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.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Impromptu verse and impatient organs

'Twas the night before the night before Xmas and all through the house
not a creature was stirring, just the mouse.
The stocking was hung on the doorway with care
in hopes that the neighborhood kids wouldn't dare
fill it with sticks or coal or contempt
offering me a present of silence instead of trying to tempt
me to get my shotgun or sell them for rent.
A very happy holiday full of joy and warmth.

Just a little impromptu something I wrote for a good friend, but it's a good segue into the important stuff, like why I am plagued with erotic dreams when I am tired and worn out from too many hours at the keyboard. Must be because my resistance is down and I'm diving into the deep waters I stay so carefully away from lest they swamp me.

Last night's dream, or maybe it was this morning's before my bladder rescued me with an inordinate amount of "I can't wait any longer" pressure, was about a presence, a ghost of sorts who could corporealize, coming after me. He had ravaged several willing young ladies; I was not one of them.

He had information to impart and I had successfully avoided his firmer offerings, until someone attempted to lock me in the basement with him so he could have his wicked way. I turned the tables on her and locked her in the basement anteroom, made it up the stairs and locked the door on the entity before he could catch me. Someone let him out and he appeared in the bedroom to accost me, offering different shapes and races for my erotic delectation. When he appeared as a well endowed, light, bright and nearly white black man, I burst out laughing. "I've had better looking and darker men." He backed away as I accosted him, protecting himself from my laughter as I controlled the situation, and then he disappeared just as my fella came to save me. The best defense against such demons it to confront the spirit and laugh him away. Then, just as my fella was heating my erogenous zones and synapses before engaging the field of play, my bladder threatened to spill its guts.

So here I am feeling groggy and not a little irritated at being interrupted, typing away like an idiot when I should be back in bed pursuing my dream lover, or at least embracing the sandman an hour or two more before I must get up and pound the work keyboard to make my bread . . . milk, eggs, cheese and meat. Oh, well, I'm never very mentally together when I haven't had much sleep. Maybe if I hurry up and finish . . ..

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A holiday card for everyone

Since I don't have everyone's email or snail mail addresses, here's a card for everyone to enjoy.

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Merry Kwanzaa, Merry Yule and Season's Greetings.

That is all. Disperse. Go see the card.

Of computer mice and mien

Since everyone seems to know about the Tiger Woods' babes, except for me, I thought I'd share a little of the Tiger love.

There. Don't you feel better now? I don't, but that's only because I have to work.

I was up until past 11 p.m. last night finishing a review book that needed to be reviewed and sent in this morning. I fell asleep reading, which is not that uncommon, except I don't remember when I turned out the light. No, it's not burnt out; it was actually turned out. I just don't remember doing it. After a day of typing an extra 60 reports, amounting to 150 pages, I am entitled to a little fugue state now and again. However, the book, Leaving Gee's Bend, which is probably a YA novel, is actually quite good and it will go to my granddaughter Savannah to add to her growing collection of books. The other book, a fantasy novel, the first in a new series, Flesh and Fire was surprising and innovative. The author, Laura Anne Gilman, used the story of Jesus Christ, turned it on its head a little and created a world where the magic is in the grapes and the magicians, Vinearts, wine makers who imbue their spell wines with specific properties, like healing wounds, staunching blood, creating winds, mending bones and even setting fires that burn on what they are told to burn. There's a good deal of the wine making art and the oenophile's sensuous savor of the taste and flavors/aromas of wine, but that doesn't detract too much from the main story. I recommend both books.

I've a few minutes left before I have to shuffle back to my office and dig in for another day of typing op reports and getting stiffed on the page counts, so I'll keeping wandering aimlessly through my thoughts in hopes of finding something worthwhile to write.

Or not.

At least I'll be able to stop this insanity early on Thursday, although probably not. I just won't get paid for it until next year because the office closes the books early on Thursday to make sure we get paid next week. I'd keep thinking of the money if only I wasn't so tired and achy and feel like I could drop off to sleep sitting at my desk in the midst of an involved and technical cardiothoracic surgery or penoplasty (that last one is cosmetic surgery of a kind on penises -- there have been a lot of those lately. Don't they grow normal penises any more?). Nothing like resurfacing the shaft of penises, glans wings and aortic valve replacements to make life interesting.

Or not.

That is all. Disperse.

Monday, December 21, 2009

In death there is freedom

There are times when people can (and do) surprise me and this morning was one of those times. I reached out to someone and they reached back.

I had some news this weekend that has hit me sideways. I didn't really know what or how to think, although my first emotion was disbelief, followed closely by relief. Through it all, I keep remembering something I've heard many times. When a free man dies he loses the pleasure of life, but when a slave dies he loses his pain. Does that hold true when a slave's abuser and tormentor dies and he is finally free?

There was a story about Adolph Hitler that comes to mind. When Hitler's father died, a man who had ignored and abused him emotionally all his life, Hitler grieved and cried openly as he had not done for his beloved mother. It's said that he grieved so hard and so long because the man he hated most in the world was gone and he had no one left to hate -- except for the Jews and the rest of the non-Aryan world.

I don't hate my abuser and tormentor; however, I do feel sorry for her. Despite the many privileges and wealth she has known, she is a small, petty and mean person and has led a narrow and constricted life, a life she narrowed and constricted. Instead of love, she gave spite. Instead of hope, she made dreams dirty and insignificant in order to make herself feel better and more important and worth more than the person she abused and tormented. She is jealous and mean-spirited and hateful because she doesn't have everything she wants, in this case a soul. Living with the outward appearance of goodness wears thin when people get too close and look too far beneath the surface, which is why she has never let people get too close -- even though it seems she does. She has no friends and no trusted acquaintances because she cannot trust anyone who would be able to see behind the facade to the emptiness and darkness within.

