My strongest Christmas memory is one of tears, heartache, and disappointment. All of these were totally my doing, and I’d like to say that it taught me a lesson in honesty and patience. It did, but not right away. I must admit that, at first, it taught me to be better at being sneaky.
I was 10. It was 1985, and it was the last Christmas I spent in the bedroom I’d grown up in. It was small. It still had the nursery curtains up in the windows. They were a bright, indigo blue, and they had colorful animals on them. Elephants, zebras, hippos, giraffes, and the like. The animals were vividly and brightly colored, and they were all the wrong colors…purple hippos, red and pink giraffes, orange elephants, green and yellow zebras, and so on. I blame these curtains, and my parents, for distorting my view of the world from birth.
My dresser was handmade by Daddy, and was painted a deep lime green color. Each of the five drawers was painted a different bright color to coordinate. There were two drawers at the top, one on the left, one on the right, and then three larger drawers below. The drawers were deep, and I never had enough clothes to fill them. Each of the knobs were painted the same lime green as the dresser. My collection of yardsticks, each one different from the others, was hanging on the wall. I had so many, you could hardly see the yellow wall peeking out from behind them. In the corner of the room, there was a vanity, painted the same bright yellow as the walls. Around the mirror at the back of the vanity, there were large, round, globe-like lightbulbs. Underneath the table, was a padded stool. The vanity and stool were both made by Daddy, and were a gift for my birthday earlier that year.
The closet in my room was the only thing that didn’t “fit.” It ran the entire length of the North wall, and had two brown, straight-from-the-factory, BI-fold doors with round, boring, brass knobs. I never used this closet. Come to think of it, I don’t even think I’d ever looked in it. It was my moms’ closet. All of her clothes were in it. Nothing of mine was behind those doors, so I had no reason to look inside.
I was asleep one night, about a week before Christmas, visions of sugarplums dancing in my head, when I was suddenly awakened by my mom shouting, “Damn it!”. Then I heard Daddy say, “Shhh.” I was afraid I’d get in trouble for being awake, so I pretended to be sleeping. I heard the door squeak closed, and Daddy remind her, midway through the squeak, to lift the door so it was quiet. She sighed heavily, and pushed the door so it closed, and then they snuck out.
I stayed awake for some time after my parents left my room. My mind was running wild with thoughts of what they might be doing in there. In my moms’ closet. I finally concluded that it must be laundry, and went to sleep. It didn’t occur to me that it was only a week until Christmas.
The next day, it was haunting me. I asked my friends at school, and it was suddenly clear. It was like a huge ray of sunlight, with sparkly, golden glitter raining down upon me. CHRISTMAS! They were hiding my Christmas presents! Now I had to know!
Since I am an only child, I don’t have much practice at planning great escapades. When you’re the only one to blame, you get all the blame. I needed help. I enlisted my friends. They were my cohorts. They were going to help me plan this, and I was going to find out just what exactly was in that closet.
We planned the whole thing. I would go to bed as usual, and then pretend to be asleep until I heard my parents go to bed, and was sure they were asleep. Daddy would be snoring and my mom always fell asleep to his snoring, so once that started, I’d wait a bit longer, and then I would get up, open the closet door, and shine the flashlight in just far enough to see what was in there. I wouldn’t go in. I would dig around or move anything. I would stand, open the door, shine the light, close the door, and then go to bed.
I got home, and found the over-sized, silver flashlight. I hid it under my pillow. I went into Daddy’s shop and got the WD40. As honorary son, I’d known from an early age, how to fix minor things around the house. Squeaky things needed WD40, and if I didn’t fix the noisy door, they might hear it. I did my chores, finished my homework, and ate all my dinner. I told my parents that I was very tired, and I went to my room.
