Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Another Christmas Story

Each year for work, I come up with a "holiday remembrance" for one of our Christmas/Holiday Services.  I am a Unitarian Universalist, so the services often include more than Christmas.  Having grown up in a Lutheran community in eastern South Dakota, I have only stories of Christmas.  I didn't even know that there were other people with other religions when I was a child.  It was just us, the Christians, and them, the Heathens.  Since then, I've met and befriended many Heathens.  They are as fine people as the Christians.

Stories of the Season - December 2010

In the late 1960s my family was living in a three bedroom, one and one-half bathroom, ranch style house on Holbrook Avenue in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.  We had moved from our farm to the newest subdivision in this small city.  Holbrook Avenue was the last street in the city limits.  Our neighbors across the street had back yards that abutted a pasture of a neighboring farm.  This close proximity to the horses and cattle that were often grazing at the fences was a constant reminder to my older sister of how much she missed the farm and the animals that we had moved away from.

My sister was older when we moved, more of an outcast in her high school classes than my brother and I who had fewer difficulties fitting in to elementary classes.  My sister's memories of the bucolic days in the country with friendly neighbors and farm animals with Disney-like personalities did not help her move forward and integrate into the life we now had.

As the first Christmas in Sioux Falls approached, my brother and I took advantage of our time free from daily farm chores to make the house festive.  We found a roll of twelve inch wide white butcher paper and claimed it for our own.  We began by cutting out snowflakes to hang in the windows, but found that with a little paint, some crayons, and plenty of masking tape, we could turn 10 foot lengths of that paper into scrolls of paper that could be hung in the hallway, the living room, the dining room, our bedrooms - anywhere we could attach the paper with tape, we had a holiday banner.  There were scenes of Santa and his reindeers, there was the nativity.  Bold letters proclaimed "Feliz Navidad" and "Mele Kalikimaka" - phrases we'd learned in the new songs we were singing in music classes.  Of course the largest banner offered "God Jul" as a tribute to the hundreds of times we heard it growing up at the Center Lutheran Church.

As this project stretched from a Saturday afternoon, to a couple days, to weeks, my brother and I offered my sister an opportunity to join in this festive artistic endeavor.  She declined.  In fact, she offered her assessment of our activity and the quality of our work.  It was not kind.  Her harsh words did not phase my brother and I.  In fact, they probably made us increase the quantity of banners and the scope of holiday icons.  Illustrations of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," "Angels We Have Heard on High," "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem" were churned from the non-ending roll of white paper.  My favorite mini-mural was my brother's depiction of Tex Ritter's song about a soldier who carries a deck of cards with him instead of a bible to a Christmas Eve service on his military base.  The chaplain chastises the soldier for bringing the cards - that is - until the soldier explains that each card in the deck correlates to some part of the nativity story.  I think the song is called "The Deck of Cards."  I used to get teary eyed every time I'd hear it.  But I digress.

Besides labeling our activity "lame," my sister offered that she could not join in the art project because she was too busy making her Christmas list.  Now my brother and I were no slackers when it came to lists.  Ours had been done prior to the production of the butcher paper banners.  Our lists were pretty typical for ten and twelve year olds:  a transistor radio with head phones; a 45 of "Winchester Cathedral" by The New Vaudville Band; BBs for my brother's BB gun, leg warmers for me; and of course games.  My brother requested "Strat-O-Matic Baseball", me, I wanted "Hey Pa, There's a Goat on the Roof" or "The Game of Life."  Our lists were long and specific.  They also included some "no" gifts we wanted Santa to know about:  no socks, no pajamas, no savings bonds, things like that.

My sister's list only had one item on it - a horse.  What was consuming her time was the list she was compiling that contained all the reasons she needed a horse.  Some of the reasons she listed were:  1.  I'll die if I don't get a horse; 2.  I'm so miserable living in Sioux Falls, a horse will make me happy; 3.  I won't be sick as often and miss so much school if I have a horse; 4.  The time I spend with my horse will lift the dark depression I've fallen into; 5.  I deserve a horse;  6.  I'll never ask for another dime of allowance if I get a horse; and the coupe de grace was 7.  I will not accept or open any Christmas gifts that are not a horse.  She always did have (still does) a flair for the dramatic.  My brother and I withheld judgment about her list.  We were pretty certain she was not getting a horse since we now lived in town and had no place to keep a horse.  We also thought she was displaying pretty wicked manners and was likely to actually NOT get any presents because of her greedy demands.  We did give her credit thought, her list was a gutsy move any way you tried to frame it.

As Christmas drew nearer, the suspense grew.  By now, the whole extended family knew about my sister's list.  My Grandpa kept saying that he'd take any presents she was unwilling to accept.  My brother and I were mortified that she was holding out.  She did not ask for one single thing other than the horse.  We should have suspected something was up since my parents did not seem to be engaging in their usual parental admonishments over such ungrateful behavior.  I was certain that I'd hear some speech about gratitude and appreciation for the roof over our head, food, on our table, so on and so forth.  But nothing.  Just silence from my parents.  It was hard to read, and made me really nervous about Christmas morning.

