Lessons From the Magi

Micah, Jett and Fisher,

There’s a story called The Gift of the Magi, by O.Henry. At some point, someone will make you read this in school. If you’re anything like me, you might shrug the moral off and go back to reading Goosebumps.

Let me break the story down for you. A couple (ew, cooties!) wants to give each other gifts, but they have no money, and apparently predatory payday lending didn’t exist yet. They are so desperate to show appreciation and affection that the man, Jim, sells his most prized possession (a gold watch), and the woman, Della, does the same (her hair). With the money they receive, each purchases a gift meant to compliment the prized possession of the other- a platinum watch chain and a set of combs. In the end they realize what happened, and despite the fact that the gifts they received are now useless, their gesture is celebrated as an act of giving equal to that of the Magi that followed a star to deliver gifts to the Christ-child.

Got it?

Now, there’s territory that O. Henry left unexplored here, such as why Jim and Della had the type of communication issues that could lead to this type of debacle. Had your mother and I been in the same situation as Jim and Della, there probably would have been a huge fight… but I think the overall point he was trying to make was that giving is good, and that sacrifice adds value to any act of giving.

I was thinking about this today as I looked at the gold Burlinton Railroad pocket watch that hangs from our bedroom mirror. If you can believe it, we actually have one of those things. You may or may not know this, but I am the fourth Ralph Emerson Amsden in this family. The watch belonged to the original Ralph Amsden, back when being named Ralph was a normal thing and didn’t elicit puke jokes from cruel 5th graders.

My father gave me the watch when I graduated college. It was different than any other gift I have received from my dad, in that it was obvious he was parting with something that he loved very much. Over the years, your grandfather has provided me, and all of you, with plenty of monetary and material items, never expecting so much as a thank you in return. He’s a generous guy. Yet, when he gave me this watch, he looked me in the eyes and said “please take care of this,” as if to simultaneously say “I know how often you pay to have your car washed, and it brings me shame. Treat this watch better than you treat your car.”

I don’t know much about Ralph the 1st. I have his watch. The internet says he was born in 1888, and died 57 years later after, and probably because of, having 7 boys and 1 girl. After the first few sons, I imagine he ran out of ideas for names, calling the 5th child Ralph.

Ralph Jr. is a mystery to me as well. I never had the chance to meet him, as he died when my father was 10. My dad told me once he never really liked his name, but that giving me that name felt like the right thing to do to honor his dad. Sure makes me feel like a jerk for ever complaining.

So in the end, I have my dad, my name, and this watch. I relate it to The Gift of The Magi because Jim and Della were motivated by one obsessive purpose- to give to each other. The sacrifice was just a byproduct. In the same way that the wise men marched for years in search of the baby Jesus to lay gifts at his feet,  Jim and Della only really cared about giving, and the sacrifice was hardly a conscious thing. My father and I haven’t always had the greatest relationship, but one thing I have always known is that his sole motivation in life has been to give all that he can to his children. Any demons or insecurities he has ever battled have come out of frustration that he has not been able to give or sacrifice more than he already does, or in a better way that he already does it.

I stare at that watch every day when I wake up… in part because I live in an age where there are digital clocks, so telling time the old-fashioned way is hard, but mostly because I hope that my flaws as a parent come out of my desire to do right by my sons. I hope to give to the three of you in a way that sacrifice exists without any second guessing. I want to give like Jim and Della did, or the Magi, or even better, I want to give to you the way my dad gives to me.

Now, since there’s no Ralph the 5th, time to figure out which one of you eventually gets this watch…



One comment

  1. Okay Ralph you made me cry once again…What a beautiful gift of giving for all of us. Your boys are very very lucky…..to have you as their DAD…..blessings jayno

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