Daddy asked if I was OK, as he was tucking me in. I said, “Yes.” I had already forgotten about the flashlight under my pillow, so as I lay down, and my head hit my pillow with the excited force that an incredible, deceptive scheme demands, there was a loud ‘CRACK’. I fought the tears that came immediately. Daddy moved my head and pillow, despite my protests and objections, and he took the flashlight. He asked me about it, and I lied. I said that I put it under there so I could read. He scolded me with just a look. I apologized and he put it in his back pocket as he stood up. As he left the room, he asked me what the odd smell was. Again, I lied. “I don’t know.” In my mind, I was begging him to leave the room, but he looked around for a moment, and then he saw it. His eyes shifted back to me with a deep sigh as he noticed the closet doors.
Next to each of the hinges, right where I had sprayed what was clearly too much WD40, there were long, messy drips, and smears where I’d tried to wipe away the smelly lines that were made. The smears and drips were several shades darker than the doors, and my poor workmanship was very, very evident. I quickly tried to explain that the doors were squeaky, and I was trying to help, but I was struggling to get the words out.
He asked me, with a stern face and pursed lips, how I knew the doors were squeaky, unless I’d been in the closet. I protested and said that I hadn’t been in the closet, which was finally the truth, but he didn’t believe me. I couldn’t say that I had heard the doors squeak the night before, and I didn’t have another example of a time when I’d heard them squeaking, so I said that I’d gotten in there a few days ago to find a blanket.
I didn’t know if last night was the first time they’d hidden something in there, but I hoped it was. Then I wouldn’t be in as much trouble.
“That’s not where we keep them, you know that.”
“It’s time for you to get some sleep. Your night is beginning to take a turn for the worse.”
His eyes shot me a rare, disappointed look, and he shut off the light as he left the room, with the flashlight…and another deep sigh.
My head was still throbbing, I had no flashlight, and my room smelled awful. Worse than all of that, my heart hurt, heavy with the lies that I had told. Tears soaked my pillow, but I was still determined to see what was in that closet. By now I’d been through too much.
I awoke around midnight. I could hear Daddy snoring. The house was totally dark. I had to go to the bathroom. In my hurry to get to bed, I had skipped that step. I slept through the nights most nights, so this must have been what woke me up. I went, and while I was in there, I plotted a Plan B, of sorts. I wasn’t sure what to do. It was not nearly as carefully planned as Plan A, but I had to know what was in there. Everyone would be asking the next day, and I couldn’t fail.
I decided I’d have to risk it. I’d turn on the light, and hope for the best.
I went back to my room. We didn’t close doors in my house, ever, so it was no surprise to me that the door wouldn’t close. There was some kind of stopper installed near the hinges that prevented it from closing. All the doors in our house had one, except the two doors that led outside. I pushed the door as far as I could and wondered if it would be enough. There was still about a three-inch gap, but it was the best I could do. I turned on the light, and hoped it wasn’t too bright.
I tiptoed over to the closet, nervous and excited at the same time, like some kind of grand adventure lay before me. It was just a closet, but it was also an unknown, undiscovered land. I had never opened the doors before, and while I was so terrified of getting caught, I knew that there was no stopping now. I would, for better or worse, forge on into a strange and new land.
The first thing I noticed as the door slid open, was that this closet was undeniably my mothers. The scent of Jean Naté roared out at me, and a forest of polyester blouses and pants seemed to flood out toward me. I assumed that they, like the humans that lived in the house, were overwhelmed by the scent, and just trying to escape, or at least breathe. I realized that, while she had the entire closet to herself, she only wore the clothes that were in this first portion of the closet. The closet was full, but the majority of the clothes went unworn. I wondered why. I suddenly stopped myself, remembering that I was on a mission.
I parted the clothes, and imagined for a moment that I was entering the land of Narnia, making my way through the city of War Drobe, in the country of Spare Oom. Reality hit me hard when I heard a noise. My stomach dropped, and I was as sure as I could be that I was caught. “It’s just the heater.”, I said to myself. It didn’t come on often, but when it did, it clanged and clunked…not very loudly, but on this night, when the house was so quiet, and I was on edge already, it was the scariest sound in the world.
