When I was small, I loved the thought of Christmas and the thought of getting gifts. We never got much and it was almost always the off brand when we did get something, but I always hoped there was something spectacular under the tree.
Some might say, I should have been thankful for what I received. But me, at 10, 12, 16, or even now at 43 – I’ve always thought we could do better, save more, get just one nice thing instead of 10 terrible things.
When I was 11 my parents left me with my two brothers – I’ve written about this before in TODD. As we approached Christmas, I began to work on this piece about Christmas, but couldn’t finish it until now. It’s not that I hold onto these memories and dwell on them, it’s more like they hold onto me. The Holidays are hard for me, but not as hard as they used to be. Instead of avoiding the memories, I now embrace them in this way or that and they are only a part of the story I have lived. They don’t rule my life, they don’t define me now, but they are a reflection of my experiences and I can’t help but think about them from time to time.
Mom calls once a week and talks to Bobby and Johnny, I sometimes talk to her and sometimes I don’t get a turn. When I do talk to her, I don’t know what to say. I just listen to her breathe on the phone. I wish she were home and I want to tell her that, but I don’t know how to make the words come out of my mouth. She sounds happier being away, she laughs, she’s fishing, going to the flea market and visiting with people and Dad is working. I like her to be happy. So, I don’t tell her anything about me or how I’m feeling, because I don’t know.
It’s a few weeks before Christmas and I’ve long stopped wishing for something spectacular under the tree – that’s just not how it works – we don’t have the money. So, I hope for snow and trips to the library and good TV shows that I’m allowed to watch.
Mom is on the other end of the phone and she says, “We got you something you’ve always wanted for Christmas. You’ll love it. We’re sending it in a box with some other things and it will get there right before Christmas.” As I look back today, I wonder what I thought she was sending. Love? Safety? Security? What had I always wanted? That’s what I needed, but I couldn’t say it. I didn’t know how and back then – I didn’t know that’s what I wanted.
I say – “Wow! I can’t wait until it gets here!”
A week or more pass and Johnny and Bobby have decided they will get a Christmas tree, but not put it in the living room where we usually have it when Mom is here, but they will put it in Mom and Dad’s bedroom, which they have turned into the living room and the old living room is now the sitting room. Looking back, none of us belonged in that life, I wanted to be spectacular and they wanted a sitting room. We were made for better times and things.
We tromp through the snow and the woods to find the tallest tree that will fit in the house and they chop it down – because they love to chop things, kick things, build things, fix things. They drag it back to the house and get it into the stand and decorate. I don’t like decorating, because whatever I put on the tree is not right and not in the right place – according to them. So, eventually I give up and sit on the couch. I eat some chewy Christmas candy left over from last year. They string the lights, put ornaments on, throw tinsel all over and then decide it is time to decorate the GIANT pine tree outside.
The tree outside is so tall that I cannot see the top when I look up, I have to go out into the yard to see the top. I warn them about climbing that tree. “Remember Johnny – how you broke your arms climbing the tree across the street. Mom says don’t climb trees.” They laugh as if I’m crazy and get a ladder and a big mess of lights and go out into the yard. The way Mom tells the story about Johnny’s fall is: “You were in the bathtub and I had to get you out fast because someone ran up to the door and said Johnny was hurt. So I pulled you out and told you get dry and dressed and ran to the front door. When I got there – I saw his arms and they were all crooked. And I took a deep breath and said someone run and get Ardis and see if she can drive us to the hospital. And then Johnny said “I’m sorry Mom.” That’s all he said. That’s it. Broken arms and all and he said he was sorry. He didn’t cry one tear when they set them back in place. He was so brave.” All I remember was I had wet hair and was running a comb through it and I peeked out at Johnny and his arms were all twisted around, his wrists going in the wrong direction. I felt light-headed and sat down and combed my hair some more. He came home with casts up to the elbow on each arm and laid on the couch for a week or more and someone had to help him pee. I’m glad it wasn’t me. That’s how I tell the story.
They work for hours on that tree making sure every bulb is in the right place and when they are finished it’s the best Christmas tree I’ve ever seen in person. Big red, green and blue bulbs light up and shine bright. We laugh and it’s fun being out with these guys in the snow putting up Christmas lights, even though I’m only watching. I would like to be a dare-devil and climb that tree, but there is no way I want to break my arms so I’m not doing it.
