Friday, December 25, 2009

The Xmas That Almost Wasn't

Every year Mom says she doesn't want a gift and every year my siblings and I go together to get her a gift. Last year it was the entire Forever Knight collection and this year it was Tour of Duty. Mom called yesterday to wish me a merry Christmas and say thank you for the gift. I reminded her that she didn't want the gift and would have to give it to either Jimmy or Carol since Beanie already has the entire collection. "You'll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands." So much for not wanting a gift.

The gift I got Beanie is too big and she specified medium and doesn't have any pockets. Luckily, she can exchange it. For her birthday, I'll give her a gift certificate for books. She got a Sony Pocket Reader from her husband. She's also having trouble setting it up. I tried to help but Stacy, her evil alter ego, was out today instead of Tracy, and was not very cooperative. It's all Stacy's fault that I gave her the wrong directions. She did say Randy got her a Kindle and those were the instructions I was walking her through. It wasn't until later she said it was a Sony and then didn't know which version it was. "It's silver," she said. That's helpful, Stacy, they all come in silver. It's one of those days.

I am, however, reminded of a Christmas long ago when I almost didn't get anything. It wasn't that my parents couldn't afford to buy gifts; the others got lots of presents. It all goes back to an incident that started with an offhand comment.

I love puzzles, challenges and riddles. Always have. The weeks before Christmas always provided riddles, puzzles and challenges in the form of finding the gifts and figuring out what they are. There were always a few token gifts under the tree, but they were mostly camouflage and usually contained uninteresting things like socks, underwear and clothes. The trick was finding where the good presents were hidden and I was exceptionally good at the game, which is why Mom always hid them at Grandma and Grandpa's house when we lived near them, until the year we moved into the big house on Terrace. That house had a basement with rooms and doors that locked the original owners stored canned goods and root vegetables. The bins and shelves were still intact when we moved into the house, although they didn't last long once Mom decided she wanted a family room in the basement. That's another story for another time.

Mom knew Thanksgiving day I had already begun searching for hidden gifts. "Are they at Gram's?"

"They're here." My eyes glittered with mischief and excitement. The hunt was on. "You'll never find them," she said.

"If they're in this house, I'll find them."

"You're welcome to look." Mom considered the subject closed and my curiosity squashed. Anyone who knows anything about curiosity knows that all she did was heighten my desire to prove her wrong and ensure that I would keep looking. A hidden cache of gifts was like waving catnip in front of a cat. I'd find them and unwrapped would be nice.

As the oldest of the four children, I was often tasked with babysitting when Mom and Dad worked or went out. During the week, I was the one who got everyone off to school since my parents had to be at work early. Friday evenings, I was usually the babysitter from the time I was eleven (my grandparents lived a phone call and eventually a few blocks away). Twice a month on the weekends, my parents drove up to Lockbourne (renamed Rickenbacker) AFB to the commissary for groceries and it was during those extended absences I searched for the gifts, especially since the other kids usually went with my parents and I was alone in the house.

One Saturday morning not five minutes after they piled into the car and headed off to the commissary, I began my search in earnest, starting with the basement. I seriously doubted there were any gifts hidden on the second floor since all three bedrooms were occupied by children. I started in my parents' room on the first floor and it didn't take long. They didn't have a closet; there were no closets in the downstairs. Before I headed to the basement, I briefly considered the back port utility room where my father had his beauty shop and the room on the back of the garage, but dismissed them quickly: not enough room. The gifts had to be in the basement and so to the basement I went.

The basement was a warren of rooms with a toilet stall on a raised platform behind a swinging door, a place where kissing games were played during parties, a clear space for the twin tubs and washer and dryer beneath the laundry chute that opened next to the built-in cupboard in the dining room above, and three rooms with locked doors, one of which used to hold the coal when there was a coal burning furnace in the basement. Patiently, I worried at the old fashioned locks on the doors until they opened. A few brittle looking, cobweb-shrouded jars of corn, beans and amorphous contents swimming in murky fluid were scattered about the shelves, but the room was essentially empty. The coal room was equally empty, except for a meager supply of coal for Christmas stockings. Only one room remained.

