimaced and made fists with my hands and got out the goddamn parchment.
My roommate came home tonight to find me hunched over the kitchen table.
“What are you doing?” she asked, hanging up her coat.
“Calligraphy,” I said, through gritted teeth.
I paused a moment before sighing and replying, “There is no short answer to that question.”
She stood over me, pulling off her scarf, and then said, “Could you teach me?”
I wanted to scream no, like in The Godfather Part II when Kay tells Michael it wasn’t a miscarriage, Michael, it was an ABORTION, it was a son and I had it KILLED, because I won’t bear another one of your sons because this is EVIL, and this evil has got to END HERE.
Instead I said, “okay.”