I continued on my mission. I hit my knees and began digging. With no flashlight, I decided that I had to immerse myself in the closet. Sooner than I’d even hoped, I struck gold! Books, the sweater I’d wanted so badly, a new pair of shoes, a jacket, with tags, which meant it was new. My last few coats had been hand-me-downs, and this one was new!
In one of the bags, under the coat, was a pink box. As I dug deeper, I saw that the box contained a Barbie Doll. I’d wanted the Peaches and Cream Barbie for my birthday in July, but I didn’t get her. I hadn’t seen another one in the store. I had no idea how my parents had gotten one, but I was so excited. She had a peach colored dress, with a frilly, chiffon skirt, a matching stole made from the same chiffon as the skirt, and a shimmering, opalescent, fitted bodice. Her high-heeled shoes matched perfectly the soft peach of the dress. She even had a diamond ring, necklace, and earrings. I didn’t see anything else as I quickly glanced around the floor of the closet, and I decided that I needed to get back to bed, and I really needed to get that light turned off!
As I placed everything back the way it was, I was careful to make sure that the coat was folded just right, and the books were stacked just as they had been.
I stood up to push the clothes back together, and began to push the doors closed again, when they suddenly jammed and wouldn’t budge. OH NO! If I couldn’t get the doors closed, I’d be found out! My parents would know I peeked, and I’d be in so much trouble. I kneeled once again, and felt around on the floor of the closet. The door was blocking the light, so I couldn’t see what was in the way. “Oh, there it is”, I said to myself, and gave a quick pull and then shove to the box that was in the way, blocking the door from closing, and spoiling my chance to make a clean getaway. I pulled a little too hard and the box tipped over. It was a yellow box with green trim, and an odd shape. It was slightly familiar, but my brain wouldn’t accept what my eyes were seeing. It just couldn’t be! My hearts’ desire was to be an astronaut. I’d seen a commercial a few months before for a new Cabbage Patch Kid…an Astronaut! Could it be? It couldn’t, could it? I hadn’t told anyone, except Santa. I didn’t even believe in him, but I hoped, I took a chance, and I had told him a week before that I wanted one.
I hadn’t believed in Santa for a couple of years now, ever since I climbed into his lap and he smelled like my Dads friend, Steve. He sounded like Steve, too, and he was the first Santa to ever know my name without asking. Even as a child I was so skeptical, and once I stopped believing, there was no convincing me otherwise.
I sat there in disbelief. First, that I had been so silly to ever believe in Santa – since he was really Steve – and second, that there was a yellow and green box in the closet! Did I dare turn it around and look to see if it was the one I wanted so badly? I had to. The surprise was already spoiled, so it didn’t matter now.
I turned the box. I closed my eyes just before I could see, and when I opened them up, she was there! She had a space suit, white moon boots, and a helmet. She had short brown hair and bright green eyes, just like me! The best part? Her name. It was Gwendolyn Victoria. Sort-of close to my name! (which is Victoria Lynn, in case you don’t know that)
Before I knew what was happening, I let out a shriek!
This was the most perfect gift in all the world! This Christmas was going to be better than I’d even hoped!
I wanted to open her box and let her breathe, but I placed her back where she was, or as close as I could get, and slammed the doors. I scurried over to the doorway, whipped open the door, and gasped in horror.
My eyes opened wide with shock and fear. I wanted to launch myself at him, and thank him, and hug him, and at the same time, I wanted to run and hide.
He asked me what I was doing, and I felt my face get really hot. I said I heard a noise. I had heard a noise — the heater, and I got up to see what it was. I turned on my light, but I couldn’t see anything. He asked me if the noise came from the closet, and I thought I was going to melt into a puddle. I said, “No, it must have been the heater.” He raised his left eyebrow at me and asked my why, if I thought I heard the noise in my room, would I then close the door. My mouth went dry. It fell open, and my mind was racing, but before I could answer, he pointed at my bed.
