Note: The following post is not suitable for children under the age of—well, for kids from 1 to 92. Parents, be warned…
I’ve called Georgia home for twenty-two years—ever since I married the boy who went northward to steal me down South. I’m a recovering Yankee—I like the South, and I do a mean impression of a native. But from whence I came is in my bones. I had the outrageous good fortune of spending my formative Christmases in a Dutch Colonial house at the bottom of a long, winding drive in, of all places, Connecticut.
If it sounds idyllic, that’s because it was. The grate was seldom cold in the keeping room fireplace, where I could sit as close to the flames as possible without spontaneously combusting. On the bricks I’d read or draw or lie with my head against our sleeping Irish setter. She, too, knew the best spot in the house was hearthside, with a view of my mother cooking dinner in the kitchen (and a chance–for both setter and me–for tastes).
New England winters are cold. I remember one December the snow piled so high I had to stand on my toes to see out the keeping room windows. We had an old-fashioned wood sled–with red runners–and a toboggan, on which the whole family plus dog could go tearing down a hill. One year, I put on my skates to shovel powdery snow from the bottom of the drive–and was rewarded with an ice rink all my own.
Whenever an unsuspecting soul wanted to know my favorite color—favorite colors being a hot topic for humans age ten and under—I described the shade of deep blue reflected on a snow-scape at dusk, the instant before the sun disappears. (“You can’t put that on a crayon,” one schoolmate pointed out, as if to say no dice, weirdo–try again. I stood pat.)
When a blizzard came one evening, I marveled at the snow-comets–one could hardly call them flakes–blanketing the world in white in no time. (What glee–there is nothing more disappointing to a child than a dusting of snow, scarcely covering the grass. The enemy is visible blades of grass!) Dad took the train, as usual, from work in Manhattan, and telephoned from the local station to tell us he and his orange Chevy Vega were about to attempt the drive home. Later, he called from a “neighbor’s” house–a few miles yonder–to confess the hill on Cross Highway had licked ’em. (Cross Highway, likely christened two centuries ago, was no highway but a roller coaster of a back road.) Not ready to admit defeat, Dad announced he would walk home via a shortcut–through the woods. The neighbors pleaded for him to settle in for the night with them (they were also friends of ours)–the snow was knee-deep! But Dad was terrifically stubborn. My mother, brother and I perched at a back window, watching the woods for a glimpse of Dad’s borrowed flashlight. Mom worried, but I knew dads are invincible, so I thought about how exquisitely hushed the woods must sound–the quietest quiet of all is outdoors in snow. Hours later, the dog barked wildly as the abominable snowman appeared, laughing about his adventure.
The only other sound’s the sweep
of easy wind and downy flake. ~ Robert Frost
On many a Christmas Eve, we sat in a pew toward the front-left of a 250-year-old Episcopal church–at the crest of Cross Highway, in fact. It was inside Christ Church, on some December 24th in the 1970s–somewhere between “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”–that I first felt the piercing pangs of Jesus-love (and knew they were real).
On Christmas mornings, I would find a pair of pristine ice skates for my growing feet under the tree. (Mom’s skates were grey with age–her feet stayed the same old size eight–how dreary to be an adult!) There were plenty of opportunities to make use of skates on frozen ponds all over town (or the driveway). But the desire of my heart was for my dad to cut the blades off my skates so I could wear the lace-up boots every day, evoking Little House on the Prairie. (Never mind that my skates were white, not frontier black.) Mom quashed the idea—why ruin perfectly good ice skates?
I wanted to be various things at Christmastime—Laura Ingalls, of course, which wasn’t hard to imagine with my long brown hair pulled into two tight braids. Lucky for me, I got a doll the year of my Clara (from the Nutcracker) fixation, and I carried the doll around as I’d seen Clara hold her treasured nutcracker in her ballerina arms.
I even went through a Mary stage, fashioning a blanket into the Madonna’s headdress and practicing in front of the mirror my best Mary-face–a hard-to-pull-off mixture of long-suffering and radiant joy. But my first Christmas love—in fact my first love, period—was Santa Claus, and by the time I could hold a Crayola I drew the jolly old elf on pieces of scrap paper and in the margins of my mother’s (when she turned her back) Betty Crocker cookbook, flipped open to the holiday cookie pages. When I was very small, I informed my fellow preschoolers I intended to marry Saint Nick. You can’t do that, someone said. Someone was always Pointing Things Out.
One Pointer-Outer was my slightly older neighbor, Tina G. Back in the pre-Google era, Tina G. felt it was her duty to apprise me of Facts, which, for children, could only be had by sifting through an encyclopedia—or via a know-it-all kid like her. Think about it, Tina G. said one early December day while we played in my yard, how could a fat man squeeze down a chimney flue? And what of the time constraint of delivering gifts to the entire planet in one night? And flying reindeer? I had an inimitably logical, well-thought-out answer for all of it. (Such is an advantage of an over-active imagination.) Tina G. got my attention, though, when she said: It’s your parents, dummy.
And so I ran inside, as kids do, and asked my mother. Isn’t he real? Mom towed the line, bless her. But during the next few weeks, I asked her and asked her and asked her until one tragical Christmas Eve when, as Mom was at the stove stirring oyster stew, I asked her once more.
“Well,” she said absentmindedly as she tended the pot, “What do you think?”
What! Adults never asked children what they thought—unless they were trying to gently coax them toward the correct answer, the proper view of things, the God-awful truth.
And so the scales fell from my eyes.
“You’ve been lying to me my entire life!” I shouted. “Liar, liar, liar!” And “liar!” I screamed and cried and keened for the next few hours as Mom sat with inconsolable me, and visiting relatives ate supper without us and dessert time—dessert!—came and went. (Such is a distinct disadvantage of an overactive imagination.)
Oh, the drama.
My wonderful, lying parents. I don’t hold it against them—telling me this fantastical tale. In fact, I’m glad they did. What would a kid in Connecticut, with her moony face pressed against the glass to stare at the indigo snow, do without a fairy story or two to believe in?
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of midday to objects below.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer. ~ Clement Clarke Moore