I was a middle child, growing up, with sufficient space between my older sisters and younger brother that I enjoyed my own experience of the world. I was neither the object of vigilance by inexperienced parents nor the focus of longing my brother would be, as the last child and only boy. “Birth to graduation on one roll of film” as an acquaintance once described middle-childhood.
While I’ve come to understand that this had many advantages, it also came at a price: a certain coolness, a distance from, not only my siblings, but my parents, who were preoccupied being young, of modest means and having created four little hooligans they had to feed, dress, referee and occasionally scoop off the sidewalk and mend with Bactine, gauze, plaster casts and Popsicles.
The one time of year I recall when that coolness abated in a dream of warmth and coziness was Christmas. I remember it with colors all red and orange and faintly lit, as if by candlelight. In the midst of a summer fight over sister supremacy or a frightening bout with dawning realities (such as the fall from deity of my too-human parents, or my own fall from immortality much later), I remembered: Christmas is coming again this very year, and it’s only however-many months away.
The time of softened hearts and reliable fun and dependable traditions was always close enough at hand to shift my fears and remind me of much I loved.
The thing is, nothing about those Christmases was particularly “retail.” They were about spirit and anticipation and the quality of light that infuses dreams, soft and glowing against the increasingly brittle nights. Perhaps each was a remnant of the shimmering fabric of a child’s earliest years, a scrap of life’s tapestry I carted around, clutching it close like a security blanket.
We were never hungry or left wanting for any vital thing, but we were, by material standards, close to the edge. My father couldn’t fathom the appetite for “new” if “used” could be found, and my mother tackled everything from household decor to clothing with what looked like a great deal of confidence in her creativity, and never more so than at the holidays.
Pastel paper napkins, folded into three-dimensional stars, dipped in clear wax and sprinkled with glitter. Mirrors and cotton batting, a sheet and spray snow, forming a landscape under our tree, dotted with miniature evergreens and little skaters. Chocolate chips and butterscotch melted and mixed up with peanuts and, of all things, chow mein noodles, to make “Chinese New Year cookies,” an ancestor of chocolate-covered pretzels that gave the season a dependable taste. My aunt’s little crepe-paper carolers with their tiny rouged cheeks, each holding a simple fold of paper from which you could hear, I swear, notes rising into the night air.
The tree was most spectacular of all. We always shopped for it on Christmas Eve, Dad and the kids all bundled up, traipsing from tree lot to tree lot in search of the perfect shape. It was always a fir, big enough to hold all the treasures that were accumulating year by year. Mom could make a dent in the mysterious work of Christmas while we were gone. And it always seemed to take forever – and probably did, since we were picking over the leavings of those who had paid full price a week or so earlier. We, on the other hand, paid maybe a dollar for an inevitably fine specimen.
Overnight, and while we slept, the tree was transformed. We’d each hang a first ornament before bedtime. Santa Claus arrived in the night to do the rest, leaving only crumbs on a plate and a yellow ring of eggnog in the big cup shaped like his head that we had set out the night before. Plus, of course, he left the tree – filled to the gills with big bulbs in opaque green and red and yellow and blue. All those wax stars, some paper chains, maybe, the various store-bought or otherwise crafted ornaments – I remember pine cones as angel skirts, wings and halos holding on by the grace of Elmer’s glue.
A history of Christmases hung on our tree, spending the off-season wrapped in tissue paper, more napkins (paper towels were “just wasteful”), even toilet paper in a pinch. Most left a trail of glitter and occasional body parts wherever they went. Then there were the fragile glass balls, a miracle of survival, few of which made it through a season without chipped crowns where their wire hangers had popped out, caught on a piece of whatever they’d been wrapped in or simply unable to withstand another change of heart as to the perfect place between the boughs.
Finally, the tinsel. We were a single-strand family, in principle. But some years, the sheer magnitude of the tree meant that the tossed effect prevailed, much to my sister’s disdain.
Morning dawned so early that we had to stretch the firm house rules, scheming in the hallway how to wake my parents. Craning our necks to see down the stairs, we might whisper a little too much, fail to stifle a laugh, bump something loudly, or clank a toy against another. Year after year, decade after decade (or so it seemed), toilet flushing was the final, foolproof method that aroused the shuffling we knew would lead to bathrobes and yawns and “permission.” Piling down the stairs, we’d each get our first glimpse of the miracle that had arrived in the night.
A long November evening with colored pencils, each of us circling in our own hue dozens of ideas in the inch-thick Sear’s toy catalog, had sprinkled the season with unknowns. Santa might have found it useful in sorting through our wants and needs, but mostly that catalog yielded absolutely delicious dreams, barely expectations. The uncertainly of fulfilling those dreams in our household was real, so the anticipation was exquisite, almost unbearable. I remember a bike (my sister’s?) repainted and refreshed for me, later a tape recorder I thought I recognized (with disappointment, but a little uncertainty) as one from my father’s closet. Sometimes we got the object of our affection, sometimes a version of it, but, either way, it was fresh fodder for play and personal possession.
My aunts and uncles, young and in their first real jobs, would occasionally up the ante with something not even remotely on the list. A life-sized doll that walked and blinked its eyes – blond, in a red dress – one year. And then a second one some years later, because this one was a nurse, like my aunt.
The crowning glory, though, for my young, somewhat separated soul, was the unanticipated gift I received from our handsome young neighbor, Butch Wheeler, a star pitcher in high school, now college, tall and lithe and strong, the most incredible boy my heart had ever registered. He showed up at our door one day with a small box. Popping the cellophane window, I wrapped my hands around a stuffed puppy. This puppy not only walked, but barked, doing some reverse version of the moonwalk as it raised its fur-covered tin head and yipped. My own pet. An almost living creature I could take into my world, sharing the stuff of it without danger or even caution. Butch Wheeler had set me on a cloud, away and above my usual place, fulfilling a wish, for all the circles in that catalog, I didn’t even know I had.
Twelve days after the tree went up, every year, it came down. The Feast of the Epiphany, the 12 days of Christmas in our household. The new season began with my oldest sister’s birthday. A clear buoy in the channel at which we navigated out of that safe harbor into a new year with all its unknowns and impending milestones, the lives of children and a family moving relentlessly forward.
I remember, one summer day, my sister crumbling the blossoms of a flowering bush in our side yard and sprinkling them on my other sister and me, instigating us to fly. Like fairy dust we received it, jumping and circling, trying to break the bonds of dirt and grass below us. Someone jumped off the monkey bars at the nearby playground in full expectation of flight (I think an arm was broken).
But none of our earnest leaps, no amount of bouncing off mattresses, or skipping of stairs, delivered the buoyancy for me of our family’s Christmas. The most predictable habits in our world delivered the most astonishing surprises. Hopes of the season were fulfilled. Color and laughter and light – and the smallest tug of doubt – spun angel hair around our days and transformed paper napkins into stars that hung in the night.