I silently obeyed. I clambered onto my bed, into the sheets, put my head on my pillow, and looked into his eyes one last time. All I saw was my betrayal, and his disappointment. He shut off the light. I didn’t know if I’d been caught or not. How long had he been standing there? Did he see me in the closet? How long had I been in there? How loud was my squeal? I had so many questions. I had a sick feeling in my stomach. Still, there was a sense of excitement…knowing that Christmas Day would be the best day ever!
The next day I woke up, and expected to be grilled about the night before, but nothing was said. I knew that, if my mom found out I was in her closet, she’d be very angry. She was very private, and any invasion, no matter how small, of that privacy, was total and complete betrayal.
She never said a word.
Daddy never said a word.
It took most of the day for me to stop walking on eggshells. I was determined not to peek again.
A few days later…
It was Christmas Eve. My parents and I had traveled to the San Diego area to a small town called Alpine. It is located about 20 miles east of San Diego proper. Alpine is completely different from my hometown. It seemed to me to be more like a village. The shops in the shopping center were lit up for Christmas with twinkling lights and beautiful sparkly decorations in each window. Carols were playing over the loudspeakers, and the restaurants were filled with a warm glow. People were friendly, always making sure to wish you a “Merry Christmas.” Everything just felt like Christmas. This town was unlike anywhere I’d ever been.
We were visiting my Uncle Jon, Aunt Penny, and my cousins. Aunt Penny always had her home decorated so beautifully. Gold and silver ornaments hung from her tree. Homemade goodies were in cookie jars and on pretty, decorative plates. Candy could be found in small star, tree, and stocking shaped dishes in almost every room. My Uncle made his famous eggnog, which I was not allowed to sample, and he made sure that there was a quart of eggnog in the fridge for me.
Late at night on Christmas Eve, my Uncle Jon came into my room and woke me up. I was sleeping in his office, on a bright red futon chair that folded out and laid flat on the floor. My parents were asleep in twin beds in the guest room next door. When I was awake, we snuck into the kitchen to get eggnog and make plates of cookies, meat, cheese, and crackers, and then we went out on the porch and sat together and talked. You can do that on Christmas Eve in Southern California…sit on your porch…you know, without dying.
I always felt so grown up when Uncle Jon and I were together. He didn’t talk to me like I was a kid. He used big words without explaining them. He told me stories of travels and trips he had taken. He cursed, and drank, and smoked. He shared his eggnog. I promised not to tell. He and I walked down to the barn, and then on to the guest house. It was almost finished. He was having it fixed up for the new renters moving in the next spring. He wanted to show me the progress. As we walked around the guest house, I imagined myself living there one day. I wondered about what it would be like to have my own kitchen, and make my own meals. And close my own door. I promised myself that I would close all my doors, and keep them closed.
A while later, I’m not sure how long, we walked back to the main house. I went back to my red futon, and he went to his room. He and my Aunt fought a lot, and he usually went to bed long after she’d fallen asleep.
The next thing I remember, my eyes opened to the sunshine pouring into my room. I blinked a few times, my eyes and lashes crusty from sleep, and then it dawned on me.
I rushed to go to the bathroom, and then scurried down the hall to the family room. There, underneath the gold and silver tree, was a pile of presents like I’d never seen before. So many packages! All sizes and shapes. Beautiful paper, and ribbons, and bows! My dad was in the kitchen saying something to my Uncle about it being too much, and my Uncle was telling him that it could never be enough. I didn’t know what they were talking about. My dad left the room, and my Uncle held out his arms. He was sitting on a stool at the side of the kitchen island, and I ran over. He already smelled of bourbon and cigarettes. Maybe he always smelled of them, but it was especially strong this morning. I knew that he and my dad had been talking about me.
