“A family is a unit composed not only of children but of men, women, an occasional animal, and the common cold.” ~Ogden Nash
For most children, Christmas morning is the most magical part of the most magical time of the year. But not for Jedidiah Ashworth Tartikoff, IV. That distinction, in the mind of the 10-year-old from Powder Springs, Georgia, belonged to the day after Christmas, when he and his family made their annual pilgrimage to the home of his namesake, the patriarch of the Tartikoff clan.
The trip was neither lengthy nor arduous, and the Tartikoff mansion could easily accommodate ten times as many visitors. Nor did ill health, incompatibility, or a lack of manners dictate that the familial sojourn be limited to a yearly event. The senior Tartikoff had instituted the rule long before the arrival of a third iteration of Jedidiah Ashworths, let alone a fourth, and the reasoning for it was quite simple: old Jed spent most of the year traveling, and while he remained far too absorbed in his studies to bother with trivial holidays, he always paid enough attention to know when Christmas Day was at hand. And, since most people who traveled home for the holidays wanted to be home on December 25th, Jed Senior never had trouble finding a seat on an airplane, his preferred method of travel since the invention of pressurized cabins.
The annual ritual commenced with an afternoon meal catered by a firm with whom Jed senior had a long-standing contract. The table in the Tartikoff dining room stretched like the deck of an aircraft carrier, comfortably accommodating the two dozen relatives who made the journey each year.
The clan included five children in addition to Jed-IV, all girls and all of them older, taller, noisier and–to young Jed’s way of thinking–far less adventurous. Though allowed to sit with the older Tartikoffs (plus a handful of Johnsons and Mahoneys who married into the family), the children were clustered at the far end of the runway where they were less likely to disturb the adults as they jockeyed for acknowledgment by the head of the clan.
Gifts would be distributed after the meal to all who attended, and while everyone had a notion about how the patriarch decided who got what, no one really knew. The overwhelming consensus held that making the old man smile would result in something useful, perhaps even valuable, while displeasing him would almost certainly garner for the hapless relation a useless oddity. Membership in the community of grovelers was restricted to those old enough to vote, thus exempting the children from the need to embarrass themselves, assuming any were capable of such.
A gentle rap of knife on crystal quieted the crowd. Jed senior cleared his throat and addressed them. “Thank you–all of you–for humoring an old man and sharing your holiday with him.”
Jed-IV, a precocious fourth-grader, had only just learned about speaking in third person but knew of no one besides his great-grandfather whoever did it.
“Every Christmas this old man wonders if it will be his last.” Forced to pause, he raised his hands to quell the chorus of denials. “And every year he is rewarded with another. It is gratifying beyond words.” He took a sip of wine then set the glass on the table with an unsteady hand. “This year, however, will almost certainly be the last.” Once again two dozen voices of protest drowned the old man out, and he closed his heavy-lidded eyes and waited for them to settle down.
“Many of you are no doubt wondering what will become of this house and all its contents.” He raised his voice above a more subdued range of protests. “But that hasn’t been decided, yet.” Great shaggy brows drew down over sharp hazel eyes as he scanned the gathering, pausing to stare into each face as if to recognize it, or worse, to find some flaw.
“We all appreciate your great flair for the dramatic, Granddad,” Jed-III said, removing his napkin from the front of his shirt. “But I’m sure you’ll share many more Christmases with us.”
“So your father thought,” observed the eldest Tartikoff, the only one willing to bring up any unpleasantness at the traditional dinner. “Perhaps if his father had been less indulgent, Junior would still be with us.” He sighed and shook his head. “See that you don’t make the same mistake.”
Jed-IV tried not to squirm as twenty-three pairs of eyes turned in his direction. He discovered that juice from his cranberries had mingled with his mashed potatoes, the result being a fair topographical rendering of South America. He used his fork to dredge and widen the Amazon then launched a green bean seed canoe into it from somewhere in Brazil.
“Meanwhile,” continued the elder, “let us consign such thoughts to another time and adjourn to the drawing-room.”
Jed-IV vacated his seat before his fork hit the plate and accelerated through the double doors of the dining room. He slalomed into the long central hallway leading to the library, conservatory, and assorted other high-ceilinged rooms the last and most spacious of which had played host to Tartikoff gatherings for three generations.
Ensconced in a leather easy chair, its smooth surface warmed by the flames from a man-high fireplace, Jed-IV waited in strained silence for the rest of the family. They trickled in slowly as if walking to an execution rather than the dispersal of amazing, and quite possibly stupendous artifacts from the most exotic and obscure places on the planet and, for all young Jed knew, beyond.
