I’m reading Making a Literary Life, by Carolyn See now. It’s a book I’ve added to the short list of books I read each year. In the opening chapters, she writes about finding grist for your writing mill and wonders what your holidays are like. She remembers one Thanksgiving precisely because it didn’t go as expected: she doesn’t elaborate. Given the prompt, I reached into my holiday cookie jar of memories, but can’t remember a single turkey or ham or drive to Tacoma to Turner’s house. Not a one. Sixty years of Thanksgivings, and I can’t recall a single one. But I do remember some Christmases.
Numero One – The Fail Of Fails
I do have Christmas memories, though.
My most memorable Christmas, the Christmas by which all Christmases are measured – at least in my family – was when I pocketed a few bucks by buying Mom a spool of thread. Lest you think this was a wonderful gift because we lived hand-to-mouth in war-torn Czechoslovakia and I scrimped my street cleaning money to find this treasure for her, no. We lived in Tacoma, Washington, where Dad taught Junior High. Mom worked in a greenhouse and moonlighted at Zales during the holidays. Out of this largess, this hard-earned stash of Christmas dough, Mom and Dad gave my sister and me ten bucks to divvy up and buy presents for the family. I was about ten and wanted stamps and models. Of the ten bucks, I reserved a quarter for every person and went on a buying spree for myself. Because she was my Mom, and because I loved her, and because she was getting me that Leaky Boat Louie model I wanted, I stretched her quarter to thirty-five cents and bought her a spool of thread. I can’t remember what color it was, but I did my best to remind her it was her favorite. I hoped my sister wouldn’t notice that I only spent fifteen cents on her. That extra dime had to come from somewhere.
Mom was genuinely hurt. I still see her opening that box. We were in pajamas, my sister and I on our knees watching. I fully expected an eruption when she opened it. Instead, she opened the box, looked inside, and pulled out this thing. I smiled, expectantly, waiting, and she looked at it like it was a diamond, twisting it this way and that as if looking for the secret.
Filled with Christmas spirit, Dad piped up. “What is it?” he asked, genuinely wondering.
“A spool of thread,” said mom.
“A spool of thread?” He looked at me. “You bought your mom a spool of thread?” He looked at her again, and she was still inspecting her treasure.
I nodded and smiled, but my idea wasn’t going over well.
Mom held it up for everyone. “A spool of thread, “ she said, again “Denn bought me a spool of thread for Christmas.” She looked at me again, confused. “Is this what you think of me? You bought me a spool of thread for Christmas?”
I don’t remember but I’m sure I said something about how much she loved sewing and how that was her favorite color and how the Rexall was just about out.
Dad put me on the spot. “You spent thirty cents on Mom?”
I lied, hoping I was better at math than they were. I wasn’t. “I just divided up the money,” I said.
“You divided all the money? Thirty cents out of ten bucks? That’s what you spent on your mother?”
Maybe it was Father Christmas, and maybe they were used to my greed. But that was it. We dropped it. The only time anyone brought the story up again was the following Christmas when I bought mom an art set. It was expensive and when she opened it, I announced to the whole family that I spent so much money this year because of the spool of thread incident the year before.
Mom coughed up a smile, looking at the art box packaging, wondering if thread might have been better than this doorstop.
Two and Three – Not As Bad
Two other Christmases come to mind. One happened the next year. I was a sixth-grader and going steady with Patti. Good grief, I loved that girl. I don’t remember what I got her, but when I opened her card – she’s actually bought me a card! – a crisp, fresh, five-dollar bill dropped out. Dope that I was, I told Mom and Dad who said, “No way. There is no way any girl is giving you five bucks for Christmas. We know her parents, you know. They don’t make any more money than we do, and five bucks is way too much.” For weird parental reasons, this argument made perfect sense to them. “We’re going to the basketball game on Friday. You bring that money with you, and you can give it back to her. Rozumish?” In any Slovak dictionary, this meant ‘do you understand’. At home, it meant you will damn well do what I say, or there will be hell to pay!
Is there such a thing as dope-squared? Why didn’t I stuff the bill in my pocket, lying to my folks on Friday about giving it back? Who knows? But I gave it back. Patti was at the game, and I sat with her. At the most inauspicious time, maybe when we scored the winning basket, I reached into my pocket and grabbed the bill. I gave it to her saying “my parents won’t let me keep it.” Either she understood or thought I was the saddest mama’s boy she ever met. I never figured it out.
One other Christmas went bad, though I couldn’t tell at the time. Older and married, I had a big idea for our first Christmas. Before the wedding, I spent weekends rock climbing in Eastern Washington and hiking anywhere I could pitch a tent. It’s weird to me now, looking back, but we never so much as walked around a park before we married. But, I had a flash: I spent an evening at REI and bought her everything needed to camp or hike with me. What else could she possibly want but a way to spend more time together? She opened twenty boxes on Christmas morning and squealed with each one. We never used the stuff. Never. She would have gone, I think, but we both worked, and both taught Sunday school. Saturday, our one day off, was consumed with family projects and, you know, stuff. We gave it all away or packed it into a drawer.
Number Four – I Get It Right
I made up for these Christmas debacles after I smartened up and got engaged for the second time. It was 2005, and I bought my wife a wedding ring for Christmas, a solitaire marquis, and wrapped it in a small box. I put it in a large box and when it was her turn to open a present from me, I pushed it across the floor like a brick. She thought it was a mixer. She opened the box, and, seeing that it was filled with paper, dug around, wondering what I had done, and discovered the tiny box. Knowing what it was, she cried for a few minutes and put it on her finger to flash around. Now, neither of us wears a ring. She has developed an allergy to the nickel content of gold jewelry and won’t let me buy her a platinum replacement. It’s what I love about her. For me, mine just keeps falling off.
Not all my Christmases were paeans to greed and selfishness. I loved the lights and the snow and the food all around the holiday. I loved watching crappy Christmas cartoons and watching Sony and Cher or Andy Williams take over the television. We would go to church, and my sister and I played the same three Christmas records over and over at home. Mom did lots of crafts, and the kids loved the help. We cooked. I don’t know how it is today for most families. When I was a kid, Christmas and Christmas advertising coincided with us getting out of school. Now, at least where I live, Christmas starts in earnest the day after Halloween, and craft stores start stocking fake trees in August. For kids, though, I don’t see that it makes a difference, it’s fun, and there’s plenty of magic to last.
How about you? Any holiday stories to tell? Do you have an Uncle Andy who makes it into your fiction? Why?