Too much? Were they talking about presents? All these presents under the tree? Were any for me? I hugged him so tight and he whispered in my ear, “Happy Christmas, Kiddo.” Happy Christmas, Uncle Jon!” I said back. He had spent some time in Europe a couple years before, and he picked up ‘Happy Christmas’ over there. I thought it sounded so grown-up. He smiled his big smile, and told me to “Eat quick. There’s a tree full of presents, and I think a few of them of them have your name on them.” I squealed with delight, and found something to eat. Chocolate chip pancakes. I ate them happily, knowing it was the only meal of the day that wouldn’t have seafood in it. My Aunt always had a traditional Italian feast on Christmas day, and that meant lots of fish. Spaghetti with squid in it, anchovy balls, and baked salmon. Really. I grew to love it, and now I even miss it, but when I was ten, I ate all the pancakes I could fit in…hoping they would fill me for the day.
Waiting has never been my best skill, and my Mom had to go through her entire morning routine before we could do anything. That meant breakfast, shower, too much Jean Naté, getting dressed, and then finally we could open presents. She was still asleep earlier, when I came out of the office, but she was just waking up as I was sitting down to eat breakfast.
About an hour later, it was finally time! Time to open presents!
I got to be Santa and ‘deliver’ all the presents. There was one for my Aunt, one for my Dad, and another for my Aunt. Then one for my Uncle, one for my Mom, and Wheee!, one for me! The best part? It was Uncle Jon’s writing. Another for me. One for my Dad. Another for me. It went on like that through all the presents, until the tree was bare. Each person had a pile of presents in front of them (Except for me. Mine were lined up and grouped together like some sort of early Tetris board) and the opening began. My Mom didn’t like everyone going at the same time. She wanted each of us to take turns, but my Uncle said, “My house, my rules.” He then looked right at me, and with a wink he said, “Get started, Kiddo!” He then explained, while I was opening my first present, that he thought, since I’d been up for over an hour already, I had waited long enough. I remember agreeing with him, and I was on to the next present. I never tore the paper. I always opened them carefully at the taped sections, so that I could save the paper in my drawer at home. My bottom dresser drawer was saved for things I wanted to keep forever. The paper from Uncle Jon’s present was definitely going in there.
Countless books, a beautiful sweater, a new Swatch watch – red, white, and blue to go with my school uniform, nail polishes, lip gloss, and shoes. Uncle Jon had even gotten me a pair of Jellies! Jelly shoes were so popular, and I’d wanted a pair, but my mom said they weren’t sensible, so I couldn’t have them. I never knew my Uncle Jon to be a sensible man. To me he was always wildly outrageous.
I got so many presents that day. All the beautiful things I could have wished for! Then I noticed, every present was from my Aunt and Uncle. There was nothing from my parents. I was so confused. I knew there were presents from them. I saw them. What was happening?
My dad must have noticed that something was wrong. He pulled me aside and asked me if I was upset. I said, unable to look into his brown eyes, “No”, but he continued to push it. We went into the office where I’d been sleeping just a couple of hours before.
After a few minutes of prodding, I broke. I blurted out, “Where are all my presents? I peeked in Mom’s closet. That’s why I had the flashlight, and that’s how I ruined the closet doors. I saw what you got me. I know. I know there were presents for me from you and Mom. Where are they? I mean, I was so excited about them, and they’re not here. I don’t know where they are.”
“So you lied to me?”
My heart sank. It hurt. I lied. I knew I lied. He knew I lied. I was sobbing by now, so devastated. All the lies, and now no presents.
He explained to me that I got nothing because of my lies. He told me that since I spoiled the surprise, and peeked, and then lied about it, I didn’t deserve them. “You shouldn’t be rewarded for that deceit”, he said. My lying and dishonesty cost me what I wanted most. Not only did it cost me presents, but it cost me the trust of my Father. His approval and his trust was everything to me. That meant more to me than any present…even the ones I was supposed to get.
