Even today, I get that extra hop in my step once the last dry remnants of Thanksgiving white turkey meat work their way down my gullet, temporarily slicked by a warm coating of fat-thickened gravy. It is the “Christmas holiday anticipation bounce”. It is the same extra bounce I have felt after every long Thanksgiving weekend, most recently rusted a bit by bone density loss and redistributed muscle mass. But in my heyday, I holiday hopped without peer.
Mischief Night and Halloween, although formidable, could never hold a candle to the big one, the mother of all holidays, the King of Kings, Christmas. Especially Christmas at the Crane house, a modest post WW2 residence that restlessly sat on sleepy Madison Street, Glen Ridge, New Jersey. Christmas and I were meant for each other. I had a bottomless pit for an imagination, a wild playground for reveling in the Santa Claus story—a story that seemingly had real payoffs. Fantastic payoffs.
In my single digit years, while most kids wanted to play center field for the Yankees, I wanted to work the nightshift at the North Pole. It all made incredible sense to me—reindeer flying, elf tinkering, chimney descending, jolly pipe smoking—perfect sense. The story line fit together like the pieces of a well-crafted jigsaw puzzle. By the time I was nine years old, I had reached the summit. I was one with the Kris Kringle. Christmas morning always arrived in vivid, living Technicolor. No one was going to tell me otherwise about Santa. No one. Not even my younger brother Doug, a North-Pole-disbelieving-atheist at age seven.
It’s mind boggling sometimes just what a difference a year can make in the world view of a kid. I was ten. The year was 1962. It was a tsunami. Although admittedly a bit old by today’s standards, and probably by 1962 standards too, I was at the precipice’s edge of believing, and therefore, at the highest point from which to fall. It was the year I learned it wasn’t an old, weather-worn, gentle mountain top I had ascended, but rather a crusty, craggy cliff. One I inescapably knew I’d soon have to leap off. But denial in a ten-year old is always a formidable foe. I’d just need a slight push, a gentle nudge. Little did I know at the time it would be my well meaning, but slightly disturbed, Aunt Bibbit, who’d be ordained the “nudger”.
Autumn of 1962 was not a good one for kids like me. I first sensed things were not quite right in the world based on observations of the Sunday dinner adult conversations. Normally the thick, cherry-blend, smoke-filled dining room air was sliced apart by the verbal fisticuffs between my grandfather (a.k.a., Pop Pop) and anyone who dared whisper a good word about Kennedy or Roosevelt. But not that October. There was an eerie sullenness to the usual arm flailing. The summer months of heated arguments over the Supreme Court ban on prayer in public schools became a distant memory. And as the October weekends passed, each Sunday dinner became a bit more subdued, a tad more ominous. Even a great, late month N.Y. Giants’ 17-14 win over Detroit couldn’t get everyone back on track.
Meanwhile, at school we were having more drills than usual. Not fire drills. Nuclear bomb drills. By the last week of October, we were marching daily into the basement gymnasium to curl up into fetal balls of silent fear. Occasionally they instructed us to crawl under our oak desks in the event that time was of the essence. Although these were supposedly “just precautionary” drills, there was an air of seriousness not often demonstrated by teachers for such things. They clearly had zero tolerance for the normal amount of tomfoolery. Add the presence of uniformed, civil-defense officers with strange arm bands and there was an unavoidable, unnerving, unspoken sense of dread in the air.
In didn’t help that my teacher, Mr. Brice, was not equipped to deal with ten year olds under such circumstances. Mr. Brice was a mid-thirty, rugged, hairy-armed tough guy. However, contrary to his persona, he lived with his parents in town, unable I suppose to leave the cave. He was a Neanderthal who needed to get out more and he was childless—unable to find a woman to drag by the hair back into his lair for a little procreation. This left him with little chance of developing parenting skills. Instead, as a result of his inability to understand his shortcomings, he carried a perpetual chip on his shoulder regarding his rather dysfunctional mating ability. So he ran his classroom like a drill sergeant who couldn’t understand why he wasn’t a four star general. His idea of teaching toughness included things like showing off his calloused fingers from hunting with a bow and arrow. He walked from desk to desk, forcing us to touch the bubbles of thick blisters. His view of the future, which he shared with us weekly, was an Earth populated by soft humans with huge heads that bobbled about uncontrollably on the useless shoulders of little geek-necked bodies. His certainty was the direct result of his opinion that the nation becoming a population of weak-kneed, intellectual liberals.
Now that’s a teacher. And fortunately he was so not any kid's dad.
In his ever-stupid, doom and gloom style, he announced at the end of class on the fateful Friday in late October that there would be no school on Monday or any other day for that matter. He informed us that the Cubans along with the Russians would be launching a nuclear attack against every large American city over the weekend. Nothing would stand in its aftermath. It was inevitable. Good bye! And with that he dismissed us, shaking each of our hands as we left the classroom. (Just a personal aside: he had tenure, making him the poster man-child for why tenure was and is flawed.)
His announcement did not sit well with me, partly because Mischief Night and Halloween, a scant four days away, were now in jeopardy. But mainly because I was eyeball-to-eyeball with my own mortality for the first time in my life—thank you very much. And at ten years old, I wasn’t nearly equipped with enough reason to wrestle with that.
