Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Of Gray Roses and Instamatic Cameras

Most Christmas memories from my childhood are, I must admit, most excellent.

A few aren’t. Two in particular come to mind.

The first involves my acting debut—unless you count my dynamic recitation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem The Swing at the graduation ceremony for Miss Sylvia’s Kindergarten Class of 1964 (“Riveting—almost like you were at that park across the street from the swimming pool” was how the review in the Barnesville Gazette put it)—in a Christmas play at the legendary Midway Baptist Church, located four miles outside of Barnesville, Georgia on City Pond Road.

The play, which was performed in the sanctuary on a Sunday night after a series of two to three grueling half-hour rehearsals, was set in a department store. In my one and only scene (“Easily the stellarest among a host of stellar performances” was how the review in the Flint River Baptist News put it) I portrayed an eight year old boy—which required tremendous acting skills since I was actually nine at the time—who wanted to purchase an artificial rose for his sick mother (you know, like the plot in that song “The Christmas Shoes” but without the cheap emotional manipulation).

When I walked up to the sales counter and delivered the first of my two lines—“I’d like to buy this rose for my mother”—there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, including the ones in the head of Preacher Bill, who was rolling around on the front pew laughing so hard he was crying, thus demonstrating the existence of the fine line between high drama and low comedy.

The nice church member/thespian/saleslady responded, “But dear, do you really want to buy your mother a gray rose?”

“I only have a quarter,” I answered, “it’s all I can afford.”

Preacher Bill was now rolling around on the floor.

“But dear, they’re all the same price. You can get a pretty pink one or a lovely red one for the same price. Don’t you want to get her a red one?”

I walked off, nodding, wondering what kind of idiot kid would even think about getting an artificial gray rose for his sick mother, which thought apparently painted a stricken look on my face that was taken by the audience as serious emoting.

(“This reviewer, for one, would have liked to see young Mr. Ruffin march triumphantly back onto the stage with his red rose; the failure to have him do so was a glaring plot omission, as was acknowledged by the audience’s chants of ‘Where’s the red rose?’ and ‘We want that skinny buck-toothed kid with the glasses!’ as the final curtain fell,” was how the Christian Index put it.)

They were putting an oxygen mask on Preacher Bill.

My second painful memory comes from an otherwise most excellent day. My mother and I joined another family on the 55-mile trek from Barnesville to the Rich’s department store in downtown Atlanta. There we witnessed the Great Tree (the biggest Christmas tree I had ever seen), rode a monorail that for some reason was painted pink and had a pig’s head on the front car (yep, it was called the Pink Pig), and visited Santa Claus (somewhere I still have the picture of me sitting on his knee).

So far so good.

The trouble started when I went into the little store that the big store had set up into which innocent children like me were lured on the hopes of getting their mother a nice Christmas present only to be taught the harsh truth about capitalism and corporate greed.

My mother gave me 50¢ and into the shop I went. My eyes immediately fell on a beautiful Kodak Instamatic Camera and I scooped it up, marched over to the cashier, and plopped the camera and my 50¢ down, grinning happily. The cashier smiled sweetly at me and said, “Dear, the camera costs $15.95 plus tax.”

I began to cry.

A pretty young saleslady took me by the hand (which makes a crying male of any age instantly feel better) and led me around the shop looking for something I could buy for 50¢ as a Christmas gift for the woman who had brought me into the world.

I kept a sharp lookout for gray roses.

Seeing none, I settled on some lovely plastic bracelets which the pretty young saleslady wrapped in pretty Christmas paper before sending my red eyes and me on our way.

I’m sure that my mother gushed over them on Christmas morning, whether or not she ever actually wore them.

It occurs to me that as the boy in the Christmas play, I was willing to settle for doing less for my mother than I was in fact able to do.

It also occurs to me that as the boy in the kids’ Christmas shop, I wanted to do far more for my mother than I was in fact able to do.

We often behave in both of those ways, I think, in the ways that we relate to other individuals and to our various communities.

Sometimes we give a gray rose when we could give a red one; that is, sometimes we give less of ourselves than we should or could, whether out of willfulness or out of ignorance.

Sometimes we want to give an Instamatic camera when all we can afford is some cheap plastic bracelets; that is, we really would like to give more of ourselves to someone but we simply don’t have it in us to do so for reasons that are beyond our control.

Like most things, it all comes down to grace—the grace to give of ourselves as best we can at any given moment and the grace to receive whatever another offers to us at any given moment.

If we’ll at least try to act out of love, maybe it’s never enough…but then again maybe it’s always enough…

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