Ritual demanded that everyone be present before Jed-I took his seat in a raised and curtain-backed alcove at the front of the room, ignited one of the enormous black cigars he allowed himself every season, and cradled an exquisite Chinese vase in his lap. The brightly decorated ceramic would contain precisely two dozen hand-painted marbles, each of which would bear the name of a country, the picture of an animal, or some other reference. The elder Tartikoff would extract the marbles one at a time and summon a beneficiary to a brief conference during which something about the gift was revealed. Marble in hand, the recipient would then be given leave to figure out the nature of the object. Those who solved the riddle would be told where to find the gift. An unspoken rule insured that everyone solved their own puzzle. Any cheating, if Jed senior twigged to it, would be remembered the following year with dire consequences.
The children welcomed the challenge of the riddles. Jed-IV recalled the previous year when his marble was decorated with the images of ostrich feathers and a leopard pelt, and Jed-I told him the object was a tool more important to its owner than a knife, fork, and spoon. Much to his mother’s dismay, the youngster guessed correctly and collected a genuine, hand-crafted Watusi hunting spear. Little Jed immediately began a dance around the crowded room during which he brandished the weapon. The ebony shaft and leaf-shaped blade elicited frightened screams from his female cousins and stern warnings from the adults. Somehow, everyone survived. Jed’s mother had the spear mounted, semi-permanently, on the wall of his bedroom. Jed had visions of claiming an elephant gun or a rhinoceros this year.
The adults were far less enchanted with the riddles. In years past, many had gone home with nothing more than the marble and a vague reference to an uncollected gift to show for their trouble. Nor did success at solving the riddle ensure the recipient of something rare, although a few of the gifts were astonishingly valuable, like the 3-carat, pear-shaped diamond the elder Jed’s daughter-in-law received the previous year, or the Land Rover Jed-III drove home the year before that. In years past, one of the Johnsons took home a Polynesian fertility charm, and now there were five Johnsons in all.
The Mahoneys, by contrast, took home a myna bird with both perfect pitch and, much to Mr. Mahoney’s surprise, an astonishingly accurate memory and playback capability. The divorce was finalized by the following Thanksgiving, and the court granted custody of the two younger Mahoneys to Jed-IV’s aunt.
One by one, Jedidiah senior called out names and conferred with family members. One by one they turned away, some smiling and some clearly puzzled, but none of them held any marbles. Instead, each came away with a small white package bound by a satiny ribbon. Finally, Jed the eldest summoned Jed the youngest, and the latter scrambled toward the patriarch as quickly as he could.
Having anticipated the gusto with which his youngest namesake would undoubtedly approach, Jed-I intercepted him with an outstretched cushion, softening the blow and folding the boy into his lap in one swift, neat maneuver.
“You called me last!” the boy chided as he looked into the watery eyes of the old man. He had an odd sort of sour smell, too, not that it mattered. Jed-IV often bore odd smells of his own. “Why’d ya make me wait, Gramp?”
Jed-I smiled. “As trite as it sounds, I like to save the best for last.”
The boy held out his hands. “I’m ready for my marble. I’m ready to guess my present. Is it a gun? A big gun?”
Jed shook his head ever so slightly.
The boy grinned, his eyes growing wide with anticipation. He turned to block the view of anyone else in the room who might be tempted to share his moment of triumph and dropped his voice to a whisper. “Is it a rhino?”
“Good God, no! Can you imagine me trying to gift wrap a rhino?” Jed senior splayed his hands upwards in a show of theatrical frustration, then grabbed the boy around the middle and tickled him. “You can’t imagine how squirmy they are. Almost as bad as you!”
Jed-IV giggled and kicked and did some serious squirming, just as he imaged a young rhino might if he ever got his hands on one. Unfortunately, the tickling stopped all too soon, and the old man just smiled at him.
“Don’t I get a marble?” the boy asked. “How can I guess if I don’t even get a clue?”
“I’m doing things a little differently this year,” Jed-I said. The boy noticed a slight rasp in the old man’s voice, and his words didn’t seem as distinct as they had in the past. He reached into a shopping bag beside his armchair and withdrew a small white box which he placed carefully in the boy’s hands. “I’m giving everybody one of these instead. Don’t open it ’til you get home. I’ve asked everyone to wait.”
Jed-IV stared up into the rheumy eyes of his great-grandfather. “What is it?”
Old Jed smiled and said, “It’s my gift. I give you the world.”