By Sunday night, between the dumb drills and Mr. Brice’s ill-advised doomsday prediction, I was ready to implode. To make matters worse, that afternoon’s, big family dinner had a rather nonchalant, return-to-normal air about it. How could my parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents be yucking it up, when all was going to be vaporized in a giant heat flash later that night? Were they uninformed? In denial? Content with the lives they had lived?
When I went to bed that evening, it seemed as if I was the only one who cared—silently, but cared nonetheless. We were about to go up in a mushroom cloud. I hated mushrooms, and now I had good reason. I had already planned how, at the sound of the blaring warning sirens, I’d instruct the family to march into the basement and curl up. But what about everyone else—the grandparents, the aunts, the uncles, the cousins? The list went on and on. They would all be fried for sure. I had to break my silence and warn them. Time to make all the necessary phone calls was quickly running out. Even that would hinged on getting through the phone line we shared with a half dozen, nosey neighbors. Doom was filling my head faster than a 25-megaton shock wave.
By the time I had descended the stairs from my attic bedroom, I was a sobbing mess. I’d never be able to usher my folks and brothers down into the basement in time. And even if I did, I knew it wouldn’t save us. The end was at hand.
I have to say, the folks were good that night. After they calmed me down—no easy feat I might add— I explained what Mr. Brice had said about the inevitable destruction. Mom hugged me while dad placed his large, protective hand on my shoulder. Mom told me that while it had been a very difficult month, the danger had passed. War was not going to break out. She continued to explain that although they were deeply concerned and nervous, they had agreed not to frighten us unnecessarily—something Mr. Brice should have considered. She promised to make a call to the school principal in the morning to discuss this Mr. Brice matter, which she did along with twenty other rather angry mothers.
That Monday morning proceeded as any other school day with Mr. Brice. Not a word was mentioned about Friday’s histrionics. Meanwhile a mushroom cloud of sorts was billowing down the hall in the principal’s office. By the time we returned to class after lunch, the fallout from Mr. Brice’s indiscretion reached the classroom. Mr. Brice and our principal, Mrs. Sharpe, stood at the front of the classroom as we took our seats. As soon as we settled in, Mr. Brice sheepishly apologized under the watchful eye of our beloved principal. I’m pretty sure that exercise wasn’t a first for him. Mrs. Sharpe quietly left the room satisfied he had righted himself. It took about five minutes before Mr. Brice marched us down to the gym where he punished us with boy-girl, square dancing for squawking like stool pigeons to our parents.
Just another day at school.
Fortunately, Mischief Night and Halloween were immediate distractions, but they couldn’t stop the subliminal damage. It took a few weeks for the real dark stuff to settle in. And when it did, I was not the same kid I was a few weeks before. I was prematurely older. Sadly less trusting. And Santa was nearing the crosshairs of my unexpected maturity. He and I would soon be standing at the cliff’s edge together.
Christmas 1962 was on Tuesday, giving me a weekend to get my business in order before Christmas Eve. The lead up days were days like no others, involving a number of Bob-has-to-do traditions that I had somehow patched together out of vague memories of seasons past.
There was never a better way to kick off the craziness than by opening up the annual Sears Christmas Wishbook Catalog, which I had covertly hid between my mattress and box spring weeks prior. It had to be kept from the clutches of my younger, reckless brothers. It was time to stake claim to the stuff I wanted, a task I took quite seriously. It necessitated privacy, so a guy could think clearly. The last thing I needed was Doug or Rick hovering over my every selection and laying claim too.
So out to the garage I marched, Sears catalogue discreetly tucked under my sweater and sharpened pencil jammed into my sock. I made entry through an out-of-sight, side window. Once safely holed up inside, I set up a lawn chair, eased myself in, and cracked open the only book I read back then. I quickly scanned through to find where the serious stuff started, always the last section. During the search, I spent a little more time than the previous year sidetracked in the ladies undergarment section. Fortunately, it was a curiosity I still had some control over. For the time being, just a few quick peeks at the see-through nighties—in the pubescent, prurient hope I might spy some nipplage—were all it took. As usual, nothing. I’d later discover this inquisitiveness would mature into something quite overpowering and my disgust of air brushing resounding.
Kids clothing came next. Thirty pages for girls, five for boys. It was all filler to me. I leafed through the infant and toddler pages too—a waste of good paper. Next came preschooler playthings. I snickered mockingly at the pathetic crap passed off as toys, the kind of lame stuff my youngest brother Steve would be hoodwinked into getting. That was followed by girl things. Couldn’t call them toys or stuff. Dolls, kitchenettes, crafts, make-up kits. It was page after page of domestication-in-training paraphernalia. I plowed ahead, all along the way smugly shrugging my shoulders at my good fortune to be a boy. I sensed I was getting closer.
Ah, finally the real deal, where names like Mattel, Parker Brothers, Milton Bradley, Flexible Flyer, and Hasbro ruled. Page after glorious, full-colored page of guy stuff. That alluring, musk-like scent that curled up from the binding glue. It gave me pause to press the catalog to my nose and breath in deeply, filling my empty soul with the promise of gadgetry and game gluttony.
