Friday, December 26, 2014

Our Best Christmas Gifts Ever

As we sat around the table this year at Christmas, I asked, “What was your very best Christmas gift ever?”

Not too surprisingly, three of the guys mentioned bicycles.

My brother-in-love talked about the Stingray he received when he was ten as giving him freedom. He could ride with his friends to school and to the park. It was the ‘in’ bike for its time, and he rode it for years, doing wheelies and flying down the streets of our neighborhood.
My husband said the year he got his J.C. Higgins, the Rolls Royce of bicycles, was most memorable. He and his little brother had gotten up in the wee hours of the morning to play with all the little toys under the tree. They completely missed the big bicycle and tricycle tucked behind it.
This was the best of the best, complete with saddlebags, an electric horn and light, and lots of chrome and trim. Unfortunately, it was also very heavy and had only one speed. In addition, it was really too tall for him, so he had to stand on the curb in order to mount it and leap off in order to stop without the bike falling over on him. Not long afterward, he removed the saddlebags, light, horn, and everything else he could, but he never was able to beat his friend who rode a three-speed.

My brother’s bicycle story was of the year when he was four, and Dad had repainted and refurbished our cousin’s old bicycle for him. After a few weeks, my brother told Dad he didn’t need the training wheels. After watching the kid ride his friend’s bicycle up and down the block, Dad said he’d remove the training wheels when he got home from work the next day. Unfortunately, Dad never returned from work the next day or any other day. So this is a bittersweet memory for my brother.

A great nephew said he remembered being given his older brother’s old skateboard. This gift began an ongoing love affair. After dinner this year, he tackled the hill up the street from our house. It has become mythical in our family since our nephew and his cousin both crashed on the hill. Fortunately, neither sustained serious injuries. We captured the incidents on videotape, and they have been watched by the family until the crashes have become legendary. Nevertheless, no problems occurred this year, so the enjoyment of the new skateboard remained complete.

My best gift was the mama doll I received when I was five. Mary Ann became my best friend throughout my childhood. A couple of years later, she looked pretty sad, but I never stopped loving her. My little brother had bitten off the ends of a couple of her fingers and poked her eyes into her head. Her wig was missing, and her cheeks were worn from being kissed so often. For my sixth birthday, Dad refurbished her, including a new wig and all new clothes.
When my daughter was small, she was allowed to play carefully with Mary Ann only when she was ill. For my Christmas gift when my daughter was in her teens, she located a fancy dress at the thrift shop for my doll, since her old clothing was pretty-well worn out. My beloved doll still wears that dress, and once in a great while a visiting child is allowed to hold and hug her.

My daughter’s best gift was her own TV and Princes phone. She received both when she was about ten. These two items made her feel very independent and grown-up.
Our great-niece told us about the ring which had belonged to her great-grandmother, and which she had always loved. The Christmas after her great-grandmother’s death, she was given that special ring. She wears it today, and it keeps the memory of her beloved relative alive for her.

A friend who joined us for dinner said having her husband released from the hospital for the day in 1969 was the very best gift she would ever receive. His prognosis, following being shot in the head in Vietnam, remained highly questionable, but at least he was allowed to be with his family this once.

Her husband shared his wife’s sentiment. Today, 40+ years later, he is still with us and has accomplished far more than the specialists ever dreamed he would. But that Christmas of 1969 marked the beginning of the promise of a new life for both our friends.

My sister-in love’s answer moved me the most. Her best gift ever was a simple set of jacks and a ball. She told us about spending four years with her sister in a convent, while her brothers lived with the fathers in a different facility. Between several masses each day, meals, school, and chores, she had very little free time. She spent some in the library, but she and her sister found the center of an old golf ball and several smooth stones with which they played jacks. For Christmas, the nuns gave her a real set with a real ball.
Her eyes still light up with joy when she talks about this gift and when she says, “And I was really good!”

I’m certain all of us have received other wonderful gifts over the years, but what was telling for me was the one constant in all the stories we shared. The joy of these gifts lasted long beyond Christmas morning. The boys mentioned the freedom and speed of their gifts, which transported them to other places. Our friends mark the 1969 Christmas homecoming as the beginning of their new life together and his slow recovery. The ring continues to be a reminder of a beloved great-grandmother, while our daughter’s TV and phone made her feel grown-up and more independent.

My Mary Ann still makes me smile. I confess, I usually kiss her cheek before I put her safely away.

What was your favorite Christmas gift ever? When did you receive it? Why was it special?

Monday, December 22, 2014

My Worst Christmas Ever

Recently my brother and I discussed our worst Christmas ever. Even though the ones since then may not always have been joyous, none will ever compare with the worst.

On February 16, 1954, I stepped off the school bus just like every other day. I looked toward our house and saw cars parked in our driveway and along both sides of the street. Some I recognized. Some I didn’t.

As I walked home, I kept running different possible scenarios through my head as to why so many people would be at our house. None of them made sense.

My confusion deepened when I opened the door and saw my aunts, several neighbors, and some of my parents’ friends sitting and standing around the living room and in the kitchen. Most appeared to be crying.

I grew even more alarmed when I looked down the hall. The window blind on the glass back door had been pulled down, leaving the corridor in shadow.

My mother started toward me. She wore a brown and white striped dress I disliked. Her eyes were red, and my dad’s father had his arm around her as they approached.

