“Time to open presents,” I said as I put my dinner plate in the sink.
“First I have to do the dishes, then I have to go upstairs and finish wrapping them,” Mom replied. “I told you, I’d tell you when I was ready. Go watch Jeopardy! or something.”
“Mark is watching basketball.”
“Then go watch basketball with Mark.”
“I don’t care about those two teams,” I said, climbing the stairs to my bedroom. I turned on the computer. My parents had no Internet service, so the only way I could use the Internet was to dial the same number I used to connect to the Internet in Jeromeville. Mom told me that it was okay to check my email a couple of times per day, but I did not want to tie up the phone line for hours at a time with an expensive long distance call, so I was not chatting on IRC or reading Usenet newsgroups from my parents’ house.
I listened as the modem made the sounds associated with checking my email. It began with a standard dial tone, followed by the tones of the number I had to call to connect to the University of Jeromeville network, but this time there were eleven tones, not seven, since I was calling from outside the area code. A series of hisses, clicks, high-pitched beeps, whirs, and other unintelligible sounds followed this, until I saw a progress bar indicating that my messages were downloading. When the messages had all downloaded, about a minute later, the computer clicked and disconnected. I had last checked my email when I woke up this morning, and four new messages had come in since then. Three of them were jokes that people had forwarded me from someone else, and I had seen all of them before. The fourth message, which was sent early this afternoon, I paid more attention to. It was from Brittany, a girl in Texas who was one of the first friends I made on the Internet, a year a half earlier when this computer was brand new. This was the first I had heard from Brittany in about a month.
Date: Sun, 24 Dec 1995 01:44 -0600
Subject: Re: hi
Greg! I’m so sorry I haven’t been writing. I’ve been really busy with school. Classes this year have been so much more work than high school was. I feel like I did ok on all my finals though. Studying for finals pretty much took up all of the last few weeks. But now I can catch my breath until spring semester starts. How did your finals go? Are you back with your family for Christmas?
I used to get emails from Brittany just about every day for most of the last school year, my freshman year at UJ and Brittany’s senior year of high school. But over the last several months, I had heard from her less and less as her life got busier. I clicked Reply and began typing.
From: “Gregory Dennison” <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Re: hi
Hi! It’s good to hear from you! I’m glad you did well on finals. What are you taking next semester? Do you have any fun plans over break? Do you know yet where you want to transfer after you finish community college?
I think I did well on my finals too. I only had three this year. I’ve been at my parents’ house for about a week. We’re going to open presents later tonight. We always open presents the night before Christmas, because the night before my 9th birthday, I was so excited to open presents that I couldn’t sleep, and I kept Mom awake all night. Ever since, so that I’d be able to sleep when I was a kid, we always open birthday and Christmas presents the night before instead. Tomorrow, we’re going to church, and then my grandma’s house in Gabilan, the next town over. My aunt and uncle and cousins will be there, so we’ll have more presents to open.
My mom also wants to go see my grandma’s neighbors. Their daughter is a senior in high school, she’s taking physics, and Mom volunteered me to tutor her. I don’t particularly want to spend my break doing homework with some stranger. I really wish Mom would ask me first before volunteering me for things. That’s how I ended up with the summer job at the bookstore. But at the same time, maybe it won’t be so bad, because I get to hang out with a girl.
“I can’t find bows,” Mom called from her bedroom. “Do you care if one of your presents doesn’t have a bow?”
I minimized the window in which I was typing my message to Brittany and opened the door. “Mom, I tell you every year, we look at the wrapping paper for like two minutes and then tear it off. I don’t care what the wrapping looks like.”
“Well, I want it to look nice. Gifts are supposed to have bows.”
“I really don’t care.”
“If you really don’t care, then, I’m done. Are you ready to open presents?”
I saved my unfinished message to Brittany and turned the computer off, following Mom downstairs. I would have more to write after I was done opening presents.
“I hope this is the one you asked for,” Mom said as Mark opened a box. Inside was a University of North Carolina Tar Heels basketball jersey.
“Yeah, this is it,” Mark said, admiring his present. “Thank you!” Mark lived and breathed basketball, and he had favorite players on many different teams as well as several favorite college basketball teams, none of which were anywhere near our house in Plumdale. I preferred to be a fan of local teams, but most of the top college basketball programs were on the other side of the country; North Carolina, for example.
I grabbed a box with my name on it next; from the size and weight, I guessed that it continued clothing. I pulled out a gray shirt with red writing and tan highlights: BAY CITY CAPTAINS, it said. “Thank you,” I replied. The Bay City Captains were my favorite pro football team, the only sports team that I followed closely that year. The Captains won last year’s championship and, despite having lost the final game of the season that morning, would advance to the playoffs again this year. I made a note to myself not to mention the Captains shirt when I finished my email to Brittany, given what I knew about her football allegiances.