The lock was easy to open, but the block or time gnawed wood that pivoted on a nail was not quite so easy to open. There seemed to be some kind of trick to getting the simple antique low tech lock to work and yet I couldn't figure it out. It just would not budge. I didn't dare scar the wood by using a screwdriver or other tool to pry loose its wooden grip and give away the game and so I opted for brute force.

My heart thundered in my chest. I was certain the gifts were behind the door, and so I continued my assault. Little by little I managed to loosen the block of wood, inching it upward with patience wearing thin as the sun moved relentlessly across the cement floor. Suddenly it shifted, a mere sliver of wood lying between me and success, and stopped moving. Nothing would budge it from its position. I couldn't move it back into place or out of the way. In frustration, I took off my loafer and banged it with the heel of my shoe and . . . it spun around drunkenly as the door fell open.

I had imagined Fibber McGee and Molly's closet from my mother's description, but what I saw boggled the mind. An explosion of colors in all sizes and shapes lined the shelves and spilled out onto the floor in an avalanche of toys and dolls and . . .. My heart stopped. Gravel crunched in the driveway. They were home. I had exactly two minutes to get the door closed and locked and up the stairs before I was discovered.

I slammed the door and spun the wood into place and it fell away, swinging loosely in gravity's grip. It was broken. No! I held the wood in place and banged on the nail with the heel of the loafer I still held in my hand, my heart pounding, drumming, thundering so loud my ears were full of the sound. A rock clinked to the cement floor and I picked it up, wedged it in the crack of the door behind the wood bar, forcing the wood against the loosened nail until it held, locked the door and raced for the stairs, dropping to my knees and crawling across the first landing so my parents wouldn't see me in the window, crawled up the first few steps and lurched to my feet to burst through the door, running at full tilt through the dining room, kitchen, Dad's little shop and banged out the back door to leap to the ground next to the grape arbor. Without stopping, I ran beneath the grape arbor and out the other side and then shinnied up the cherry tree into my favorite spot not daring to breathe until I was safely ensconced. I panted, gasping for air, streaming with sweat, my hand against my chest over my laboring heart, ears pricked for every sound. None came. False alarm.

My skin prickled in the frigid autumn wind as the sweat cooled and my body shivered, teeth chattering. No coat. I climbed out of the tree and went back into the house, rubbing my naked arms where the hairs stood on end above the goose flesh that covered every exposed inch of skin, avoiding the basement door as though it led to plague ridden darkness full of unknown horrors waiting to pounce, because there were if I was caught.

My parents got home an hour later. Groceries were unloaded and put away and grocery sacks were folded and placed under the kitchen sink between the dish soap, cleanser and the wall. Mom watched me carefully when I got up to do the dishes after dinner without a squawk even though it was Carol's turn. She knew something was up and was no less tenacious than I when it came to ferreting out secrets and satisfying her curiosity, although her curiosity only extended to what her children were hiding. Her nose twitched, smelling something off or just slightly wrong, and she had an excellent sense of smell. She could even smell vodka under Listerine and Colgate toothpaste hours old (Dad not me -- he never did take to being a teetotaler in spite of Mom's conversion). She smelled the distinct aroma of hidden knowledge and the beginnings of fear of being caught on me, and it didn't take long to discover the source of my fear.

The tiny pebble in the hand Mom held out to me was familiar. My pulse raced as I looked straight into her eyes and said, "It's a pebble." Heat rose in waves from my blushing cheeks and my hair swung down to cover the burning tips of my ears. "Guess where I found it?"

"In your shoe?"

"Don't get smart with me, young lady. You know exactly where I found it."

I opted for smart aleck mode. "On the ground no doubt." I never saw it coming until her hand cracked against my cheek, rocking my head sideways and imprinting the red outline of her hand and fingers on my hot cheeks. I didn't expect what came next either.

