When I was nine years old, my parents separated and my mother, brother and I moved from the east coast to Ohio. After living with cousins for one endless summer, we moved into a rented, red-brick house in a small suburban school district. A Doberman named Thor lived on one side of us, a family of five with a bespectacled patriarch who wore denim overalls and drank a six-pack of bottled Coca Cola daily on the other. Presumably, Thor didn’t live alone, but I don’t remember much about his owners.
I remember a lot of things about the year that we lived in that house. When mom signed the lease, our bedrooms were white, but by the time we moved in, mine had turned to yellow, my brother’s to blue, and my mother’s to a bright shade of lime green that she affectionately referred to as “pukey.” I remember lying in her window seat, listening to the radio news report that people had been trampled to death at a Who concert just down the interstate in Cincinnati.
Our pet German Shepherd was too big for our lives there, so she was passed on to a pair of farmers. I sobbed, standing in my roller skates as I watched the happy couple drive away with her in a boxy, powder blue pick-up truck after telling me how loved she would be in her new home, how thrilled she would be with all of that space to run.
I once got sick from eating too many mulberries from the neighbor’s yard. I met one of the only friends I still stay in touch with from childhood when her puppy, Satchmo, nearly knocked me off of the green, $12 bicycle that my mother bought me at a rummage sale in New Jersey a year before.
On Christmas eve that year – our first alone as a three person family unit – we were all winding down upstairs, getting ready for bed. My mom was in the bathtub and my brother and I were resisting sleep – bouncing around in the hallway together, too anxious to get to Christmas morning to rest.
Then we heard a rumpus of thuds and bells on the roof, followed by a man’s voice in the living room: “HO HO HO! Merry Christmas Turner family!” My mother scrambled for a robe and we all ran to the landing of the stairs together to look out the window. Santa ran up the driveway next to our house and waved at us cheerfully before disappearing into the dark. And, like any normal children raised on the threat of Santa, my brother and I sprinted to our beds and pulled the covers up over our heads, as though whatever gifts we had under the tree might disappear if we were caught awake. Mom acted concerned, even nervous. She went downstairs and found that the deadbolts were locked. She made a big deal of checking that the windows were locked too. Her only conclusion? “That must have been Santa Claus.”
In the years since, I’ve asked her several different times who that Santa really was. There were a number of uncles, neighbors, friends and co-workers who could have been candidates. Her answer usually goes something like “You tell me. If I was expecting someone to come into our house and play Santa, why would I have been naked in the tub? The whole thing scared the bejesus out of me.”
This year, like 1979, has been one of those upending, confusing periods. And this holiday season has been marked by stress, unreasonable expectations, health concerns and exhaustion. Yet somehow, I got the holiday cards out in time. I even made several of my gifts this year, and they are all wrapped and ready for the morning.
As I get ready to go to sleep tonight, I’m listening for sleigh bells.
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