We continued opening presents. I got a new pair of jeans, and some blank audio cassettes, for making copies of CDs and listening to them in the car. My car had no CD player. Mom handed me one final gift, a box about the size of a book, but much less heavy. “You didn’t ask for this, but I saw it and figured I had to get it for you,” Mom explained.
“Ha! This looks hilarious!” I shouted as I tore the wrapping paper and read the label underneath. It was a computer game, Beavis and Butthead: Virtual Stupidity. I read the description on the back of the box. It was an adventure game; the player controlled Beavis and Butthead as they walked around the streets of Highland, making mischief and trying to impress Todd, the local delinquent who the boys misguidedly admired. But then I saw something on the label that made me feel panic mixed with disappointment. “I can’t play this,” I said.
“What do you mean?” Mom asked.
“It’s for Windows 95.”
“Oh… and that means there’s no way it’ll run on your computer?”
“I’m pretty sure.”
“Can you get Windows 95 for your computer?”
“That would be expensive. And my computer isn’t very powerful; it would probably run very slowly.”
“I’m sorry,” Mom said. “I didn’t even think to look.”
You never do, I thought. I considered bringing up the time Mom completely missed the “explicit lyrics” warning label when she got Aunt Jane one of Adam Sandler’s comedy albums a few Christmases ago, but I decided not to say anything.
“We’ve been meaning to get a computer for us,” Mom continued. “So you can play it here when you come home for spring break. Right?”
“Yeah. That works.”
After we were finished opening presents, I went upstairs. I was disappointed that I would not be able to play the Beavis and Butthead game, but I tried not to let my disappointment show. Christmas was always stressful for Mom, and I already felt a little frustrated with Mom because of the way she had volunteered me to tutor Monica Sorrento in physics without asking me. I turned on the computer and finished my email to Brittany.
We just finished opening presents. Mom got me the Beavis and Butthead computer game, but it requires Windows 95 and I don’t have that. I feel bad, because Mom is going to think I’m upset with her. When I was 13, my computer was broken, and my presents that year were all computer games, and I got so upset and threw a tantrum because I couldn’t play with any of my Christmas presents. I feel terrible, because now Mom always has to apologize over and over again if any of us asked for something for Christmas and she wasn’t able to find it, or if something she got wasn’t quite right. I’ve told her every year I’m more mature now and she doesn’t have to worry about it, but I think I traumatized her for life.
What are you doing for Christmas? Have a great day!
The next morning, as we drove to church, Mom was rattling off a bunch of things about people whom we might see at church this morning. “The Lusks all went to midnight mass, so we won’t see them, but they’ll be at Grandma and Grandpa’s house this afternoon,” Mom said.
“Good,” I replied. Jane Lusk was my mom’s younger sister, and seeing their family, particularly my cousins Rick and Miranda, was always a highlight of Christmas for me.
“And the Sorrentos usually go to Mass first thing in the morning. But we’re still going over there this afternoon.” I nodded silently, prompting Mom to ask, “Right?”
“Yes,” I said. I did not want to make the situation worse, but I felt like I really needed to speak up. “But I really do wish you would stop volunteering me for things without asking me first,” I said.
Mom paused, taken off guard by my question. “Are you saying you don’t want to go see Monica Sorrento today?”
“No. It wouldn’t be nice to back out now.” Besides, I thought, it isn’t every day that I get to talk to girls, but I did not say that part out loud.
“Okay,” Mom said, sounding bothered. “But when have I volunteered you to do things before?”
“When you told Paula McCall that I could work at the bookstore over the summer.”
“You were home, you had nothing to do, and you even said you should get a job.”
“I know, but maybe that wasn’t the job I wanted. I mean, I probably would have said yes if you had asked me, but you still should have asked me first.” Mom did not reply to that, so I continued. “And remember fourth grade, when most of my class was mean to me, and you invited all four of the kids who weren’t mean to me over for play dates.”
“I thought that’s what you wanted. I was trying to help you make friends.”
“I wanted to make friends, but I wanted them to be nicer to me at school. I didn’t want them at our house. And in sixth grade, when we had to babysit Jonathan Hawley once a week because you thought I might want to play with someone from my class. He was so annoying!”
After a few seconds of silence, Mom replied, “He was annoying, wasn’t he. I’m sorry.”
“Just ask me first next time you tell someone you think I’d like to do something.”
“Okay. I promise I will.”
“And you’re sure you’re still okay with going to the Sorrentos today?”
After church, we exchanged presents from the rest of the family at my grandparents’ house. Grandma got me new socks, and Aunt Jane got me another Bay City Captains shirt, a little different from the one I had opened at my parents’ house. Rick’s present from Mom was a Captains hat that looked very similar to my shirt. I suspected that Mom and Aunt Jane had bought all of the Captains merchandise together when they went shopping together earlier in the week.