"Now that you've seen what you're getting for Christmas ..." I didn't dare contradict her or explain that I hadn't actually seen the individual items, just the overwhelming presence of mass and color. "You won't need to unwrap any gifts. There won't be any for you. That's what your snooping cost you."

No Christmas. No gifts. And I knew her well enough to know she'd make me sit down and watch my brother and sisters open every single one of their gifts.

"Your gifts will go to someone else, someone whose children don't snoop."

I lived in a hell of anxiety and fear that she would make good on her threat for the next three weeks, each day an eternity marching down an endless hall into the arms of death. No Christmas. No gifts. For the first time in my life, I dreaded Christmas morning.

The night before Christmas, a night I have never been able to sleep through, the seconds crawled by on broken legs. The moon stood still above the trees and refused to move as my sisters squirmed and shifted in their sleep, mumbling incoherently. The clock on the mantelpiece in the living room echoed through the house. The room was still dark when first Tracy and then Carol woke and whispered, "Is it Christmas yet?" I pretended to sleep. They tiptoed past me and met Jimmy coming down the hall, whispered briefly and tiptoed like a herd of wildebeests down the stairs to the first landing. The click of the light in the foyer echoed like doom. "Wait until your father turns on the lights. Carol, go get Jackie." I would not be spared, not today. Carol skidded to a stop as I opened the door. Taking my time, I shuffled to the bathroom and closed the door. "Hurry up. It's Christmas." For you, but not for me, I thought.

"Go downstairs. I'll be there in a minute." I splashed cold water on my tear-stained cheeks and hoped no one would notice my red-rimmed, puffy eyes. I plodded down the stairs where once I would have raced, taking two and three stairs at a time and even sliding down the banister in bolder and less mature years. I had aged centuries over the last three weeks.

Boxes in bright primary colors festooned with ribbons and bows and glittering in the light of blinking and stolid Christmas tree lights spilled out from under the tree. Carol, Jimmy and Tracy begged me to hurry as they waited, dancing from foot to foot and jumping up and down in the foyer outside the living room. Dad stood guard with his movie camera, flood lights beaming across the room and dimmed by the glory of Santa's emptied pack while Mom sat in her chair, a queen surveying the hungry rabble. The time of punishment had come. "Jackie, you hand out the presents," she said, twisting the knife in my still beating heart. I picked up packages in either hand, swarmed by my avid siblings, working my way in toward the tree.

Gifts were grabbed from my hands before I finished the first syllable of the name. I walked down the cleared path, picking boxes and bags from both sides, holding them briefly before they were snatched from my hands. In a daze, I moved toward the tree. Mom smiled and exclaimed over each toy, book and doll held up and tossed aside while the next gift was unwrapped, admired and replaced with more and more gifts. "Get the small one," Mom ordered. I reached for a small red foil wrapped box. "Not that one, the blue one." I picked it up. Jackie. It was my name. I looked over at Mom and she nodded her head with a small self-satisfied smile.

Ignoring the whining and begging behind me, I carefully opened the package, slipping trembling fingers beneath the tape and sliding off the paper undamaged. Inside the white box in a square nest of cotton was a pair of earrings, real earrings with real amethysts. Carol crawled past me, almost knocking me over. "This one's for you. And this one." Tears swamped me as I sat down on the floor while Jimmy, Carol and Tracy piled gift after gift around me. Numb with shock, I stared dumbfounded at the growing mound of gifts until Tracy put one in my hands. My name sprawled unevenly across every blank space on the gift card in green crayon, folds and wads of tape sticking up all over the box. "It's from me," she said, crawling onto my lap. "Open it."

There were many Christmases when the presents spilled out from the tree and we had to work our way outside the room in and Christmases when there were fewer presents under the tree, but the Christmas that almost wasn't is still as clear now as it was that Christmas morning in 1967. The only gifts I remember are the easel, canvas, pastels, brushes and paints and the earrings. Nearly being excluded remains indelibly etched in memory. Did it change my yearly hunt for gifts?

No, I'm very good at hiding my tracks.

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