December 23, 2015
Christmas in our house was a verb. For my sister and I the flurry of holiday activity began in sunny August when the JC Penney catalog was shoved into our mailbox. The first hundred pages were filler. Who needed to look at moms, dads, and kids dressed up in holiday garb or flannel pajamas? One flick of my wrist and the mail order magic began. Toys were segregated strictly by color. I never lingered on pages of browns and greens showing an articulated GI Joe and his assorted accessories- rifles, camouflage tents, hard helmets. I never cultivated a keen interest in hotwheels cars and the orange racetrack wrapping around every corner in the house. My eyes narrowed on pink and purple pages- dolls, tea sets, and pretend makeup. Each was thumbed a thousand times; it would take weeks to make final selections. Those were circled and initialed. No reason for Mom to wonder who wanted the Barbie lounge singer in black glitter with a floor mic, dreamy.
I remember one Christmas especially. I had found the perfect gift to reflect the sophistication achieved in nearly a full decade of life; a small cream colored French style telephone. Bonus- it was an AM radio. It radiated understated elegance. Why, Grace Kelly would use this to answer a call from her real live prince.
I never wanted something more in my life- except maybe the pony I prayed for when I was a little eight year old. Or maybe the go-go boots Nancy Sinatra wore. But this was a close rival for sure.
My wish list that year was short. The phone, at the top. I dropped dramatic hints, marked the page with ink and made sure the catalog was always on the coffee table before bedtime so Mom and Dad could review the specifics watching Johnny Carson.
I ramped up enthusiasm for chores and enlisted my little sister as advocate.I had plans for that phone. I would make important calls to important people in my life, like Audrey Hepburn and Julie Andrews. We would discuss their voice and diction lessons, upcoming roles considered, and other topics shared with close friends. The soothing music would help me drift to sleep at night.
My mom wrapped and piled presents under the tree for days- with the exception of the “big one” which one lucky duck got after all the rest had been opened. Dad would rub his surprised face on and head into the den for an oversized gift mostly covered in a blanket from the trunk of some car. All five of us received one of these over the years- a stereo system to haul off to dorm life, a drum set, a violin, a foosball table, another pair of skis.
This French style telephone fit that overly special gift category. I knew Mom wouldn’t put it under the tree with boxes of pajamas, board games, and books. And she didn’t. Until December 23rd. Early that morning my not-so-casual gift inventory recorded a new item. Small, wrapped in royal blue foil.
My heart thumped in the silence of a sleeping house. I sank to my knees in admiration and awe. The beautiful paper shimmered from the lights above. It was tucked between two obvious record albums (not sure why Mom bothered to wrap those) and a large box tagged for my sister. We all suspected she got a new striped stocking ski hat and matching scarf.
I kept my hands off that box for almost 24 hours. Waking early on Christmas Eve, I tiptoed down the hall and rustled the tree just a little plugging in the lights.
Barely breathing I rested on my stomach and reached for the blue box. There was no tag. This was part of the Christmas magic Mom brought to the day every year. My index finger slid under the pointed side wrapping and pulled. Slowly. The tape came free, not a single tear in the paper. One gulp of air later I hooked my finger into the bottom fold and pulled gently. On the side of a white cardboard box I read the letters p-h-o-n-e. Air forced out my mouth. I pushed the tape back in place. And stared at the box. The gift of all dreams lay before me. In one day it would be mine.
Moments later a sick ache landed in the pit of my stomach, and stayed there.
Christmas morning was happy, but would not include the unparalleled joy played over and over in my mind. That moment was gone. I had stolen it. Curiosity nurtured by selfishness had taken me over. Years in Catholic school had taught me nothing about being good. But I had learned guilt. And it has stayed with me for 48 years.
I loved that phone. It remained a bookend on my bedside table long after I had left home for college, then marriage. But each time I admired its beauty and lamented over its poor radio reception I felt the ache of guilt. My one-and-only peek taught me patience, and left me with an enduring appreciation for what I don’t know.
And that is a gift.
Happy Holidays to you and all those you love.