First things first! Sports equipment! I needed boxing gloves, a boxing bag, a Spalding football, and New York Giants, extra padding, football helmet, and shoulder pads. Circle, circle, circle, circle! Initial, initial, initial, initial! Mission accomplished, on to the board games. I needed the TV version of the Camouflage Game, and Stratego. Found them. Next came the Super erector set with electric motor. I made a note that the low-end erector sets would not do. It needed to be “super”. So far, I was finding everything I wanted. Some were unfulfilled needs carried over from the prior year, which I duly noted with my mighty number two pencil.
By the time I approached the last three pages of the catalog, I had worked myself into a frenzy. It was as if Sears read my mind every year, saving the best for last. Using my sleeve, I wiped away the mounting pool of nervous drool that had gathered on my chin. I spit the remaining saliva a good ten feet across the garage floor. It was a gob even Mud Finnegan would have been proud of.
At long last, there they were in splendid display, the battle sets! The wilderness forts with cowboys and Indians. The civil war scenes with picket death fences and cannons. Finally my favorite, the World War II army battle sets between green guys and gray guys. I marveled at the imagery of the elaborate scenes captured perfectly by the professional Sears photographer. I slowly scanned the entire page left to right, top to bottom, taking in every miniscule detail; the machine gun bunkers, the green guys holding grenades, the gray guys holding potato mashers, the squatting shooters, the fully prone gunners, and the bazooka men. They had it all. Holy cow, it was even endorsed by famed Sergeant Chip Saunders from the TV show, “Combat”. This was a must. I put a big “#1 choice” next to my circle and signed my complete name with full date and time, lest there be any doubt as to who made the claim.
Unfortunately, the idea that any of us would get the combat set was absurd. This army stuff had been a running battle with the North Pole for several years already. Mom, screening our letters to Santa like a prison warden, consistently reported back with each feeble attempt that some things were too violent and against elf policy to build, thus the requests were edited out of the final list. But a boy could wish. I was getting older after all. Maybe she’d weaken and cave from the annual assault. It was worth the try with a “#1 choice” rating.
Finished with chore one, I hand carried the book to my brothers for their selections. I eagerly helped them with their picks, especially Rick. Once completed, I marched the war-torn catalog to mom, who would then convert it into a single letter to Santa and mail it. Or so she said.
With my Santa “wish list” secured, it was time to pocket a handful of dimes and nickels from my Mischief Night secret fund and meander my way down to Bloomfield Center, about a mile away, to shop for parent gifts. I had thought long and hard, probably five minutes or more, about the perfect presents for the folks. This season was particularly important, after the way they were there for me back in late October.
I had settled on Mom’s. I was under the permanent delusion that mom and Liz Taylor were separated at birth. One became a dreamy, movie star. The other became insane from parenting four boys. Life seemed unfair that way. So it followed that the question which guided much of my thinking was what did Liz have that mom did not? The year before I had concluded it was ruby red lipstick and facial powder. I didn’t recall mom having used either of those gifts though. Perhaps she was waiting anxiously for the complete package. After performing a brief comparison of photos earlier in the week, it struck me like a snowball in the ear. Mom was waiting for eyeliner and fake eyelashes. It was a done deal. Mom would finally take her rightful position next to Liz Taylor. In a way, it was a gift to the old man as well. He was so dense when it came to such matters.
Yup, long shiny black eyelashes and sky blue eye liner were it. I shuttered at the thought of her beaming smile on Christmas morning when she opened up these treasures. My only concern was embarrassing dad by out shopping him. I decided I’d pull him aside and talk to him if it got to that point.
I still had to chew on Dad’s a bit more before making his final picks. As I navigated the suburban maze of narrow streets to The Center, I had time to think. I was once again leaning towards a colored handkerchief but was acutely aware that this would make it three years in a row. I didn’t want him to become comfortable and expect me to be his hanky hack. I needed to shake it up a bit. But what would make him gleam for eighty five cents—half the buck seventy in coins I had planted into my front pocket?
This called for special thinking. So I employed a strategy that had served me well before. I selected a nice chunk of gutter ice and started to kick it down the nameless side street. Whatever I landed on by the time the chunk broke apart would be the right gift.
It wasn’t all that cold. There wouldn’t be a lot of time. I’d have to concentrate, and concentrate I did. As the final tiny ice pellets scattered every which way, the ideas were perfect. Chap Stick and an Indian belt.
Dad’s current Chap Stick was worn down to the silver casing, besides its effectiveness probably expired back in August. Certainly he was ready for a new batch. As for the Indian belt, nothing seemed more suave or debonair than the intricate mosaic of turquoise, red, yellow and white tiny beads wrapped around the waistline. It would spruce up his work clothes for sure. Besides, I was positive that Liz Taylor liked guys who looked dapper and flashy. And if that was good enough for Liz’s men, it certainly was good enough for mom’s man. I decided that if for cost reasons it came down to the Chap Stick or the belt, it would be the belt. It was all done but the wrapping.
I looked at my watch. There was still much to do. I started to run—my pocket change jingling like sleigh bells with every bounce. I was filled with the holiday hop.
