Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Ghosts of Christmas Past

It's that time of year when I like to reflect on my favorite memories of Christmas' gone by. One Christmas in particular, when I was 9, stands out for many reasons. That was the year that all I wanted for Christmas was a pocket calculator. I know it sounds odd but I was an odd 9 year old. This was MY Red Ryder BB gun. Coming from a single parent household, which at that time was more commonly referred to as a broken home, my mother tried to entice me with Hot Wheels or an Evel Knievel stunt cycle complete with action figure. Or how about a can of silly string or an egg full of Silly putty? I was slowly coming to realize that it was I who was silly for thinking I might be unwrapping a bright shiny new pocket calculator that Christmas Eve.

After my fathers remarriage it had become a new "family" tradition to whisk us away to his new in-laws house where we would be awed by the sheer volume of Christmas gifts and people. My step-mother was one of 6 children, all who confirmed their fertility by popping children out at an alarming pace.
As the magic hour approached and my mother arrived home from 1 of her 3 jobs I was giddy with anticipation. We didn't hear her car pull in the drive or her key enter the lock. But the sight that greeted her only made her shake her head. Me on the living room floor, my brother, who is 7 years older, on top of me pinning my arms down with his legs and allowing a rope of spit to escape his mouth and dangle above my face. Of course I was squealing and squirming trying my best to avoid the inevitable rain storm. "Get off your brother, you'll crush his lungs." she said as she filled the tea kettle for her usual cup of Tasters Choice. It usually took more threatening to get him off of me but there were gifts to be opened before my father picked us up for the real adventure.

With her hot cup of instant coffee and a fresh Newport lit, now was the time. She handed me a small box which was colorfully wrapped and topped with a big red bow. As I tore into the paper my heart skipped a beat. I first glimpsed the display with bright green characters which only fueled me on to furiously tear at the paper. I was clearly hyperventilating as I held the pocket calculator box up and examined the picture on it. Eyes rolling back in my head and swaying from one to foot to another I needed to sit. Just as I was about to open the box to finger the keys there was a knock at the door. It was my father and it was time to go.

As we were safely tucked into my fathers 68 powder blue Cadillac, my mother watched and waved from the living room window. What I didn't know until I was an adult was that after the tail lights had faded from view my mother turned and started to cry. Not because she was alone for Christmas Eve but because she knew where we were going and what we'd see and receive. No matter how hard she tried it never, in her eyes, seemed enough. She wanted so much more for her children at Christmas. As it was it would take months to pay off the bill for the few gifts she was able to buy.
She knew when we came home later that evening she would be told, in breathless gasps, the roomful of children whipped into a frothing mob as Santa's arrival was heralded by the sound of footsteps on the roof. The mountain of gifts in the living room, The tables and tables of food and cakes of candys and punch. The singing of Christmas carols and game playing. Each grand description would be like a knife to her heart. She longed to give us Christmas' to remember. Memories to fondly recall, that we could share with our own children. Memories that she felt she had always fallen short of.

No, I wouldn't know this until years later. What she didn't know was the only thing I remembered of that Christmas was I had received my best gift ever, a pocket calculator. She didn't know that all I could think of the entire evening was how I was going to key in 77345, turn it upside down to show that I had spelled SHELL. Then I would do it again, this time leaving off the 5 and giggling at how naughty I was being and no one would ever know. I wished then that my mother had known that she had created one of my fondest memories.