She is failing. Time and the abuse of her own body are catching up and she may soon be gone. What I feel is complex because the situation is complex. One thing I learned a long time ago is that the opposite of love is apathy and not hate. You cannot hate someone or something you have not loved. And so I will miss her in a way, but mostly I will feel relieved, unshackled and free. My servitude to a mean and hurtful taskmaster will be over. All the pressure will be gone and I can breathe without fear of being caught enjoying myself. There will be no one to run me down or inject a hint of poison into my joy in order to debase the golden coin of success and happiness. I cannot, like Hitler, grieve because I no longer have anyone to hate because I hate no one. So, the question remains, how will it feel to be free of torment and abuse? I keep returning to the lines above. In death, a slave loses his pain.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

'Twas the weekend before Christmas

If you haven't seen the BBC's Merlin yet, you should. The show was a little silly and played around with the mythology of Merlin, Arthur and Camelot at the beginning, but it has definitely grown. It is no longer what one of my F-list friends called "The Once and Future Prat." Oh, Arthur is still a bit of a prat, but the show has depth and heart and Arthur is growing out of the prat stage. Consider watching it. Start at the beginning, but stay the course all the way through the second season; the finale is moving. I can hardly wait for the third season.

Yesterday wasn't a great day in many respects, but it did bring some surprises. The grocery delivery didn't happen and I wasn't happy, but I got dressed and went out to buy my own groceries and found a great tree that didn't cost a bundle. Putting it up has turned out to be a bit challenging since tree lots no longer nail bases to the trees, but I found an ingenious way to stand it up without a tree stand. Then on to the decorating while my computer burned DVDs. A package arrived, the result of a gift card spending spree and I dove into Terry Pratchett's Wintersmith only to be hauled up short by responsibility. I finally got the box of review books sent two weeks ago and put away Wintersmith in favor of Flesh and Fire, magic in wine. Once I got through the mythology part of the book (a huge takeoff on power, wine, sacrifice and blood), I had little hopes for the book getting any better, but I was wrong. I'm halfway through already and Gilman has put together a fascinating mythos and world with just enough mystery to fuel plot and imbue characters with interest. If nothing goes wrong and the writing doesn't go downhill, this has the makings of a really good trilogy.

The rest of the evening was punctuated with chores, reading, changing disks to be burned, labeling and putting burned disks into cases and watching the movies waiting to be watched . . . and, oh, avoiding temptation. That was the other good surprise yesterday -- a drive-by gifting. Someone I've not seen in ten months drove by to drop off a gift bag full of holiday joy: books. More Terry Pratchett books to be exact. Three of them. If I wasn't so interested in Flesh and Fire, I doubt I would have been able to put the books away after reading the first few pages.

Hint to drive-by gifter: some kind of camouflage is essential to keep the gifted from looking in the bag and being so excited they couldn't wait for the big day. Good thing my big day is tomorrow at the solstice or I'd be in agonies of guilt (not).

Tomorrow is also my nephew Cody's 19th birthday and I can hardly wait to call and wish him a good one right before I chide him for not getting busy and getting his driver's license.

On the solstice, the longest night and shortest day of the year, at dusk, I will finish opening the rest of my gifts while the rest of you wait for the jolly white-bearded man in the red and white suit Friday (or Thursday night if you're the anxious type). On that occasion, I shall listen to carols and follow Dickens' Scrooge (Alistair Sim) through his annual peregrination to discover the meaning of Xmas while drinking a cup of egg nog, nibbling gingerbread and cookies and listen for sleigh bells in the snow. Nearly fifty years ago, I stood on a stage in a borrowed, pinned together navy skirt and a brand new white blouse reciting A visit from St. Nicholas with several other children in the first and second grades, a poem that is forever engraved in the folds and whorls of my brain, not only because it was one of my first memories, but because my mother had me recite it every time we visited family, no matter what I wore. It didn't seem so surprising to me that I could remember the entire poem by heart because I worked to memorize it for the first Xmas play I was in. She didn't have me sing the Hallelujah Chorus or recite the words from all the plays I have been in, which is a mercy because that's a lot of plays and concerts. I remember bits of dialogue and it doesn't take long for me to get up to speed on the words in all those plays, as long as you don't expect me to remember all the articles, stories, books and poems I've written as well. And I didn't have to perform all the dances I learned either, another blessing.

At any rate, I still remember the poem and I still feel the excitement I felt as a child on Christmas Eve when I couldn't sleep and the night stretched to an infinite distance when the sun would never rise, hence forcing me and my sisters and brother to wake my parents long before dawn. We didn't understand the sun wasn't going to be up until eight. We only understood that we couldn't wait any longer sitting at the top landing peering through the banister rails in the shadowed darkness trying to figure out if Santa had visited and left the space under the tree full of presents or if our bulging stockings, which we couldn't see, were full of sticks and lumps of coal as our parents had cautioned. I was always the instigator on these forays, although I didn't have to work hard to wake my siblings, not even Jimmy who slept like a hibernating bear full of Valium and vodka, and I led them to the stairs, keeping them as quiet as possible while I with my sharp eyes inured to the darkness counted shadowy lumps bulging from beneath the tree and holding them back as long as possible before going down to wake our parents and ask if it was Xmas yet. Aah, the memories that populate the silent nights as the big day draws near. How clear they are.

May all your days be bright and all your Christmases be white. Happy Holidays and season's greetings.