Once the Crane boys plummeted into the gravitational grip of the seasonal black hole, making paper chains was the most creative way to sidetrack us temporarily. For at least an hour or so, we were unified, diversified and behaved. Mom used the short outbreak of peace and harmony to squeeze in time to bake sugar cookies and other traditional treats.
The actual task was easy enough. Mom cut colored construction paper into a rainbow pile of six-inch by half-inch strips. Armed with individual bowls of paste, the rest was up to us—linking strips by curling one through another, adding a dab of paste, pinching until glued, and moving on to the next. We each brought something different to the table. Doug was all about complex color patterns and precise edge-to-edge pasting. To Doug, perfection always trumped quantity. Not so for me, I was all about quantity, the same way I treated food—taste, shmaste—the more, the better. Then there was Rick. He had his own way of looking at things. His chain reflected an odd, random interpretation of color and shapes. His pasting technique was sloppy. I should have known then that he’d grow up to be a professional jazz musician. At the time though, he was just Ricky.
Occasionally mom brought out a cookie batter bowl and mixer blades coated in leftover cookie dough for us to maul. After an hour or two, she emerged one last time to link our chains together, creating one long decoration that eventually would find its way onto the tree. Christmas was sure approaching fast. Everything was falling into place. I went to bed that night planning the three songs Rick and I would sing on the Crane Brother caroling tour the next day.
Fresh from Sunday’s Christmas church service featuring the kids choir, which the Crane Boys carried, it was time to drag Rick out to the garage and practice a few seasonal tunes before we took it on the road. I had decided on a couple of real beauties from the Linden Avenue School Christmas Pageant. They were songs pounded into my empty skull by Mrs. Wolfe, a true maestro with the flabby underarms, baton and all. She was as old as the hills and as testy as an alley cat. She demanded the best and ran her choir with the precision of drill sergeant. She was able to get the worst of the worst to buckle down and sing as if their lives depended on it. I liked her. Nothing was sweeter to me than the sound of perfectly pitched voices singing in three-part harmony.
Rick and I would opened with a short but tricky version of the “Hallelujah Chorus”. Next came “Silent Night”. We’d finished with “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, hoping the audience would get the subconscious suggestion to give us candy and/or loose change.
We also practiced a jazzy version of Little Drummer Boy. I sang lead while Rick laid down the vocal bass drum, another precursor to what he’d grow up to do. We kept that one in our hip pocket just in case an encore was demanded, which occurred more frequently than we desired.
Once we were up to Mrs. Wolfe’s high standards, we hit the road, knocking on almost every door up one side of Madison Street and down the other. We always passed on a couple of houses though, namely Fitzy’s, Kedso’s, and Shlessinger’s. We couldn’t afford to have one of our pals join the sweet gig we had going and potentially ruin it, or worse, mock us. Otto and Gertrude Vanderbeek’s house was another one on our radar. He was the local watchdog and didn’t particularly warm up to the Crane boys. We added them to tour anyway, a smart move. For the ten or fifteen minutes it took us to belt out our repertoire, it was time well spent. Otto softened a little afterwards. The residual effect lasted a few weeks, as he resisted spreading ashes out on the snow packed street in front of his house—a maneuver that intentionally killed any sledding after a good Nor’easter snow.
We could always count on bubble gum from housebound, recluse Mrs. Melliott. A whole buck from drab Mrs. Rishe. Candy canes from most others, sometimes right off the Christmas tree. I handled the cash end, usually giving Rick 30% of the take, a fair share considering this was my operation. My only goal was to recoup the money I had withdrawn from my Mischief Night fund for the presents I bought mom and dad.
1962 turned out to be a good year. Maybe people were just happy to be alive after a harrowing autumn. By the end of the tour, I was able to add two bucks to the fund with enough left over to buy a grape Nehi and Sugar Daddy at DeLuca’s Sweete Shoppe. As for Rick, I don’t know what he did with his cut but it wouldn’t surprise me if he still has the money today. He was like that. We’d go on a day trip to the Asbury Park boardwalk with fifty cents each and he’d come back with sixty.
By late afternoon, it was time to get the tree. The old man piled us into his sputtering Buick and off we went to Bloomfield Lackawanna Station. It was a little later in December than normal for the tree search, but in dad’s mind, it was the best time to negotiate. He was pushing his luck this time though. It was December 23rd and the pickin’s were slim. The trees had either one really bad side, or big bare spots, or trunks that looked like Aunt Bess’s spine.
Dad didn’t like to be followed around by the “Help” either. Unfortunately, the only pickin’s slimmer than the trees were the customers at that time of year. So when dad arrived, flanked by three runny noses at his side, he got a lot of attention. The “Help” followed us around like hyenas on a strayed wildebeest. All the ingredients were in place to make the price negotiation experience memorable.
Next to buying a car, purchasing a Christmas tree was a close second to dad in negotiating a deal. He turned into someone else. He became the Donald Trump of the little guys. His considerate and gracious manners were all but gone. It was a little disturbing but still interesting to witness.
After shaking and turning two dozen trees, he narrowed the field down. Back and forth, more shaking, more turning. He hemmed and hawed over two, having me hold them up so he could take the whole thing in. His selection was made.
