I suppose it’s not fair that I blame my mother for ruining that Christmas. I must have been eight or nine, old enough not to “believe” anymore, old enough to understand that whatever my mother bought would be hidden somewhere in the house. I was just being a normal kid, curious, with hope in my heart.
But if my mother had been a normal mom, she would have hidden that doll better. In fairness, it couldn’t have been easy to hide a three-foot baby doll, with the size and proportions of a real child so it could be dressed in toddler clothes.
But really, Mom, in the bathroom cupboard barely covered by the stiff, gray bath towels? I was sorry right away that I had found it, and I learned what happens to delight when surprise is erased. About the dread of faking surprise on Christmas Eve when we opened our gifts.
Maybe that Christmas was also the one when my mother used needles as fine as toothpicks to knit Barbie Doll clothes. It is only now, remembering those clothes, that it occurs to me that my mother must have waited until I went to bed to knit them so they would be a surprise, but I remember that I was surprised, and disappointed, that I didn’t get the slutty black strapless sequin dress I saw at Woolworths, the one that came with the microphone.
But, oh, the anticipation of opening those presents on Christmas Eve afternoon when Dad finally got home from his foundry’s Christmas party. No matter what was in those packages, it was more than what I had. We weren’t poor, but middle class kids just didn’t have much.
My mother often made me something. The Christmas I was sixteen, Mom made me a grey fur-trimmed maxi-coat that had a Dr. Zhivago hood going on, and it closed with metal frogs. It never fit exactly right, because of course Mom had to sew it when I wasn’t around, but I loved it and felt very sexy and sophisticated when I wore it to Rick’s uncle’s Christmas dinner.
After I opened my gifts with my parents and brother, we headed to my grandparents’ two doors down. First we had our mock turtle soup dinner, and once all of the dishes were washed and the tables were set for Christmas breakfast – this took forever, it seemed – the door to the family room was opened to reveal the bounty of a very generous Santa. You had to sidle in to find a seat; the entire center of the room was mounded with packages.
Most gifts you received in those days were surprises, but not too surprising. You might ask for a sweater, but you never know what color or pattern you’d get. Or earrings, but you didn’t know if they’d be silver or gold, studs or dangles.
Back then, you rarely returned gifts, unless they were damaged or the wrong size. You loved the gift because you loved the giver, and you always made an effort to use the gifts in their presence.
My crazy–in-mostly-a-good-way aunt really didn’t care about your wish lists. She bought what fancied her, like the year she bought all the adult children gingham nightshirts. My dad and his siblings and their spouses with the ankle-length nightshirts on. Wish I could find that picture.
My grandmother had an algorithm for determining her budget for each gift—a certain amount for children and their spouses, another for her grandchildren, and the smallest amount for her great-grandchildren. She would always buy a gift from your wish list, but if the gift did not cost the budgeted amount, you might find a pair of stockings or knee socks or two dollar bills in the box to make up the difference.