This Wonderful Thing, Christmas
by Wanda Morrow Clevenger
Annual test of stamina is the last two whirlwind weeks before Christmas, and I can get down to the tinsel-wrapped wire most years exhibiting only minuscule grinchiness. Everyone experiences yuletide pressure and at least once amid the madness mutters “humbug.” But if one remembers to relax with a nip of nog and Frank Capra’s, It’s a Wonderful Life, one will find it is wonderful after all.
Mom trimmed the tree with presents in quadruple and Grandma Goodwin managed gifts for her many, many children, their spouses, many, many grandkids―and later their boyfriends-turned-spouses―despite the monetary strain, surely, of this endeavor. Youngest, I happily sufficed year round on communal Barbie-esque dolls (Ken not overly fussy either). Still, on the biggest gift-getting day of the year, I qualified for brand name stuff.
One holiday included a trip uptown to choose what doll I wanted from Santa: Little Miss Peep. Very life-like, she peeped when her leg was squeezed. A peculiar sounding baby’s cry, but to my mini-mommy ears a peep made a fine weep. Flash forward to suspicious-box interception in the post. By chance I was home alone, and carefully manipulated the seal to reveal a genuine Tutti doll wearing authentic trademark clothing. This incident marks the first of many peeks, rewraps, and feigning surprise on Christmas Eve.
Our church handed out seasonal goodies. God’s gift to all was baby Jesus, but Emmanuel Baptist’s gift was a morsel more tangible to the kiddies. After morning service, while the congregation bundled up and filed out, Deacons parceled one orange and one Hershey’s bar to the children with a cheery, “Merry Christmas.” I courteously thanked Jesus––for the chocolate.
Uncle Donnie, though, was a gift-giving-rockstar. A bachelor, salesclerks had to spot him coming from a mile away. A fine uncle, he strived to compensate we four nieces for our absentee father. As fate went my entire life, what gifts my dad bestowed had other children’s names on them.
One gift from Uncle Donnie was a standout favorite. Called Hi-Q, the object was to jump thirty-two red plastic pegs over thirty-three white holes until only one peg remained in the center. Accomplished, the instructions deemed the player a genius. I played day after day until I memorized the moves that declared me “girl-extraordinaire.” The Kohner Brother’s game in its original box, torn at all four corners and threatening to crumble to dust, sits safely tucked inside my cedar chest alongside Little Miss Peep―whose leg no longer peep weeps―and my genuine Tutti doll.
First three Christmastimes my husband and I shared before children started arriving were classic jewelry commercials. Without fail, a Kay velvet box nestled beneath the boughs―cruel temptation. And I confess, I did peek one year to the tune of an emerald and diamond necklace (finding the unwrapped and poorly hidden beauty in our basement while decoration diving). This lack of restraint is admitted freely because I’m certain, if no one else, Mrs. Claus understood.
But the little-boy holidays were best, no contest. Watching my sons, freshly awake from long winter naps, sporting rumpled long johns and mop-hair, tear into boxes, big and bigger, was pure pleasure. I still relish them opening gifts, but miss the squeals of delight that echo in the halls of Christmas past.
Snickerdoodles―a family favorite―and marshmallow fudge (Mom’s recipe) overflowed countertop space. Holiday greetings were each reciped and a Barnes & Nobel conformation email had relieved last-minute-gift anxiety. I was rounding the Kris Kringle corner to fast approaching holly-jolly in fairly high spirits. Day nine countdown found me preparing supper. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” rewound and played inside my head for the gazillionth time as the phone rang. Without segue, Mom asked if I knew my dad died. The needle skidded across the record, bringing the song to a screeching halt.
Fifty-three years of anticipation and peeking and Baby Jesus and dolls and Milton Bradley games and mistletoe kisses and diamond necklaces and ho-ho hijinks crunched atop each other like a stack of rusty cars in a junk yard, then fell to the ground in scraping clatter.
“No, I didn’t know,” answered from a distance.
When the UPS driver knocked on the door an hour later I was still dumbstruck, the wind whooshed from my fa-la-la-la-la. I knew what had arrived, an extravagant toy purchased with money from my dad’s sister. For years I drooled over a pricey semi-precious-stone marble Solitaire Game, telling myself it served as sentimental reminder of my dear aunt and uncle and of Uncle Donnie’s long-ago cherished Hi-Q game.
After grief I was unsure would come sobbed its way finished in the span of a hot shower, I opened the package. The round camphor board was polished to a high sheen and to this rock-hound the stone marbles were more exquisite than Hammacher Schlemmer’s glossy photo depicted. The sight of the game, the memory it evoked, eased the conflict warring between my head and heart.
The sequence of correct jumps was hazy and tasking on my aging memory. Yet gratefully, the concentration required to muster the old mojo provided a much appreciated distraction.
Ebenezer Scrooge can attest, when least expected our lives loop full circle. Past, present, and future collide. It’s in the solitary moments that everything, including holiday hubbub, sorts itself. I know I’ve given my sons more than snickerdoodles and rad sneakers. More than was given me, as is fitting. Each generation improves a bit on the last.
Much changed for me this year. I’m still sorting the pieces, one strategic move at a time. What hasn’t changed is the good stuff: Mommy kissing Santa under the mistletoe; George Bailey learning how important his life was; an old game resurrecting when needed the most; and, apparently, in this household every kiss still begins with Kay.
As for missing little squeals of delight every December 25th, surely Christmas future will grant me grandchildren joy. After all, I’ve been a good girl. Haven’t peeked even once.
Wanda Morrow Clevenger lives in Hettick, IL – population 200, give or take. Over 233 pieces of her work appear in 91 print and electronic publications. Her debut book This Same Small Town in Each of Us, a collection of largely reprinted nonfiction, poetry, and flash fiction, released in fall of 2011. She is currently shuffling the pages of her first poetry manuscript. For access to her blog of published work, etc. visit: http://wlc-wlcblog.blogspot.com/