“How much?” Dad asked one persistent “help” guy who hovered nearby.
“Why that’s a fine tree ya got there pal. The kids seem to like it too. Right kids?”
We wiped our noses across our sleeves as we nodded in unison.
“Yeah they like to chew tar too. How much?” dad bellowed.
“Umm, ten dollars and fifty cents should do her and that’s a deal. Why, just yesterday it was twelve. Already turned three people away today who wanted it for nine.”
Dad turned the tree, inspecting and tugging on the needles. He acted as if he had just come off a university grant study of coniferous forests on the Appalachian Trail. He was a venerable professor of the needled shrubs.
“It’s got this big hole here. The trunk looks like the letter ‘C’. And by the dryness of the needles, I’d say this tree is about nineteen days old and has about six days left before it becomes prone to combustion.”
Then, he executed his famous pregnant pause maneuver. The “help” guy would soon be putty.
He continued his inspection with a few well timed “aha’s” and “hmm’s”.
“I was wrong. I give it four and one half days before it is combustible.”
With that, he put his counter offer on the table. It would be the only offer he’d make.
“I’ll give ya nine twenty-five and tip ya fifty if you tie it up and put it in the trunk.”
“Can’t do it pal. Turned away someone an hour ago for a ten spot.”
“Okay boys. Let’s go.”
Another well placed pause.
“Let’s go to Montclair. They have plenty. Com’on boys! To the car.” dad barked. Then the deal closer, “That’s where we got last year’s anyway. When will I learn to start there? Com’on.”
He was working the “help” guy like a marionette. The poor sap had no chance against the old man. It was going to be $9.25 and tip or nothing.
“Good luck,” mumbled the tree guy. It was a noble last ditch effort that would melt most men but not iron headed dad.
“Have a merry Christmas!” Dad replied as he turned to start the trek down the long driveway with Rick in hand. Doug and I lagged behind, snorting and wiping our gooey noses some more with the wool sleeves of our maroon benchwarmer coats. It was the finale of dad’s perfectly executed transaction.
“Hey! Okay, I’ll do it for ten!” the guy yelled to dad’s back.
Dad continued walking without so much as a blink. We learned over the years that this was all part of the game.
“All right! All right! Nine twenty-five! Plus tip!”
Broken like dog!
“Bobby, take my keys and open the trunk.”
The deal was struck. The old man did it again. It was a trait I was never able to develop but admired in him forever.
Christmas Eve arrived in overcast, cold bliss. There was already a bit of soot-crusted snow in place from a December storm a week prior. But the hint of fresh snow on Christmas Eve was way too much for my overloaded imagination.
It was shortly after lunch when the front door opened. I could hear dad enter. He was talking to someone whose voice was very familiar. I quickly finished applying green sprinkles to a baking sheet full of shortbread candy cane shaped cookies before I bolted out the kitchen. As I raced through the short hallway to the dining room and living room beyond, I was greeted by a fragrant swill of thick, floral perfume and stale “Pall Mall” smoke. Could it be?
As I rounded the corner, there she stood, all five foot four and eighty pounds of her, dressed in her bright, red, full-length coat, her hair covered by her trademark, sheer, paisley scarf.
“Bibbit! What are you doing here?” I yelled. Dad placed her small light blue suitcase at the base of the stairs leading to the second floor.
“Well, I got a call from Santa saying that I better get down to the Crane boys and keep an eye on them because they are all close to getting coal! Except Pedessey.”
Pedessey was a cute little name Doug gave Steve, our youngest brother for some odd reason. Anyway, Pedessey was her favorite. She made no bones about it. She was under the impression that some how Pedessey was unfairly treated by the rest of us. We were okay with that. To some extent it was true.
“Really? He said that?” I feigned concern, knowing darn well she was making the whole thing up.
“Yup! So I’m here.”
“You mean you are staying over tonight.”
“Yup! And I’m sleeping on the third floor with you.”
“Wow! That’s great!” I didn’t mean a word.
I had to let the thought of her sleeping in my room sink in a while. As much as I loved her—like an aunt— it might prove to be a bad thing. It might put a little crimp in my style.
Aunt Bibbit was as slender as a reed. On a breezy day she would become airborne if it weren’t for the twenty pound anchor she lugged around—her huge black shiny pocketbook. She was one sharp, tough cookie. She never married but she did have one or two questionable, almost seedy, boyfriends. None lasted long. Many years later I concluded she was a lesbian in denial. One thing was certain though, she loved the Crane boys, even if she was a bit strange about it.
Her name wasn’t really Bibbit. It was Elizabeth. Bibbit was how I pronounced Elizabeth when I was young. I was known for that. I learned much later in life, after seeing an old 1st grade report card, that I had something called “lazy tongue”. Personally, I think it was just that my jaw was tired from chewing all the time. Anyway, I had anointed others with my mispronunciations as well, like great aunt Moo Moo, which was Bobby-speak for Mildred. To my credit, the names were cute enough to stick with them their entire lives.
