1. Rabbit Fur Coat: When I was 17, it was 1977. Rabbit fur coats were all the rage for teenaged girls and young women that year. That was a year after I moved in with Dad and Ellen in Chicago and I had only a token winter coat, having come straight from much more moderate temperatures in Virginia. My best friend had a rabbit fur coat, as did a couple of other girls at school. I had borrowed my best friend’s coat a couple of times and thought how warm and trendy it was. I felt so cool, so sophisticated and uptown wearing it. I never nagged Dad and Ellen for anything; after all, they were providing me with a home away from the Sturm and Drang of living with my mother, I was in a whole new city with cool things to do, and they were so very loving and so good to me.
With my Dad being a cost accountant with the Federal Reserve Bank, we lived, and often talked about, budgeting, the importance of living within one’s means, and I even had a monthly budget. My folks gave me a generous allowance, and with it I could buy whatever I wanted, but the only way to get more money was to get a job. I was fine with their boundaries and limitations, and I was already living so much more peacefully and with so much more joy and love in my life than I had ever expected that I never even dreamt of any extravagant gifts. They’d already given me so much, and I knew they were saving for retirement.
They always had a real tree, a small one, which they put on an end table and we decorated and put our modest presents around the base of the table. Stockings went on the back of the couch, and we opened stockings on Christmas Eve. Well, I got some lovely things in my stocking, perfume, I think, and toe socks, and lip-gloss or something. On Christmas day, we opened our presents. Dad always gave Ellen a piece of interesting jewelry, she’d give Dad some appliance, I gave small (affordable) gifts that were usually in the nature of curios. I think they gave me a gorgeous sweater and some fancy jeans. I was very happy and started picking up wrappings to discard.
I was halfway to the kitchen with a handful of paper when my Dad said, “I think you missed something.” I turned back and checked to see if I had dropped some ribbon or something, couldn’t see anything and said, “Oh, where?” He said, “I think there’s still something behind the tree.” He and Ellen exchanged a furtive glance. I still didn’t get it, and I thought he was talking about maybe a piece of wrapping paper that had somehow wound up back there, and I said I’d come right back and get it once I threw out what I had in my hand.
When I checked behind the tree, there was a large clothing box there. “Oh,” I said, “I’m so sorry I missed this.” Then I checked the tag and saw it was for me. I hadn’t been expecting another gift, so I know my mouth was hanging open a little, and I looked at Dad and then at Ellen, and I said, “Oh, it’s for me?” Dad said, “Sure! We hope you like it,” very matter of factly.
When I opened the box, and folded back the tissue paper, I saw rabbit fur – all browns and grays and taupes and black with very little white (at some point in time I must have mentioned that I liked the darker coats more than the ones with a lot of white in them). Tears started to pour down my face, and I had to sit down. I pulled it out of the box and held it up. “It’s for ME?” I asked, shocked. “Yes! Try it on!” said Ellen, with a huge grin on her face.
I pulled on the coat and hooked up the front, wiping tears from my face. I couldn’t believe it was really for me. Ellen checked the fit and told me how great it looked, Dad felt the sleeve and said it was so soft and looked nice and warm, and I think I spent the next hour alternating between thanking them and touching my coat to make sure it was real and putting it on again, then taking it off to look at. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier over a gift in my whole life.
I called all my friends to squeal and brag over my coat, and they squealed with excitement for me, so loud that Dad and Ellen could hear them, too. I knew I couldn’t wear it to school because it might get stolen, and my folks said I could invite my friends over, if I wanted, during vacation, to show off my coat. I did.
I know that coat made my Christmas, and I think my excitement and joy and appreciation for it made that Christmas for my Dad and step mom. It was really great. And I wore that coat for years, until it was damned near bald.
2. Indoor Lights: Spawn was born in early December, and by the Christmas a year later, I had quit my job and was still incredibly tired. I did some shopping, and mailed out gifts to the far-flungs. We were fairly penny pinched at the time, and hubs was suffering his Christmas blues, despite having a new son. I did convince him to get a tree, and, I decorated it. There were only a couple of gifts under it, but that was OK, I was tired. We hadn’t put up any other Christmas decorations. I moped a little at hubs. He glumped at me. I figured the tree was going to have to be it.
