Tuesday, First Week in Advent
December 4, 2007
A Christmas Memory
A long, long time ago my sister and I, immobilized by snow pants, snow jackets, and heavy knit caps, were bundled into the family car, a hulking 1960-something Chevy. This was WAY before the age of ?rear seat entertainment systems? so as the car lumbered through our Ohio suburb, we entertained ourselves by watching the road whiz by through the rotted floorboards and by holding a pointed finger a millimeter away from the other?s jacketed arm. ?MOM -- she?s touching me!!!? one of us would yell. The other would predictably scream, ?NO I?M NOT,? which while technically true, was not helpful. After some parental swatting in our general direction, we?d eventually call a cease-fire, divide the back seat into two absolutely equal sections separated by an imaginary demilitarized zone and ride along in silence, steaming up the back window with our breath.
And then there we were -- at the Christmas tree lot. Row upon row of balsams, Scotch pines, and Frasier firs leaned against temporary fencing while massive spotlights swept the evening sky. My mother was a Scotch pine kind of gal, so she quickly narrowed down the choices, and then settled on a nicely shaped six-footer. After the lot attendant heaved the tree into the car?s trunk, my father used a healthy length of rope and an improvised system of knots to keep the tree in (hopefully) and the trunk lid down (sort of). We bickered our way home, but this was happy bickering for we had our tree. And if we had our tree, Christmas couldn?t be far away.
Then suddenly it was morning. THAT morning. Christmas morning. For the first few seconds, the day felt like any other day, full of oatmeal and routine, but then a switch flipped in my brain and the tingle of Christmas buzzed though me. Instead of oatmeal, there?d be Pillsbury Orange Danish. And instead of routine, there were presents and the tree.
Oh, the tree! Santa always decorated the tree after we went to bed (smart parents), and this year he?d outdone himself. In the dull morning light, the all-blue tree blazed and shimmered. Carefully placed strands of tinsel draped each branch while bulbs as big as my little sister?s fist, backed with dazzling metal reflectors, threw off amazing heat and blinding light. It?s a wonder the tree didn?t spontaneously ignite.
And the presents! The Christmases of my childhood were celebrated before safety was invented. You could tell that from the toys. That morning I tore into an erector set, full of sharp metal edges and 20,000 swallowable screws. And a wood-burning kit. (?Here, you?re six, go play with this and try not to brand your sister.?) And the coveted Thingmaker. Oh the joy of the Thingmaker. With the Thingmaker, you could make ?Creepy Crawlers? (caterpillars, butterflies, and spiders) by filling the metal molds with Goop, and then baking the plates in an open heating element until the Goop solidified into rubbery bugs. (Young children. Hot metal. What?s not to love?) Burn-potential aside, I loved that Thingmaker. Loved. Capital L.
My father filmed all of this?the breakfast of messy buns, the blinding tree, the frenzied unwrapping?with his shoebox size 8 mm movie camera. As he filmed, he urged us to hold up this, put down that, stop squinting. Stop squinting?! Didn?t he realize that looking into the beam of that camera was like staring into the headlight of an oncoming freight train? That the light was searing our retinas? That even after he turned OFF the camera, we saw white fuzzy blotches where the tree used to be? Of course not, because he was never IN the movies, he just filmed them. My mother, in her bathrobe, struggled to keep up with the growing pile of tossed around wrapping paper and my father filmed that too. She, at least, knew enough to keep her back to the camera and her retinas safe.
And then it was evening. Christmas was over. My parents sat stuffed and glassy-eyed on the sofa, like lions after a kill. Calm. Happy. Tired. The tree cast its blue glow around the darkened room, and candles flickered on the coffee table, lighting a tabletop manger. Tangerine skins littered the floor, where we lay on our stomachs, coloring in new coloring books, warm in new pajamas.
It was a long, long time ago. It was 1965. But sometimes it feels like yesterday.