Finally the day arrived.  There were packages under the tree for all of us when we awoke on Christmas morning.  Santa had left an equal amount of packages for all of us.  My brother and I knew what this meant - no horse for our sister.  When she saw the gifts she burst into tears and ran back to our shared bedroom.  My mom did go and retrieve her with some stern words about shaping up and not being so dramatic.  My brother and I began opening our presents, but with less enthusiasm that previous years.  Our sister was really, really creeping us out!  Who knew she'd take this so far.  We both offered weak "oh wows" when we saw our green plastic Signature transistor radios.  We wondered, did my sister get one too?  Would she please just open a present and relieve some tension?  The next package I opened contained headphones and 5 nine volt batteries for the radio.  "Yeah, thanks" I said quietly.  (When was my sister going to give up the hijinks and open a gift?  Please!)   My next gift was a blue vinyl suitcase for my Midge doll.  What?  That wasn't even on the list!  More weak thanks.  Socks, pajamas and a book of lifesaver candies completed the my array of presents.  My brother did get some BBs, but also socks and, gulp, underwear.  My grandparents were with us that year.  Their gift of a $10 bill wrapped in a box with some divinity candy was the best so far.  Well, after the radio.

My sister, she sat as far away from the family and the Christmas tree as she could and still technically be in the room.  She had her gifts piled around her, but was not opening them.  When we'd all finished and she hadn't started my mom tried to guilt her into opening hers.  Admonishments about her bad manners and ungrateful attitude filled the room like slow ticks of the clock.  "I'm beginning to regret buying you any gifts," my mom would say.  "Do you want us to take them back, give them so a deserving grateful child?" my dad asked.  "Are you going to ruin Christmas for all of us?" mom chided?  "Maybe we should give these to your brother and sister," dad suggested.  (I liked that idea)  Finally, without saying a word, my grandpa got up and walked over to her pile of presents.  He appeared to be considering them equally and finally took one back to the couch with him.  "I guess I'll just take this one."  "Jennings, stop that.  You're not helping," my grandma said.  But he would not be stopped.  He was tearing away the paper.  This was an unprecedented move, even in my family's wacky Christmases.  Was no one going to stop him?  The unfolding drama was a much fun as opening my own gifts had been.  He got all the paper off, it was a shoe box.  Hmm, not so great after all, I thought.  But when he opened the lid, there were not shoes in the box, there was a bridle.  He pulled it out and held it up and said, "Hmm, I can use this."  No one said a word.  We were like a bunch of kids in detention, hoping my grandfather's actions would invoke some kind of a reaction from someone!  A few moments passed, no comments.  Grandpa went and got another package.  In it was a saddle blanket, curry comb, saddle soap and a note saying that there was a saddle in the garage.  My grandfather was ohhing and ahhing about how he could use these back on his farm for his horses.  These gifts got my sister's attention.   My brother's and my attention too.  We were younger, but we were both pretty good at math.

Time started moving at that strange speed that they use in movies to get from a one scene to a time much later on.  Wrapping paper from the next two gifts seemed to fly from my sister's hands.  A halter and lead rope, and the grand prize.  A box that held a polaroid picture of a horse and a note with directions to the farm where the new POA, Flicka, could be located - a mere 6 miles from our house.    While time flew around us, my brother and I sat motionless.  My sister flew into her clothes, my mom and dad and grandpa were getting their coats on.  My sister was screaming variations of "thank you" and "I love you" to anyone and everyone.  As they walked out the door, my mom said to my brother, "help Grandma."  Then they were gone.  Christmas had come and gone in some sort of strange dream time.  Really, a horse?  That's what I kept asking myself.  I was also kicking myself for not asking for a, well, something, anything big and expensive.  I had limited my self to a transistor radio!!!!

My brother and I could not talk to each other.  He picked up his gifts, put them back in their boxes and placed them back under the tree before he went to help grandma with cooking dinner.  I took my stuff and took it to my room.  I sort of dumped it on my bed before I went out to the kitchen.  There I found grandma saying to my brother, "I don't know what to say about all this."  My brother, peacemaker that he always was said, "Maybe our big Christmas's are coming."  The rest of the day was very strange.  The adults seemed a bit embarrassed by the disparity in the gifts.  Mom and dad even announced that they had not gotten each other anything because the horse was, and would continue to be, so expensive.  Who were they trying to make feel better?  No me.  My brother and I were very quiet.  No, we didn't want to go out later and see the horse.  No, we did not want to ride her when she was broken.  No, we did not want to give her carrots or sugar cubes.  We really didn't want anything to do with that horse.  Spontaneously during the day, grandpa would let out a sigh and whisper, "My, my, my, my.  A horse."   A quiet, "shhh," was grandma's automatic response, even if they were in different rooms.

A lot changed about our family's Christmases after Flicka came into our lives.  Never again did any of us children attempt such a coup.  My sister would not have dared.  My brother and I did not dare.  Or maybe we were all just maturing and realizing that Christmas should be about more than the value of gifts.   There were unexpected lessons that year for all of us.  At first I felt that my sister had really pulled the wool over my parent's eyes, making them feel that she would be sad and depressed unless she had a horse.  But then I began thinking, she really was struggling with adjusting from our country school to a high school with over 500 students in it.  Maybe time in the country with Flicka would bring some peace and respite into her life.  And my brother showed me what real giving was.  When he heard my mom and dad telling my sister that she'd have to put all her babysitting money and most of her allowance toward feed, vet bills, and stable rent for the horse, he offered her $50 to use toward those expenses that he'd been saving for a hunting rifle.  My sister, I think she learned the best lesson of all.  She really had an opportunity to fully understand the old adage, "Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it."

So, here is wishing us all a holiday where some but not all of our wishes come true.  Happy Holidays.