The drive home was excruciating. Jed-IV kept the little white package in his lap but couldn’t resist the temptation to shake it. Other than a slight sloshing sound, it made no noise. Nor did it weigh very much, certainly nowhere near enough to contain even a small continent, let alone the whole world.
Jed’s parents had similar packages, both of which sat undisturbed in his mother’s lap for the entire journey. When the nearly endless 30-minute drive finally came to a conclusion, the boy tore the ribbon off his box.
“Stop!” his father said. “Wait until we get inside.”
Jed-IV raced to the front porch of their modest home and danced from foot to foot as his parents eased slowly toward the house. The boy’s mother had just recently celebrated her 35th birthday, and he prayed he wouldn’t be so feeble when he reached her age. There was hope, after all, Gramp was much older than his mom, and until this year he’d never been so poky. “C’mon!” the boy yelled as his father negotiated the door lock.
At long last Jed tumbled through the opening. The red satin ribbon and a layer of white tissue paper floated in his wake as he slid across the floor and came to a stop with his back against the foyer wall and Gramp’s gift in his hands.
He stared down at it as a wave of disappointment washed over him. His parents ignored him as they put their coats in the hall closet. He heard them muttering, but the sounds didn’t register as anything save more noise to mingle with the static in his brain.
“What is it, dear?” his mother asked.
Jed-IV held the object up for their inspection.
Jed-III squinted. “Ah. It’s one of those snow scene things. Shake it, and you’ll see little white snowflakes swirl around inside.”
The boy did as instructed and little white snowflakes did indeed swirl around inside. They orbited a small green and blue ball that might have represented the Earth if it had been painted with any precision.
“How nice,” said his mother, skepticism heavy in her tone. She held an identical snowy globe in her hand.
Jed-III sighed as he unwrapped his own and set it on a table. “I’m afraid this doesn’t bode well for the Tartikoff fortune. I’ll bet the old pirate squandered it all.”
“Who’s an old pirate?” the boy asked.
“Never mind,” said his mother. “It’s past your bedtime.”
“But Mom, wait! Maybe we’re missing something. Maybe these things are a riddle just like the marbles Gramp used to give.”
“He used to give clues with the marbles,” Jed-III observed. “He didn’t say anything like that to me this year.”
“He told me the future was in front of all of us,” Jed’s mother added. “How’s that for an original concept?”
Jed’s father nodded. “He said that to me, too, but I blew it off. I mean, really. How lame is that?” They looked at their son. “Did he say anything to you?”
The boy shook his head and held up the snow globe. “He said something about giving me the world. I didn’t think he meant something stupid like this.” He put it on the table next to his father’s. “There’s gotta be something more to it. Couldn’t we at least call him and ask?”
His father shrugged, picked up the phone and dialed. He held the receiver to his ear and waited, but there was no answer. He hung up. “Maybe he went to bed. He wasn’t looking terribly well. I’ll call again in the morning.”
The next day they learned that Jedidiah Ashworth Tartikoff, Senior, had left for Sri Lanka the night before. Three months later, he died.
The Tartikoffs, Johnsons, and Mahoneys celebrated Christmas on December 25th the following year. Rather than grouse, giggle or genuflect over baubles from the family patriarch, especially since there no longer was one, the surviving adults spent their time arguing about the disposition of the estate. Not that their wishes had much bearing on the issue as Jed senior had seen fit to obtain the services of a phalanx of lawyers who advised family members not to plan any precipitous job changes or early retirements as the estate would be tied up in legal knots on a Gordian scale for the foreseeable future.
The day ended in a ferocious argument, and the various elements of the clan took off in different directions vowing to establish their own family traditions for all the Christmases to come.
Thus passed the next eleven years. Jed-IV saw nothing of his relations except for one of the un-adventuresome female cousins who accepted a blind date with one of his university chums. The relationship failed to flower, however, and Jed never did find an opportunity to chat with her. However, the incident did cause him to think once again of Christmases past and the mystery of the snow globes.
He had kept all three of them on a shelf in his room where they had accumulated a nearly impenetrable coating of dust. He selected one, carried it to the garage, and proceeded to clean it with an old pair of gym shorts and a dose of the industrial-strength soap his parents marketed in hopes of one day restoring the Tartikoff fortune.
While executing a final rinse, the globe squirted out of his hands, bounced off the front edge of the washtub and plunged to the concrete floor where the sealed environment became dramatically unsealed. Snow, water, and planet lay amid scattered bits of broken glass on the oil-stained cement. Cursing his clumsiness, Jed-IV swept the world his great-grandfather had given him into a 10-gallon Rubbermaid trash can.
