What O. Henry and a telephone index taught me about cash

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Every year, community playhouses, repertory theaters and high school drama classes blow a year’s worth of dust off the script books and, for the umpteenth time, restage that beloved Charles Dickens holiday classic, A Christmas Carol.

But despite having a minor degree in English literature, a shelf filled with leather-bound, gilt-edged Dickens novels, and the 1935 movie, Scrooge, permanently marked “keep” on the DVR, A Christmas Carol is not my favorite holiday story.

There’s another, lesser-known tale from the Christmas canon that I think is much more eloquent in six pages than Dickens’ 50-page happily-ever-after novella about a hard-hearted miser gone good.

The story I refer to is a slight and nearly flawless gem published in December 1905 by William Sydney Porter under the pen name O. Henry.

The Gift of the Magi tells the story of Della and Jim, married turn-of-the-20th-century twenty-somethings with big hearts and little means. It’s a story about love, sacrifice, irony …

and cash.

You can read the entire story here. But to condense an already compact plot:

Despite saving pennies one and two at a time for an entire year, Della is well short of the cash she needs to buy Jim the gift she wants more than anything to give him, a platinum chain for his prized pocket watch, an heirloom carried by his father and grandfather before him.

Struck by a sudden flash of inspiration, Della decides to sell the one precious thing she has, her luxuriant knee-length hair, to get the money for Jim’s gift … only to learn once she’s done it that he has pawned his proudest possession to buy her a set of jewel-edged genuine tortoiseshell combs to pin up her beautiful hair.

Recently, I read this story again amid a preholiday flurry of internet shopping for Christmas gifts. Something right in the first paragraph stopped me:

One dollar and eighty–seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. …

Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present.

Suddenly, I remembered a late afternoon years and years ago, clutching several weeks worth of saved-up allowance money in a mittened hand as I walked with my older brothers through twilight and snow to the TG&Y five-and-dime downtown.

Our mission: Christmas gift-buying for parents and grandparents. I trudged up one aisle and down the next, weighing gift options and price totals with my brothers, whose math skills were a few years ahead of mine.

I still recall one of the gifts we bought — a metal telephone index with a pop-up lid and a sliding A-to-Z button that took you right to the entry for the person you wanted to call.

My brothers and I agreed that Mom, who seemed to be on the phone a lot — especially when you needed something — would love it. She did. And decades later, I expect she still does.

There was something especially big and important about taking a fistful of hard currency to the store to buy Christmas presents. It gives me some inkling of Della’s sacrifice.

So many years later shopping on Amazon, I can pull up a credit card number saved online, knowing that I have all the money in the world that Capital One thinks I’m good for.

But what would Della and Jim’s story have been had she been able to waltz into Tiffany & Co. and tell the sales associate, “Masterpass it”; if Jim had been able to whip out his iPhone at Barney’s New York and tap Apple Pay?

Cash is real; it’s here and now; it’s “This or that, but not both”; it’s “This gift is more important than those running shoes I could have bought.”

For me, ultimately, this is what cash is about. And I believe it’s why cash has outlasted pocket watches and tortoiseshell hair accessories and five-and-dime stores and pop-up phone directories, and will outlast iPhones and Amazon and definitely the cashmere sweater I bought for myself while shopping for my husband.

Next year, maybe I’ll just put the cards away and shop with cash.

photo montage istock

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