After Daddy left the room, I was broken. I was exhausted from the the crying, but at the same time, I felt free. I was free from the lies I’d told. Free from the fear of my dad finding out I’d lied to him. My head was aching. I unfolded the futon, and collapsed on it. I fell asleep immediately.
I awoke to find my Uncle sitting beside me. He looked at me with a stern look and furrowed brow, one eyebrow cocked up. There was still a twinkle in his eye. His face morphed into a wide, warm grin. His white teeth were beaming from behind a tanned face, breath smelling still of bourbon and a recently smoked Camel cigarette. He asked if I wanted to go for a walk, and I put my hand in his.
We went on a hike covering just a small portion of the 10 acres he owned. Much of it was just brush and rocks, but we made good use of it that day. I told him everything – from the squeak of the closet door when my parents were hiding presents, to the talk Daddy and I had just an hour before.
He had been holding my hand as we walked together. When we got to the top of the rise overlooking the city of San Diego, he stopped us suddenly. He told me that he knew I wasn’t getting anything from my parents, and that he went out to buy me more presents so there would be plenty of things to open. He said he still had something for me, and told me to close my eyes. He had something in his hand. I felt his hand brush my neck, and then something was around my neck. It was warmed by his hands, but still felt cool on my neck. Another present! It was a thin gold chain, with a small filigree heart on it. I’d never owned anything so fragile. Jon always knew how to make me feel better. Usually it was a joke, or a funny story. Sometimes it was dinner out. This time it was a beautiful present. I hugged him tight, and soon I was smiling again.
I was smiling when we returned to the house, and as he walked passed my dad, he simply said, “Right as rain.” Daddy sighed.
Later, Daddy told me that Jon had gone out the day before Christmas Eve to buy more presents for me. It was right after he told Jon about the presents I was no longer getting. I didn’t tell him that Jon already told me. He was angry because he had told Jon not to get me anything else. He asked him, “If you go replace everything, then where’s the lesson in that?” Daddy was always very strict. My Uncle was not. Daddy had a lesson to go with every punishment, and every lecture. I had a feeling that Uncle Jon had already gotten in trouble with Daddy for the presents he bought.
Over the next couple of days, Jon gave me two more presents. Each one given on another outing. A bracelet, and a Cabbage Patch Kid. Not the astronaut, but he was still a wonderful Kid. Stanley Ricky was his name, and he was a football player.
A few days passed, and we were walking back into our house on Sunhaven Lane. Back to the bright yellow walls and crazy curtains in my room. Far away from Uncle Jon, our long walks, and his wonderful surprises. Far away from Aunt Penny’s gold and silver tree. Back to the only home I’d ever known, and its’ thick tension that enveloped me the moment the heavy, black front door opened.
As we walked into the house, I took my bags to my room. I heard my dad call me from the living room, and as I walked into the room, with its’ dark, paneled walls, and cold tile floor, the Christmas tree we had put up before we left for California, was lit, and underneath it, were several packages wrapped with bright-colored Christmas paper.
I looked at Daddy, and he said, “You’ve suffered enough. Merry Christmas!”
It was, despite the tears and the lies, one of the best Christmases I’ve ever had. I’ve taken the lessons I learned that year with me throughout my life, in many different situations.
My parents continued to hide presents in that closet each year until we moved to California. After that, I have no idea where they put them.
I never, ever peeked at my Christmas presents again.
Gwendolyn (The CPK astronaut doll, in case you forgot by now, because this story is, like, forever long) and I were together not even a month, when we were sitting on the sofa at Mrs. Macklin’s house. My whole class had pneumonia, we were all studying at her house, watching the Space Shuttle take off. I was sitting there, in her living room, staring at the television, when, to my horror (and Gwendolyn’s), the Shuttle exploded right before my eyes. I stopped wanting to be an astronaut soon after that. Not because of the explosion, but because someone told me that I’d have to do lots science and math to become an astronaut, and that, my friends, is unacceptable. I don’t do math. Well, not hard math.