I was grabbing a late afternoon nap one day while Spawn slept, and when I woke up, hubs had on a drug store Santa hat and was lurching around the living room making stapling noises. Our bedroom was on the first floor, so I lay there for a few minutes, thinking, “Oh, what the hell is going on out there?” and “Geez, I think I’ll try for a few more minutes sleep.” It didn’t work. I got up to go to the bathroom, and lo and behold, hubs had strung lights in garlands all around the ceiling of the living room, the windows, and down the hall. I followed the lights, and they led to the kitchen, where there were lights around the window, and a star hanging in the window itself. All inside. He said, “Oh, I was hoping to have all this done before you got up.” I looked around in amazement. He turned off the lights, leaving only the Christmas lights shining. It was beautiful.
“I didn’t want to hang lights outside because it’s too damned cold,” he said, “but these should be OK indoors.” I hugged him and thanked him and really, really appreciated it. Those lights made me smile, and I realized that Spawn could enjoy them this way, too. They were pretty, and fun, and there was no damage to the walls or anything other than a few staple holes. I was a little sorry when we took them down at the end of January.
In good years, we still hang a star in the kitchen window. On the inside.
3. Children Around the World: I don’t have a lot of good memories about Christmas before I moved in with Dad and Ellen in 1976. Life was difficult, often dangerous, and always stressful with my mother. I was not the favorite child, and that showed up even more glaringly and publicly than usual at Christmas. But, not everyone treated me that way. When my sister was a senior in high school, and I was 9 years old, she was dating a very handsome (I thought) fellow named Brian who always treated me like I mattered. If I answered the door, he talked with me as if I were important and he didn’t act like he was in any hurry to get away from me to schmooze my sister. He had been a lifeguard at the pool I went to in the summer, and he and I were kind of friends, as much as a 9 year old and an 18 year old can be friends. I suppose, looking back at it, he probably felt sorry for me – I spent all day, every day, at the pool, weather permitting, not even going home for lunch unless I was forced to do so. The lifeguards sometimes had to ask me to leave in the evenings, too.
Anyway, that year, it was a couple of days before Christmas and Brian came over. I answered the door, and there he stood, so tall, so strong-looking, so grown up to my 9 year old self. He had a package wrapped in Christmas paper in his hand. I said, “Oh, I’ll get my sister,” and started to turn away. He said, “No, this is for you,” and he handed it to me. I was tongue-tied and just looked at it, then at him. I managed to choke out, “thank you” and then asked if he wanted to come in. He said he didn’t and wished me a merry Christmas and went back to his car and drove off.
I stood there in the foyer, holding the package. I knew it was a book, but I couldn’t believe it was really for me. When I did begin to believe it, I thought about how just having received it was likely to complicate my life – what kind of crap was my sister going to put me through for getting a book from HER boyfriend, what was my mother going to do to me for not making sure Brian came in to flatter and admire my sister and my mom, just what was the price I was going to have to pay for getting a gift from someone who my mom and sister believed should be so totally absorbed in my sister that he couldn’t even see anyone else. It was going to be ugly, I was sure of it. So I hid the package in the closet.
I couldn’t stop thinking about it – worrying what would happen if someone spotted it and started asking questions; I didn’t want to get Brian in trouble, too. I couldn’t understand why he’d give me a gift, when I knew he hadn’t given my sister one yet. I wanted that book so badly; it would be the first book anyone ever gave me, despite the fact that I read obsessively as a child. But I was afraid of it. I knew I couldn’t give it back because that would be rude and horrible, but I had almost convinced myself that I would have to find someway to do that to keep the backlash to a minimum.
Then Brian took my sister out for a romantic Christmas eve dinner, gave her some jewelry, and I was able to figure out that if I took the gift up and put it under the tree, I’d be able to pass it off, without directly lying, that he had offhandedly given it to me while picking her up, instead of having made a special trip to drop it off for me. So, I did, and my mom was so preoccupied with her speculations and whatever, that I didn’t have to answer any questions. My sister was so pleased with her fancy dinner and her jewelry that she didn’t even notice or lay into me for it either. I breathed a sigh of relief.
