I've always thought of myself as a Bah-Humbug, you know, a real Christmas grouch. However, when I started to put my thoughts together to write this piece, I discovered that I actually had some pretty wonderful feelings and memories about the holidays, and that my Scrooge-like instincts must have been learned as an adult.
I suppose every family has their own traditions around the holidays; in my case none of them were exactly traditional. I come from a very small family, just my parents and me, and we never spent Christmas at home. Christmas was always about traveling either to Texas, to see my grandmother LaSalle on my mother's side, or to New York to see my Mann and Giddoo on my dad's side. Either way it meant a long trip.
We lived in Missouri and our white Chevy station wagon was the ticket to either place. We would all pile in, me in the back with my smelly but lovable collie, Shelly-Maroon (don't ask, my father named her), a cooler full of anything that might rot in the fridge while we were away and packages to be given away Christmas Eve. Anyway, that's what it was all about with my family - traveling, coloring in the back of the car while Shelly drooled on my pictures, Christmas carols from the AM radio, my father splitting sunflower seeds with his teeth as my mother deciphered highway map and always, always, my father's telling of The Woolworth Santa. I lived for this holiday classic about a Salvation Army Santa who snapped and went on a wild spending spree with his charity earnings.
The Christmas that I'm remembering didn't go much like that. I was ten and my parents had just filed for a divorce. We had lived in this beautiful, if run-down, Victorian house for the past eight years of my life, and now Century 21 signs hung in the front lawn, with For Sale written underneath. All the furniture had been sold, and beside the essentials, the house was bare.
Because neither of my parents knew what their next step was, Shelly was given to my grandma LaSalle, whom we all understood would spoil her rotten. My mother, who's a writer, had gone away to an artist colony to get some space and collect herself.
Money was a big problem, and my father actually resorted to cutting down this Christmas bush, (it really wasn't much of a tree) instead of buying one.
On Christmas Eve, my father found a big book of wallpaper samples from the summer before when my great uncle Robert had come in from Texas to redecorate the house. From this book, the two of us made snowflakes of every dimension, paper chains and stars. We topped the tree-bush with a single strand of lights, and when asked what I thought should go on top, I replied, "My Snoopy dog, of course!" To which, my father replied, "Of course!"
I was told by both parents that Christmas would not be about presents that year, but rather about a time of peace where problems were put aside and new beginnings were possible. I was disappointed about the gift situation but, at heart, I understood, and peace sounded wonderful.
That night, while my father was asleep, I crept downstairs to get another look at the tree I had created. It was the first Christmas I had ever spent in my house, and the last. I turned the tree lights on and stood over the old-fashioned floor heater as it blew my night gown out. There, in the empty dark room, I had one of those moments when you realize nothing will ever be the same again. It's as if you have one foot in the future but you turn back briefly to say goodbye. With life as it had been, and with a strange excitement, I said goodnight to the tree and the little girl standing over the heater as I turned the Christmas lights off.
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