A Christmas Sweater of my Own: Reflections on gifts and being grateful.

sweater.jpgIt’s the day after Christmas. High winds abound and a chill lingers in the air. Wearing a large coat didn’t seem necessary this morning, so I’m in an old, black sweater. The sweater is warm and snug; it’s also been in use every winter for over a decade. I hold this old sweater in high regard, even if it is becoming a little ragged and worn. Much like it’s owner, the sweater is certainly becoming a bit rough around the edges and somewhat worse for wear.

Also, much like it’s owner, it has accepted that change is part of life and that it won’t be around forever, so it may as well enjoy life.

In 1999, I spent my afternoons, following school doing homework, reading, playing video games (on my NES), teaching myself to play the guitar and walking my neighbor’s dog, Jake. Jake, a rather large dog, had a mangy brown coat, massive amounts of energy and a healthy curiosity in just about everything. He also liked to chase rabbits, like most large dog breeds.

Jake’s owner, a diminutive woman in her late 50s, struggled with taking care of him. She arranged to hire a dog walker in the afternoons. I began walking Jake daily – save for the weekends – and quickly grew attached to him. He was energetic, happy, friendly and a joy to walk. This arrangement continued for two years.

Occasionally, my golden Labrador, Max (1995-2005), would tag along. Those two dogs simply loved each other. Sometimes, walking them simultaneously was an exercise in futility. Imagine two large dogs, leading you, rather than being able to control where they’re walking. It certainly made for an interesting day whenever that happened.

During the second year, just before Christmas, I received a gift. It arrived on my doorstep, carefully wrapped. Pictures of Santa Claus and candy canes adorned the paper. Sitting atop the gift was a label reading, “Merry Christmas.” It was signed, “Jake.”

I meticulously unwrapped the package and at first, was disappointed by what I found inside: A Basic Editions black sweater, size L. Hm. The dog got me a sweater for Christmas. How nice; just what I wanted. How did he know?!?!

Of course, I knew his owner had purchased the sweater from K-Mart earlier that month. It couldn’t have been an expensive gift; maybe $20, but that didn’t matter. It was kind, thoughtful and it kept me warm for those winter walks. Over time, it has become my “dog sweater,” the sweater I constantly wear whenever it’s cold. I try to take good care of it and hope to make it last for several more years.

It is difficult to articulate just how much this sweater means to me. In the years following this, I have always welcomed sweaters, ties, shirts, etc.… as gifts, simply because they mean more. If someone gives you something that you can use, that will help you, that increases your self-esteem, keeps you warm or aids in your career/profession, it shows they care.

Granted, trinkets and video games are nice, but do they truly have the same kind of meaning as a sweater from your dog? I have always been a bit of curmudgeon around the holidays, but sometimes, it helps to take a step back and gain some perspective.

Jake is most likely gone now, but his memory remains. Good dogs come along once in a great while, but our time with them is short. Despite the ephemeral companionship, dogs always seem to leave a much longer-impression on their owners. In the time since I lost touch with Jake’s owner and Max died, I have become more of a cat person. Perhaps, it’s because I don’t want to grow attached to a dog, only to lose them after a short time.

Perhaps, I have simply gotten older and found cats much easier to manage and enjoy the company of. Either way, I think about Jake and Max from time-to-time and it is always a positive memory.

Sometimes, especially during the holidays, life can be hectic. People can be downright horrible to one another. Commercialization of the season is rampant and it all seems to be about acquiring more; spending, spending, spending! Then, when you buy your kids something they don’t want or like, they act like spoiled, entitled brats. Any time I hear a story like that or see it in person, it only makes me more grateful for what I have. I think that, deep down, most of us feel that way. My “dog sweater” reminds me of that every day.

I leave you today with the song, “Quit Kickin’ my Dog Around,” by the New Christy Minstrels, from their 1964 album, “Cowboys and Indians.” The song is hilarious and succinctly summarizes the frustration Jake’s owner felt prior to finding him a walker, and how people generally reacted to him. Check it out on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=px0LHqtXMk8 and don’t forget to be kind to each other and play yourself some music.



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