After about another hour of sitting around eating and playing games, Mom asked if it was okay to go next door to the Sorrentos’ house now. “Okay,” I said. I got up and followed Mom next door, waiting nervously on the porch behind Mom as she rang the doorbell. The Sorrentos were a large family, and they lived in a large two-story house. They had five girls; Monica was 17, the oldest, and the youngest was in elementary school. Mom had known the Sorrentos for years; Mom and Aunt Jane and Mr. Sorrento and his sister all went to high school together.
A few seconds later, I heard footsteps and the clicking of a door being unlocked; the door opened, with Mrs. Sorrento on the other side. “Hi, Peggy! Hi, Greg! Merry Christmas!” she said. I could not remember if I had ever actually met Mrs. Sorrento, but everyone at Our Lady of Peace Church seemed to know who I was, because they knew Mom.
“Hi,” I said.
“Monica is in her room. I’ll go tell her you’re here,” Mrs. Sorrento said, walking down the hallway. I stood awkwardly, staring at Mom and looking around at the part of the Sorrentos’ house that I could see from the doorway, until Mrs. Sorrento returned with Monica about a minute later.
“Hi,” Monica said, smiling. Turning to me, she said, “Nice to meet you,” and shook my hand. I returned the handshake. Monica was short and thin, with curly brown hair and brown eyes.
“You needed help with physics?” Mom said to Monica. “Greg always liked physics.”
“There was something I didn’t understand,” Monica explained, “but I went in to talk to the teacher about it. I think I get it now.”
So Mom dragged me all the way here to tutor Monica in physics, and now she says she does not need a tutor. Now I really did not understand the point of all this. “That’s good,” I said to Monica. Trying to think of something to say, I added, “I had a bad physics test last year. High school physics was easy for me, so I didn’t study very hard. But I started going to my professor’s office hours, and I studied really hard for the next one, and that time I had the highest grade out of the whole class, about 200 people.”
“Wow,” Monica replied. “I know that’s normal for you, but 200 people in a class sounds kind of crazy.”
“So how do you like Jeromeville?”
“I like it. It’s a huge school, but I’ve found smaller communities to get involved with. That’s important.”
“Yeah. I’ve been thinking about colleges, but I’m going to stay home and go to Hartman for the first two years. I’m probably going to apply to Jeromeville, though. And U of the Bay, and Capital State, and Central Tech. I know those for sure.”
“That sounds good.”
“Greg applied to Central Tech too,” Mom added. “But not Capital State. Right?”
We continued making small talk with Monica and Mrs. Sorrento for about another fifteen minutes. Mom and Mrs. Sorrento talked about people from church whom I did not know, and Monica and I talked about school and classes. Mr. Sorrento and two of Monica’s sisters also appeared to say hi.
“Are you ready to go back to Grandma’s house?” Mom asked.
“I think so,” I replied. Turning to Monica, I added, “And you’ll let me know if you need help with physics or anything like that?”
“Sure!” Monica answered. “Let me get your contact information.” She went back to her room and returned with a pen and paper, on which I wrote my address, phone number, and email.
“Can I get yours too?” I asked. “Well, I know your address. Do you have email?”
“My dad does. If you write me there, he’ll pass it on to me.” Monica wrote her phone number and Mr. Sorrento’s email on the piece of paper, tore that part of the paper off, and gave it to me. I put it in my pocket.
“Thank you,” I said. “It was nice meeting you.”
“Nice meeting you too!” Monica said, smiling.
“Thanks for coming over,” Mrs. Sorrento added. “It was good seeing you guys.”
“You too,” Mom said.
As soon as we were out of earshot, walking back up to Grandma’s front door, Mom said, “See? That wasn’t so bad.”
“I know,” I said.
“And I promise in the future, I’ll ask you before I tell someone you’ll do something.”
“Thank you. Can we just drop that now and enjoy the rest of Christmas?”
I still thought it was a little strange that Mom seemed to make such a point of Monica needing help with physics, but then Monica told me she did not even need help. I could think of two possible explanations for how this happened: either Mom misunderstood whatever Mrs. Sorrento had originally said about Monica not doing well in physics, or the physics thing was entirely made up and Mom was just trying to help me meet girls. Either one was very possible, knowing Mom.
Monica and I kept in touch off and on for the rest of that school year, and I saw her in person occasionally on future visits to my grandmother’s house over the years. We never did become close lifelong friends, nor did anything else happen between us, but that was just part of the cycle of people meeting each other and growing apart naturally.
Since that day, though, Mom really did get better about not telling people I would do things for them without asking me first. When situations like that came up in the future, Mom would say things like “I’ll ask Greg” instead of “Greg would love to do that.” And that was what I really wanted, to be treated like an adult and be allowed to make my own decisions. Being a parent and watching children grow up is a difficult transition, but a willingness to communicate and listen helps everyone get through it.