My first thought was: That’s really weird. They hate each other. Why is Grandpa holding onto my mother?

She walked up to me and said, “Your daddy died this morning.”

I realized everyone in the room was staring at me as if they expected something. Since they had all been crying, I decided to conjure up a few tears. They came more from fear and confusion than from any real emotion.

My aunt brought me a glass of tomato juice.

I was seven years old and realized my whole world had just changed, only I wasn’t really sure quite how yet.

The concept of death wasn’t new to me. My grandfather had died when I was twenty-six months old, and I was still keenly aware of his absence.

My four-year-old brother wasn’t present. I later learned he’d been sent across the street to another neighbor’s house.
Christmas 1953, the year before the worst one ever.
As an adult, I realize what this moment must have been like for our mother. She had been raised to expect to spend her life as a wife and mother. Suddenly, at thirty-six years old, she was responsible for raising two small children without their father. And Dad’s $1000 life insurance policy provided only enough to bury him.

From then on, it was as if my dad had simply evaporated. We never spoke of him, and we were never given permission to grieve for him. The three of us didn’t do so until over fifty years later.

The next morning, I was sent off to school as if nothing had changed.

The atmosphere there contained the same unreality as at home. My father had died the day before, yet no one said anything about it. Not my teacher. Not the other students, No one. There, life went on as usual, only I no longer felt a part of it.

I have many memories of the next few days, but the most vivid is my crying and begging to be allowed to go to the funeral. Following the wisdom of the day, however, I was once again sent off to school.

Just before Christmas, Mom announced we would spend Christmas Eve with my grandmother. She was not like the warm and fuzzy grandmas I’d seen in movies and on TV. Our grandmother was starched and stiff and had the gift of criticism. She had made it clear to both of us that, no matter what we accomplished, it would never meet her high standards. I worked hard for years to gain her approval, only to be met with more suggestions for improvement.

On Christmas morning, my brother and I woke early to discover that Santa had, as promised, found us at Grandma’s house. I remember several gifts I received that year, including a life-sized doll with elastic bands on her feet and hands so you could dance with her. It was certainly not anything I would have thought to ask for. It looked sort-of like this one, only not dressed quite as well.

Shortly afterward, I wandered into my grandmother’s service porch and discovered the boxes and shopping bags from our gifts. In our house, Santa removed the toys from their packaging to put under the tree.

Here was concrete proof that my friends had been right. Santa was a story we were told by our parents. I had asked and asked my mother about what they had told me, but she insisted that a real person in a red suit brought our Christmas gifts.

My first thought upon my discovery was: If Mom lied about this, what else has she lied to us about?

When my daughter was born, I made myself a promise never to lie to her. When she asked me the same questions I’d asked my mother, my stock response became, “What do you think?” Then I’d nod in agreement with whatever logic she had come up with.

When it finally came out that she knew the truth and had for quite some time, I asked her why she hadn’t said anything.

After my assurance that she’d still get her ‘Santa gift,’ her answer made me cry. “I didn’t want to spoil your fun, Mommy.”

What a different scenario from my own childhood when, within the span of less than a year, I lost my father, Santa Claus, and my trust in my mother’s veracity.

It took time before I found the joy in Christmas again, but because we were quite poor, I always knew I would never get the gift I most wanted. The year when all my friends received new bicycles, a much-needed robe awaited me on Christmas morning. I would have to save all my money and earn more before I finally bought my own bike. And even then, I was not allowed to buy the one I wanted.

The year 1954 provides a clear line marking the end of my childhood.

Do you have a worst Christmas story? When was it, and what happened?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Remembering December 7

December 7 is a date we could never forget. First, of course is Pearl Harbor Day. Even though neither of us was born then, we have visited Hawaii often, and have gone to the Arizona memorial numerous times.
Another reason we remember this date is that Larry’s father was born on this date. For years, we combined the celebration of his birthday with my mother’s, which was on December 14. We lost them both in 2011, and it still feels strange to go through December without that celebration.

Because of the Pearl Harbor attack, Dad was drafted, even though Larry was a baby. Fortunately, he served his time in the Navy at Mare Island near San Francisco. Because of his pride in his military service, we asked for the Navy to be present at his interment at Rose Hills Cemetery. We were so moved at the playing of “Taps” and the presentation of the flag to Larry.
We decided that it should go to Shaun, Murl’s only Collins grandson, and eventually to his son, Tyler, the only Collins great-grandson. We had it put into a case and gave it to Larry’s brother, Casey, to keep until it is passed on down the line.

The last time we went to the Arizona Memorial was on Veterans Day a few years ago. That was when we discovered that those who had served aboard the USS Arizona on that day and survived could have their ashes interred within the superstructure of the monument or have them scattered in the harbor. We also met four survivors of the December 7 attack. We loved talking to them and asking questions.
On that trip, the idea of including the interment of a survivor in one of our mysteries was born. However, it wasn’t until our return trip last month that the urgency of writing that story became apparent. The survivors are now in their late 80s and 90s. We lose more of them each year. So our new book, Murder With Honor, will feature a veteran who survived December 7th on the Arizona.

We’ve only written the first two chapters, but we hope to finish sometime next year. We hope it is a fitting tribute to those who survived on the ‘day which will live in infamy.’