Memories are funny things. From one side of my brain, a particular date or image can be completely locked away. But by lassoing the stories of certain Christmases past, one memory becomes the tripwire for countless others, exposing a box full of my mother and everything I loved as a child. Things that were there, but just hiding behind a thicker curtain. And where I wasn’t feeling much like celebrating Christmas before I started all of this, now I’m ready to ring the bell at Salvation Army.
So to speak.
As of 2 weeks ago, I knew I had spent one Christmas away from home but could not have told you which one or anything else about it. But last night, as I was laying in bed thinking about Christmas Eve 1988, it came back to me in full color. I remember living it. I remember my mom retelling it. I remember my souvenir from it.
We drove to Lakeland for the holidays on December 23, 1975. I was almost 5. Kicking rocks in the driveway as my parents loaded the car, I remember hearing them discuss the hassle factor. Wrapping gifts beforehand, making room in the trunk for everything you have to take there and then haul back. I didn’t care about any of that. I just wanted some toys.
When we arrived, there was the usual hustle and bustle of holiday baking and food prep. My grandmother, quite the southern cook, had an operation going that would take a flow chart and a staff of 15 for me to pull off. She didn’t need a flow chart. She didn’t have employees. She had skillz. As was her custom, and the only one I personally cared about, a chocolate cake was made and sitting stoically in her rustic yellow and white cake tin. Her signature cake was a square, 3-layer cake better than anything else I’ve ever sampled. One bite of an end piece, superbly slathered in homemade icing, was really all I needed for Christmas. But I kept that quiet, lest they take me up on the offer and buy me nothing.
When you travel at Christmas and you step into someone else’s territory 2 days beforehand, you have to hit the ground running and you have to run their route, at their pace. I was only 4 at the time, so I wasn’t asked to do anything except to stay out of the way. That should have been easy enough for me. The kitchen was about a 6′ x 8′ rectangle and you met yourself coming and going if you turned around good. I tried to stay out of the way and I wasn’t at all interested in cooking or helping. But that kitchen had 3 doors. You could practically straddle three rooms by doing a split right there on the tile. And that was pretty cool for a little kid. One door was an opening with a step down into the den. Another door was an opening flush with the carpet of the main hallway of the house. And the third door…well. The third door was a swinging saloon-type door. And that was about as fun as it got in that house. Or any house. I liked to dart in and out through that door between the dining room and the kitchen. I liked to smack it so it swung with force and saunter in like I owned the place. I liked to duck under it, and spy on anyone in range. The possibilities were rich and vast. But in a kitchen that small, with two adults already dodging each other as they worked, my darting and sauntering and ducking was less than welcome.
I was banished.
But I’d be back. Maybe in the middle of the night.
The hallway off the kitchen led to the only three bedrooms in the house. My grandparents had the biggest, which wasn’t big, at the end of the hall. My parents had a small one with a queen bed and a dresser. And I shared my uncle’s old room with my brother. It had red shag carpet and the bed took up the entire room.
Things had been fairly smooth until Christmas Eve. I had managed to find other entertainment and left the saloon door alone. But I was working on a cold. I have 4 kids, so you don’t have to tell me that a cold in December in the nose of a 4 year old is commonplace. It isn’t anything to send out in the Christmas letter. Kids get snotty. But this cold took a diabolical turn and quickly became something else. It went straight to my ear. Again, it’s just an ear infection. It wasn’t pneumonia. But if you’ve ever had an ear infection–a really angry ear infection–the kind of infection that bulges up in your ear until the drum almost bursts, then you know it can be a painful kerfuffle inside your snotty head.
When I went to bed that night, I wasn’t my typical Santa-stalking self. Christmas Eve was a time to question everything, delay the process with water requests, beg for another story, or sneak off to the tree for one last peek at the bounty. For me that night, it was all about getting to sleep. I was hurting. I went to sleep with a slow, dull burn inside my right ear. Sometime after midnight, I woke up with a raging fire. My brother was asleep like a brick beside me, so I untwisted my nylon red nightie to free up my feet and ran across the hall to find my mother. She snapped awake the moment I reached her bedside.
“What’s the matter?” she asked, groggily trying to help.
“My ear,” I said, starting to cry with my right hand cupping it.
She scooted over in the bed and scooped me up to be with her. I have no idea how my dad didn’t get shoved off completely. There wasn’t enough bed for the 3 of us. My mom tried everything she could to bring me relief. Warm oil. Baby aspirin. Nothing touched the pain. So for the next 5 hours, she held my head in her lap as she sat propped against the wall. I cried all night. She cried some, too. We waited for daylight.
At 5:30, when my grandmother was stirring to start the Christmas meal, my mother told me to go get dressed. We were going to the E.R. Doctors weren’t open, Hospitals were. So, I was placed in the back seat of our Buick and driven to the hospital feeling like a very sick national celebrity. When we arrived, there was no one else there. No other sick people. None. Not one other patient. It was just me. And because there were no other patients, I was ushered in and treated like the royalty I had begun to believe I was. The nurses wore Santa caps and leaned down to me like I was on tour with the Jackson 5. Would you like my autograph? I can’t really write yet.
I was put in a temporary room behind a curtain that rolled on 1000 tiny metal balls. It was all quite fascinating. The doctor came in, checked my ear, said I was just on the brink of a ruptured ear drum, and got me a nice little antibiotic to make the whole thing go away.
It occurred to me right about then that it was Christmas. Straight up Christmas. And there I sat in the ER getting fawned over. The fawning was fun, but my stomach was growling for whatever my grandmother had going back at the house (our family never skipped breakfast) and I was more than ready to open some presents.
Before I left my fan club behind to rejoin my family, a nurse walked out with a toy for me. She said I had been such a great patient that I deserved a…weird little Santa doll. It wasn’t a cuddly plush Santa or a Santa with movable parts. It was a doll cut and sewn from 1975 Santa fabric. It was ugly enough to make a 4-year-old kid give up the myth of Santa altogether. And yet, I was immensely proud of that ugly doll. Because it represented the battle I had fought that day. It gave me an inflated sense of self importance. And because it was my first gift that year.
Until recently, I still had that Santa. Somewhere in the move two houses ago, I either tossed it or lost track of it. But you know the good ole internet. Nothing is ever really gone. So here’s a picture of some other kid’s ugly Santa. I’d be surprised if it’s not the same one. This one, with his rashy cheeks and sewn together black stumps, is sadly for sale on Etsy for a whopping $22. Whoever owned this Santa back in the day, I hope he earned it. Something this remarkable shouldn’t be free.
HH (happy holidays),