A few days later, when I get home from school Bobby and Johnny are busy doing something, wrapping something and laughing. It’s the last day of school before Christmas and I am home now for the week, it’s Wednesday and I only have to wait two days until Christmas, but really only one day to open presents – on Christmas Eve. That tradition started because my Dad used to be with his other family on Christmas day. The one he was married to and not us and that is an entirely different story for another time. I’m happy to be off school, but bored because I know I’ll be listening to a whole lot of Billy Joel and Foreigner on my Dad’s 8-track player that is now in the sitting room. These guys listen to it non-stop, so loud that I can’t watch TV.
They tell me “Stay out of here, we’re wrapping Christmas presents from Mom and Dad.” Laughing and laughing, rustling paper, I watch a rerun of Brady Bunch and there’s a small part of me that is excited and thinks maybe, just maybe this year something spectacular is going to be under that tree.
They come out of the living room and say, “You can take a look now.” I don’t care anymore, but that small part of me that hopes for something special goes to take a look. The tree is full underneath with what looks like 30 or more presents all wrapped with bows and some even have a ribbon around them. There is one giant box in the back corner of the tree, almost behind it.
Bobby says “That one is for you.”
I smile and say ”Really? What it is it?”
They laugh “Stupid, we aren’t going to tell you what it is, go pick it up and shake it.”
“I don’t want to.” I say.
“C’mon just try it.” I walk around and it is so heavy I can barely lift it. “What is it?”
“Guess.” I’m really not into this whole thing of guessing. I’m never right, so I don’t guess and sit on the couch again.
They laugh and say “Don’t you wonder what it is?”
“It’s heavy.” I say
“What could be so heavy?” Bobby yells grinning ear to ear.
“I don’t know, maybe it’s a bowling ball?”
“You don’t even like bowling.” Johnny says.
I can’t figure it out.
I’m excited, but I’m not telling anyone, so I sit on the couch and wonder and wonder.
On Christmas Eve, Johnny says “Let’s open presents on Christmas morning like normal people.” Bobby says “Yeah, that’s what normal people do.” I do not want to do this so I grumble around and get mad and punch the couch, but I know they are not going to change their minds. So, we watch some TV and drink soda, eat candy and eventually I fall asleep on the couch.
When I wake up, I don’t really want to open presents but Bobby and Johnny are so excited. They say “You have to wait and open the big one last!”
“Can’t I open it first?”
“No, we’re saving the best for last, Mom said.”
“Mom’s not here, so who cares.” I fire back.
We open socks and underwear and I open a new nightgown and some other things that don’t matter. There is wrapping paper everywhere, all over the living room. Bobby brings me the big box. My stomach flutters as I peel back the paper and pull back the tape on the top of the box.
I close my eyes and open the box, it’s full of packing peanuts. I scoop handfuls out and onto the floor and then I see something. Gray and dark, so I dig on and I see more of something gray and dark and I stop and tears flow and flow and flow. I scoot back from the box and cry. “ROCKS!” I scream “They sent me rocks?” I can see on their faces – they realize – they were playing a joke –but I do not think this is a joke and it is not funny.
“Amy, Amy, it’s okay, really there is a present in there, we just thought it would be funny to put rocks in there. There really is a present in there Amy, seriously.” I scoot back further. “I don’t want it. I don’t care. You are the meanest people I have ever known” I sob, sniffing snot back.
“Amy, really, look, it’s something you’ve always wanted it. Look Amy.” they plead.
I look and they have a brown plastic box in their hands. I rip it out of their hands and open it. It’s a silver watch with digital time – something I have always wanted. I pull it out of the box, it has a stretchy metal band on it. I pull back the band and slide it over my wrist. It feels cheap on my arm, like a play toy. I pull it off and throw it down. “I don’t want it. It’s like everything else, cheap. They probably got it at a flea market.”
I put some jeans on, pull on a sweatshirt, two pairs of socks and my boots. Put my coat on, slam the door and walk to the woods where everything is quiet. In the middle of the trees and snow – I stand and cry again, the cold feels good on my hot wet face.
While my brothers are villains in this story and Todd, I adored them and loathed them. They were kids themselves trying to take care of me in the ways they new how, like teenage boys.