By the merest chance, Jed happened to notice the end of a tiny roll of paper protruding from the base of the malformed planet where it had once rested on its pristine plastic base. Skillfully dodging the glass fragments surrounding it, Jed rescued the world, removed the paper, and read the cryptic words written on it by an obviously unsteady hand:
Stop! Say nothing, but drop everything. Take this note to the Atlanta offices of Badenheim, Borgeron, Bartlesby, and Smith and identify yourself as the heir to Jedidiah Ashworth Tartikoff. I promised you the world, and assuming BBB&S hasn’t abused my trust, you shall have it.
Congratulations, & Merry Christmas!
Jed stared down at the odd note trembling in his hand, trying to decide if he should summon his parents or simply follow the instructions which had lain dormant for so many years. He decided he owed it to Gramp to follow his wishes. He did, however, borrow his father’s car and made the trip to the tony lair of Badenheim, et al, in record time.
After a short delay, the receptionist ushered him into the oak and leather sanctuary of Leonard Bartlesby, the last surviving member of the original partners. The aging barrister gestured to a seat as Jed-IV entered the spacious office.
“I had all but given up hope that anyone would come forward,” Bartlesby said, his southern accent tinged with an undertone from somewhere in the northeast.
“It’s true, then?” Jed asked. “Gramp left me a gift after all?”
“Oh, absolutely.” The two men looked up as a very efficient looking woman in a sternly cut gray suit entered the room and deposited a box on the lawyer’s desk. She left without a word or a glance at either of them.
“Scary woman, that one,” Bartlesby said, then removed several sealed envelopes, examining the names until he found the right one. “Here it is,” he said. “J. A. Tartikoff, the fourth. That’s you, isn’t it?”
Jed nodded vigorously, and the attorney passed him the envelope. While Jed examined its contents, Bartlesby fed the rest of the envelopes into a shredder.
“What are you doing?” Jed cried.
“Following instructions,” the attorney said. “Your great-grandfather insisted that there be but one heir to his estate. You’re it. And, if you’ll forgive me a moment of crass commercialism, may I point out that even if we hadn’t managed to triple the size of his estate while it was in our care, you would still be one of the richest men in the country.”
Jed’s heart crashed repeatedly into his ribs. “I don’t know what to say.”
Bartlesby laughed. “You’re not required to say anything. We’ll need your signature on a few documents. After that, it’ll take us a few more days to see that the proper papers are filed with the courts. There are a couple lawsuits pending, but now that you’re here I feel sure they’ll be dismissed. We’re authorized to disburse the estate to you in twenty annual payments — or transfers of equivalent securities. Your only obligations are listed in the document you have in your hand.”
The smile on Jed’s face had grown so wide that it had nearly become painful. He tried to tone it down, working his jaws to loosen them as he read. When he finished he glanced at the attorney. “I really have to do this?”
“Oh, dear.” Bartlesby looked down at the shredder and frowned. “I hope you aren’t going to tell me you can’t agree to the terms.”
Jed shook his head. “No. I mean, yes! I agree. It’s just– Well, except for my parents, I haven’t spoken to anyone in my family in years. Now I’m supposed to pull them all together every Christmas?”
“Correct. And you’ll provide for the transportation of any who live out of town. Further, you will spend a portion of every year outside the country locating suitable gifts for every one of them and any others born since the death of Jedidiah senior.” Bartlesby gave Jed a severe and lawyerly stare. “Naturally, we will monitor such events, though at a respectful distance. Should you fail in your duties, further payments will cease and the balance of the estate will be turned over to charity.”
“The arrangement is iron-clad, Mr. Tartikoff.” The attorney preened. “Badenheim, Borgeron, Bartlesby, and Smith is the best law firm in the business. We’ll do whatever it takes to see that these terms are carried out. Is that understood?”
“Absolutely,” Jed said. “I understand completely. There’s no problem.” He got up to leave and made it as far as the massive oak office door.
“Oh, wait!” Bartlesby exclaimed, “there is one more thing.” He rummaged around in a lower drawer of his huge desk. “Your great-grandfather mailed this to us a few weeks before he passed away. He asked us to give it to you in the event you showed up here.” The aging barrister surrendered a lumpy envelope. Written on the outside in a now-familiar scrawl were the words:
Jed, sorry this is so late.
He tore off the end and shook the contents into his hand: a miniature hunting rifle and a tiny porcelain rhinoceros.