One other thing about Bibbit, she really wasn’t a true aunt. Somewhere in the deep recesses of the Emmons clan, my maternal grandmother’s family, some unsavory things occurred, resulting in Bibbit being adopted by her uncle—I think. The whole situation has always been one, big, family-laundered secret. I have never been able to get the straight scoop on it. Over time I gave up trying. What I am sure of is that at some point she was raised by my great uncle Duke (her suspected uncle) and Aunt Bess, comprising the kind of threesome that sit-coms are made of.
Regardless of the family secrets, she was Bibbit all right. She was one ornery smokestack. And she was on a mission that Christmas Eve, as I would discover soon enough. She was a hired gun of sorts, brought in by my concerned parents to pound some sense into me. It was a plan that would prove costly though.
Christmas Eve night started and ended with dad setting the tree up for Santa to decorate. It was a simple and subdued tradition with one strategic objective: keep the boys calm, most notably me. While the Chipmunks’ Christmas medley album endlessly screeched through skips and scratches under repeat play, and while the crackling fire roared, with hot chocolate in hand, we took our seats to cheer on the great annual battle. It was a timeless war that pit man against nature. Armed with only cord, hedge clippers, and tape, dad circled the green beast, sizing it up like a cagey veteran boxer in the first round. With a final wipe of his brow, the match began. Dad locked horns with the $9.25 spruce, wrestling the pine giant in close arm-to-branch combat.
The tree took the first two rounds, building an early lead on points from a cut to dad’s brow. Dad turned the tide with a few well placed snips he reluctantly applied at the screams of his corner man, mom. She continued to bark more instructions, some bordering on dirty—hitting below the knot you might say. “Gentleman Dad” begrudgingly executed the orders. A little trunk turn here, a half nelson there, a couple of reattached limbs everywhere, and within an hour the old man emerged victorious once again, 7-0 as far as I could remember, transforming the thatch of scraggly needled branches into a magnificent proud pine, worthy of Bamberger’s store window in Newark. But it took all fifteen rounds, dad slumping into the couch with that bruise above his eye and a cut to his clipper hand. Regardless, the verdict was unanimous. The old man found a way to triumph.
“Boys! Check for squirrels!” the tired warrior announced, sipping on an icy elixir his manager had concocted from odd shaped bottles we never saw much.
It was as if he had sounded a starting gun. We leapt from our ringside seats and slid under the tree, looking up the tree trunk. Although the possibility of spotting a squirrel seemed remote, it was all a part of the ritual, part of the grand picture, part of a tradition Bill O’Reilly should really be talking about. It is something I do today, as well as my twenty-year-old son.
While our feet dangled out from under the tree, mom decorated the fireplace mantel with the piney green spoils of war.
“Bobby. See any squirrels up there?” Bibbit asked with an intonation that implied a punch line was soon to follow.
“Well you better watch out cause they're gathering nuts.” She blew out a river of smoke as she laughed a breathy, silent “heh, heh, heh”, like Scooby Doo. She was a pip.
“That’s funny,” I replied out of respect for my elders, shaking my head in disdain at her pedestrian sense of humor.
Doug turned his head towards me and whispered loudly, as only Doug could do, “yeah, you better cover your nuts!” Now that was funny! Secret words for male genitalia were funny. I began to laugh.
“All right boys. That’ll be enough.” Mom knew without hearing a word Doug whispered, what Doug whispered. It was part of her infallible radar.
So I got back to the business at hand, dreaming, only I wasn’t prepared for where my dreams would go. As I looked up the snaking, thick, tree trunk, I was instantly reminded of a clip I saw on a TV documentary back in October. Back in Mr. Brice’s class. It was a clip in which a nuclear cyclonic cloud of dust raced past a stand of pine trees, bending them perpendicular one second, stopping, and then suddenly sucking them inward the next second, vaporizing them like moth wings to the touch. It was a clip I had no business seeing. My mind raced to dreaded places—we never stood a chance under our school desks. They lied to us.
“Okay boys, time to put your stockings up and get to bed.” Mom’s voice gently laced its way through the knots of branches, snapping the anxiety building in me before I became overwhelmed, temporarily soothing my soul as only a mother’s voice can do. I took one last mental snapshot, knowing on Christmas day I’d slink under the tree again, after opening the presents. By then it would be transformed into something magical, a place where squirrels might really be found.
Once the stockings were hung below the mantel, we staked out our real estate under the tree. The only thing remaining was the lollygagging—just trying to stretch the night out. Mom would have none of it though.
“Get upstairs. Brush your teeth. And get to bed. You never know when Santa will get here.”
I faked a yawn, thinking that somehow that would make me sleepy.
“Good night ma.” I walked over to give her a hug and kiss, one of the three times a year I did.
“Good night dad.” He got a hug but no kiss.
“See ya later Bibbit.” I walked over to give her a kiss on the cheek. It was always a troubling expectation. She had a handful of long stray whiskers that bothered me quite honestly.
Sometimes they were there, sometimes not. I was not discreet about looking for them either. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t keep my eyes from darting back and forth along her jaw line, making sure I didn’t get one caught in my teeth or poked in the eye.
The rest of the boys followed suit.
By 8:45 p.m. I had tucked myself in under the mound of blankets tossed over an old mattress dad placed on the floor. Bibbit would be sleeping in my bed about three feet away.