When I finally got to open the package on Christmas day, I was overcome. It was a beautiful, coffee table quality book on children around the world, and he had even written in it, “Merry Christmas BoS from Brian”. I probably developed a full-fledged crush on him right then. There were illustrations of children and ethnic dress and housing and customs for dozens of countries. There were long, long passages with nice, big words in them. It was really a book that should have been over my head, at age 9, but it wasn’t. Whether he knew it or not, it was a book that spoke to who I was on the inside – curious, intelligent, and a voracious information hound.
I made a point to thank him profusely the next time he came over. I read and re-read it; I probably memorized portions of it without even realizing it. It probably planted the first seed for my lifelong interest in foreign languages without anyone ever realizing it. It was a wonderful gift, and he was the nicest person my sister ever dated, at least as far as I was concerned.
4. New House Christmas: When we first moved into our current house, Spawn was 8 going on 9, Bunny was 6, and Doodle was 4. We had comparatively little furniture, and most of it was pretty crappy. We had a big, empty, beautiful living room with marble flooring and a fake fireplace with a carved wood mantle and edifice around it. So, we put our tree in the living room. There weren’t a lot of presents from us, but my sister has always been very generous and her gifts made the presentation quite splendid looking. My parents and in-laws were still sending gifts instead of checks at that time, so there was no shortage of stuff for any of us, especially not the kids. Since we didn’t really have any seating, that first Christmas, I spread blankets on the floor and brought in a big box for the wrapping paper.
It was a riot watching the kids rip through the paper and fling it haplessly around, then run around the big living room, squealing with delight, playing with their new toys and hopping and laughing and singing. It was very carefree and wild, filled with laughter, and wonderful because of it. Yes, my butt got cold from sitting on the floor, but when one of the kids launched at me to hug me and knocked me backwards, we both lay there laughing and chortling. We all sat on the floor together, which was nice, too. And they were so little, so uninhibited, and so happy with all their gifts, in that little kid way, that it made Christmas very fun, just the way I like for it to be.
(I’m trying to cut things short here, since I went on so long before.)
5. Burnt Slam Up: One year I was making fudge for my far-flungs and burnt the living snot out of my right, dominant hand. I was in the hospital, shaking with adrenaline withdrawal, on serious drugs. It was horrible, and, worse yet, it was three weeks before Christmas. I was not going to be able to get all the cookies made from the four different doughs I had already made, the fudge disaster had melted not only the a significant percentage of the skin right off of my hand, but the trash can I dropped the boiling mass into melted, too. I was restricted from touching my youngest, who was still a diapered baby, due to his germy bottom, and I was helpless for everything functional. Things really seemed to stink to high heaven.
It was the only time in my adult life that I have ever been that helpless, and I was, somewhere under the Vicodin, scared to pieces about what was going to happen with my kids, if I’d ever really get full function back in my hand (I did), and what was going to happen for Christmas. I can’t say as I actually remember that Christmas. For all I know, I got a bag of pressure wrapping for my fingers.
When my husband came and got me, and took me home, somewhere in the haze of extreme painkillers, I’m pretty sure I heard him carelessly say, “Don’t worry, I’ll do all that stuff.” For a workaholic, that’s a pretty rash statement to make to a very busy full-time SAHM. I figured it was the drugs, since they were pretty tasty, so to speak.
I slept a lot and watched Monty Python marathons for the healing effects of humor, and still, to this day, don’t remember much of them, also due to the drugs.
What I do remember is lots and lots and lots of wonderful cuddles from my tiny kinder. They crawled all over me like ants on a big jelly sandwich at a picnic. I also remember that my husband baked a bazillion batches of cookies from all that stored up pre-made dough. I won’t say he did it well because there was some scraping necessary, and I was in no fit state to issue any reminders about quirky ovens and how to compensate. But, he got off his work pony and came home and baked cookies and diapered the kids and hired a maid to clean the house and did what he could to help out otherwise.
Once the drug and pain haze cleared, and I was able to hunt and peck type with my left hand, I told my email group what had happened. What a wonderful outpouring of tasteless and therefore hysterically funny jokes, puns, and commentary they offered, as well as real-space help, sympathy, compassion, and general fun.
So, between my husband being such a good helper, my kids loving me to bits, and my e-space friends sending good wishes and bad jokes, it was a pretty good Christmas. And you can’t even tell I burnt my hand that badly – just a few spots with no pigment and some unimportant numbness in the pinky finger epidermis.
and MERRY CHRISTMAS!