One of the great blessings in this life is being loved and wanted. Especially when you are a child. It cannot be overestimated what a difference it makes in your entire life. I was so very fortunate to be born to parents who reveled in my arrival in their lives.
My mother had not had an easy time carrying a child to full term. She miscarried several times, both before and after I was born. I have wept with friends who have endured the experience. No matter what the doctors tell you, no matter how common and unpredictable the experience is, when you are a woman who wants to bear a child and instead you miscarry, it’s difficult to convince yourself that your body is not betraying you. So, it was no small miracle for my mother to give birth to a healthy, whole baby. And some lucky combination of fate and genes gave her one who was happy and easy to love. A fortunate thing, because she was only ever able to have one.
I was not a perfect child and my parents were not perfect parents. My mother was saddled with mental illness all her life, and my father fought cyclical depression with alcohol during most of the first ten years of my childhood. But somehow, my mother did not fall into the swamp of postpartum depression and enjoyed caring for me, and somehow my father turned into a sturdy, fun and loving dad. And for that, I owe them everything.
My parents never had a lot growing up, but they had a roof over their heads and they knew how to have fun. When they got married, they were both working, and they saved up to buy a house, something their parents had never been able to afford. Still, they brought a lifetime of ingrained thrift into their choices. They budgeted, they did not live beyond their means. They did not know the meaning of the word “profligate.” Fun was something you did, not something you owned. They were far from stingy, though, but the things they considered necessary luxuries were things like music and books, going to the theater, enjoying the museums and concerts that the nearby city of Boston provided. I didn’t get ice skates or bicycles or the latest toy for Christmas. But I got love and family gatherings and celebration and an appreciation for real sharing.
I was also lucky enough to have a massive extended family. I had grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins in abundance. I had a wonderful godmother, Mary, who was my mother’s young sister, and was a combination of another mom and a big sister to me. Mary spent a lot of our early Christmases with us before she eventually married and had her own family. By then, I was a “big” girl and I enjoyed returning the favor by popping over to her house to play with my little baby cousins. From Mary, I first learned about the incalculable joy of having an Auntie, of having another adult in your life who just likes and loves you for who you are, no strings attached, with none of the irksome daily drama that can’t help attaching itself to your immediate family.
Auntie Mary gave me a stuffed dog when I was a toddler. He was brown and floppy-eared and had a rattle in his paw. I called him “Goggy,” which was as close as I could get at the time to the new word Mary tried to teach me. I carried him everywhere. It was a tragic and traumatic occurrence on those laundry days when my mother would have to pry Goggy from my tearful grasp to wash him. He wasn’t just a stuffed animal; he was a talisman, a tangible symbol of my godmother’s love, and without him, I was bereft. When Goggy was inevitably loved to death, I was devastated. But somehow Mary came up with another, an exact duplicate which I took better care of and attempted to love more gently. Goggy had to submit to my imperfect attempts at plastic surgery over the years, but he continued to survive and be loved, as did I.
When I was a little older, I remember being shocked one summer when the father of the two sisters I played with next door threw out a bunch of their not-so-old toys. He didn’t warn them, and he had no sympathy for them whatsoever when they discovered his treachery one afternoon when the three of us were playing in their basement playroom. The three of us cried together. My heart ached with horror and sympathy. I knew there were toys of my own that I didn’t play with anymore, but that didn’t mean I didn’t still love them. I remember running home that day to check that my old toys were still safely tucked into my closet or the attic storeroom. When my mother asked me what I was doing, I told her the story. She joined me in my sad outrage that anyone’s dad could be so hardhearted.
Like nearly all other small children, I believed in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. The Easter Bunny had a special place in my heart because Easter fell near my birthday every year. And I loved real bunnies. I didn’t know any personally, but I’d seen them in my picture books and began to lobby for one. Word got out, naturally, and my mother had to set a rule in my extended family that no one was permitted to give me any live bunnies for my birthday. I didn’t really mind. Popcorn bunnies were fun, too.
Christmas, on the other hand, could not be topped for magic and wonder. I would force myself to stay awake as long as possible to catch just a glimpse of Santa and his reindeer flying through the sky, but I never succeeded. No matter. At the crack of dawn, I would launch myself into the living room, where the evidence of his visit was always arrayed around the tree. The year I was six, I remember being able to stay awake longer. As usual, I had been given strict instructions not to open my bedroom door (it could stay open a crack, so that just enough light leaked in to keep the monsters away), and I was certainly not allowed anywhere near the living room. As I lay in bed, stubbornly rubbing the sandman’s sand out of my eyes, I could hear my parents, trying to be quiet, tiptoeing around the house, whispering and giggling. It wasn’t fair, I thought to myself, that they got to stay up so late and thus had a much better chance of actually seeing Santa Claus, maybe even meeting him when he came down the chimney. I was even beginning to have some doubts about the whole story, in fact, the usual questions about time and feasibility and geography. But I didn’t let them trouble me too much, and I finally allowed myself to fall asleep. And if I didn’t really know what sugarplums looked like, I hoped that they would dance in my head as I was sleeping.
The next morning, I leaped out of bed and raced to the living room. And stopped, stunned, several feet from the tree. Instead of blearily shuffling in, still in their pajamas, my parents were already there, fully dressed, waiting for me by the tree. They didn’t even look tired. They just smiled, and my mother said, “Look what Santa brought you!” I did look and I was astonished. There, arranged around the tree, was a child-sized kitchen, complete in every detail. There was a hutch full of dishes, a stove with real knobs that turned and an oven door that opened. There were little pots and pans on the painted burners. There was a cabinet with a plastic-lined sink, with faucets connected to a water bottle in the back that really opened to let water trickle out. There was a refrigerator with little plastic eggs in a cardboard carton and a painted wooden bottle of milk. I was gasping so much, I don’t think I closed my mouth or said a word for fifteen full minutes. All I could manage was to utter, several times, a breathless “OH!” “And see what we gave you with your grandparents?” my dad said. Next to the kitchen set was a beautiful doll carriage, with a lovely baby doll inside, dressed in a pale blue suit and wrapped in a yellow blanket, all of which, I was told, my grandmother sewed herself. I continued to be rendered speechless. It was almost too wonderful! Without a doubt, I had never had such a bountiful Christmas. And I had only asked Santa for a baby doll!
I stared in complete amazement at my parents, who stood, beaming at me. “Do you like everything?” my mother asked. I nodded mutely. They nudged up against each other, arms around each other, giving each other the most delighted, loving smiles I’d ever seen them share. “Well, Santa must have thought you were a very good girl this year,” my dad said. And it was then, in a blinding instant, that I knew the truth. Santa had had nothing to do with this. In fact, Santa had never had anything to do with it. It had been my parents all along. Every year, every Christmas Eve, when they stayed up late into the night, whispering and conspiring, assembling and arranging and wrapping. Sharing the supreme pleasure of conjuring magic for their only child. They were the ones who created the dream and made it come true. There was no Santa Claus! I remember thinking that I couldn’t tell them I knew. I didn’t want to spoil the moment and ruin the spell they’d created. Instead, I hugged them both, and thanked them. And felt, ever after, profoundly moved by their love.
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