I waited for her like an old dog waits by the door for its master. She could be gone five minutes of five hours. The greeting she’d receive at her arrival was going to be the same.
With time to kill, I played over and over in my head what I had done wrong over the past year. I shot Joan Pederson in the cheek with a paper clip. But that was a misfire. It was really meant for my friend Zoo’s butt. I unknowingly stepped in dog crap on the way to school and inadvertently rubbed it all over the base of my wooden school desk, polluting the air with that unmistakable stench. However, that was clearly an unintentional accident. I set the living room closet door on fire after mom left it in the garage covered with paint remover. I think that could be classified as a simple misunderstanding. The empty can of stripper clearly said “inflammable”, meaning “not flammable” to me, so I tested it. How was I suppose know “inflammable” meant “very flammable”? That’s an affront to the English language and apparently “indangerous”.
What else? Oh yeah, there was the Kedso’s sister incident. I saw her in her bra and it wasn’t accidental either. Oh boy, that could be the one. We hid in the hallway closet to spy on her walking from the bathroom to her bedroom after she showered. I’d say that was pretty intentional. I concluded I needed to take precautionary action. I said a half an hour’s worth of prayers, hoping that might clear the slate.
Finally Bibbit arrived. I checked my clock. It was about 10:35 p.m. I waited until she settled under the blankets.
“Any signs of him?”
“What? Why aren’t you asleep?”
“I can’t. I’m thinking about what I may have done wrong.”
“Well don’t. Go to sleep. Good night.”
Twenty minutes later.
“Pssst! Pssst! Bibbit!”
I waited for an answer.
“Are you asleep Bibbit?”
“I was nearly asleep. What? What is it?”
“I have a question.”
“You get one question! Go ahead.” She was tough as nails.
“I have a friend, Kedso, who did something that he thinks was bad. He thinks Santa will leave him coal cause of it.”
I paused a moment for a response.
“Yeah. What did he do?”
“He spied on his sister and saw her in her bra.” I was surprised at my frankness but a lot was riding on her answer. I needed to be clear. I continued, “He knew it was wrong and said some prayers to kinda clear it up.”
“Hmm, that’s not very good. But as long as he prayed for forgiveness and stopped doing it, he should be all right.”
My shoulders relaxed.
“Now get to sleep before Santa gets here and you scare him away.”
“Okay. Good night!”
A very uneasy hour passed. My eyes were wide open. I think I might have blinked three times total. I was consumed with the science behind Santa. I suppose in a way I had been blindly accepting Intelligent Sleigh Design, but now it was under attack by simple fifth grade science and math. Finally, my clock ticked midnight. The alarm sounded, as planned. I was temporarily saved from my self-inflicted torment.
“Is it time to feed the chickens already?” Bibbit sputtered, as she emerged from sleep.
“Psst! Psst! Bibbit! It’s just my alarm!”
“It’s midnight. Merry Christmas!”
“Oh. Yeah. Merry Christmas to you too. Now go to sleep. And don’t set your alarm again.”
“Kedso’s mom is talking to her dog Dotty right now. She’s says that animals can speak at midnight on Christmas Eve. Have you ever spoken to Pony?” Pony was Bibbit’s yellow lab.
“Never! That’s an old wives tale.”
“Yeah, Mrs. Kedso is pretty old. Kedso told us she had tea once with President Lincoln. ” Kedso was always telling us stuff that was suspicious.
Bibbit snickered, “That qualifies her then. It’s just a tale. Is that it?”
It wasn’t. I went directly to the real subject of my inquisition.
“I’m thinking that it’s impossible for Santa to reach every home in one night.”
“He has helpers,” Bibbit interrupted.
“What kind of helpers?”
“Helper helpers. That’s what kind of helpers.”
“Helper helpers, hmm.”
I mulled that around.
“Good night,” I mused.
“That is it now. No more questions. I need my beauty sleep. Good night!”
I didn’t get the ‘beauty sleep’ reference because she would need to go into a two year coma if that were the case. I did sense a little tension in her voice though.
I decided to remain quiet for what seemed like forever, during which I occasionally drifted off, only to snap myself awake and inspect the clock. Time sure does pass slowly when you are impatient. I checked the foot of my bed to see if the stocking had arrived. It hadn’t. The clock said 1:23. Concern was starting to leak into my thoughts. I listened for a sign that someone was lurking about. Nothing.
A few more year-long minutes passed. I couldn’t take it anymore.
“Pssst. Bibbit. Pssst. This is the last time, I’ll bother you! I promise. Are you awake?”
“No Nelse! One ham is enough.” Bibbit was apparently in the midst of a dream, calling out to Uncle Duke (a.k.a., Nelse; short for Nelson, uncle Duke’s real name).
“Bibbit. It’s Bobby. Uncle Duke’s not here.”
“Not here? Wha …?”
I gave her time to come to.
“I know who it is. What is it now?”
“He hasn’t come yet.”
“Who hasn’t come yet.”
“Santa! Or maybe he did come and skipped me.”
“Why would he do that?”
It rolled off my tongue as easy as a slippery watermelon seed.
“Because I saw Kedso’s sister too!”
“What are you talking about?”
“Remember, the bra sister?”
“You gotta cut this nonsense out! What time is it anyway?”
“I can’t sleep. I keep looking at the clock.”
“Where is that dang thing?”
“Yeah the clock. Unplug it and hand it over. Now!”
“Just do as your told. Suppose he is in the house, or on the stairs and can hear you giving me a hard time. He might decide to leave you coal. Now hand it over.”
I pulled on the clock until the plug came out of the socket. The light display dimmed slowly, going from white, to pale yellow, to drab amber before it disappeared completely. I handed it over to Bibbit. I thought she might be making a big mistake but I couldn’t take the chance that she was right about the stairs and listening and coal and all.
“Now shut your eyes and count sheep jumping over a fence. Eventually you’ll fall asleep.”
She really lived in a fantasy world. I entertained her dumb idea anyway.
“One, two, three—”
“Not out loud. Count in your head. Geez! Good night!”
I got to about 463 when I realized that this little idea was going nowhere fast.
Holy cow! Something landed on the roof. I was sure of it!
“Psst. Bibbit. Did you hear that? I think he just landed!”
Nothing. She was in a deep sleep, having pulled the pillow up over her head. Actually, she may have smothered herself in a successful suicide attempt but I had more important things to worry about now. My senses were on high alert. I was hearing all sorts of things.
Holy smokes! He was coming up the stairs. I lay motionless, my eyelids pressed shut, my breath rapid and shallow, my limbs frozen stiff.
The door. He’s no more than ten feet away. I had to stay still. I had to keep from peeing. I should have gone earlier. I swore I could smell his wet winter wool coat interlocking with the heavy scent of pipe smoke. Maybe not.
Something was placed at the bottom of the bed. I continued to squeeze my eyelids together. I stopped breathing. And I stayed that way for about a half an hour. After a long internal debate, I decided to pretend to roll over and position my arms so they would cover my eyes but leave a small opening through which I could peek. I executed the maneuver perfectly.
Ten minutes later, I carefully opened my eyes. The shadows played some tricks on me but I was sure he was gone. I slowly sat up and looked down at the end of my bed. I could make out something. Yes! It had to be. I rolled out of the mountain of covers, snatched the stocking and climbed back into my cocoon. I couldn’t see at all but I certainly could fondle. It felt heavy and lumpy, two very good signs. I rescued a few items poking out the brim. One most definitely was a big balloon to be blown up. The other was possibly a butterfly yoyo. Oh boy! No coal. I breathed a giant sigh of relief. I guess my little confession earlier sealed the deal.
Clutching the stocking close, I drifted off for some much needed shut-eye, about two hours tops. When I woke, I checked the stocking. It was still there. It also appeared as if the first dark gray hints of dawn were clawing at the window.
“Pssst! Bibbit! Pssst!”
“Wha? Who’s there?”
“It’s me, Bobby!”
“Bobby? Where am …”
“Bobby Crane! It’s getting light out. I got a stocking!”
“Oh yeah, Bobby. Glad to hear you got a stocking. I told you not to worry.”
“It’s getting light out. Is it time to get up?”
“What light? It’s dark as Haiti.”
“Check the time. Is it 6:30 yet? Mom said we could come in their room at 6:30.”
“It can’t be. Hold on. Here’s my watch. Take it over to the window and see if you can tell the time.”
I grabbed the watch from her hand and looked at it. I didn’t need to walk over to the window. By then my pupils were the size of black marbles. There was plenty of light to see right at my bed.
“It’s … it’s … four … four … thirty … seven. It’s four thirty-seven.”
The watch must have been stuck. It was plenty light out. The sun wasn’t far behind. But then again, those are the kinds of tricks an overworked imagination can play on a young boy’s mind.
“You have two hours yet! So get back to sleep.”
“Can I hold onto the watch?”
“Yeah, sure. But don’t look at it every five minutes.”
“Okay! I won’t”
Of course I did, making those two hours the longest two hours of my life, just as they had been in years past and would be for years to come.
Well eventually, the darkness rolled around to 6:30 that intolerable morning. No more “psst’ing” was necessary. There was barely a trace of early dawn gray, just a shade lighter than at 4:37 earlier, but it was there nonetheless.
“Bibbit! It’s Christmas! Wake up!”
“Yes Bess, the pot roast is cooked. Where’s the baister?” She was babbling nonsense.
I pulled the carefully packed booty from out of the stocking. It was a butterfly yoyo all right, in fact it was a Duncan, the best. There was the perennial Bam-Bam Paddle Ball and my personal favorite, a dart gun. I immediately licked the rubber suction cups and got off three quick rounds at my closet door, each stuck exactly where I had aimed. I immediately popped them off the door and proceeded down the attic stairs to Rick and Doug, stocking in tow.
As usual, they were still asleep. Asleep! How could they do that? It was beyond me to understand how they could waste the day away like that. So I did what any big brother would do. I loaded my trusty, spring action, six-shooter and fired away. The first grazing Rick’s head, the second catching him square in the eye. He was awake now, crying but awake. The commotion woke Doug too. I retrieved my bullets, handed Rick his stocking and Doug his, and marched off to rouse Steve and the Folks.
Christmas morning was the only time mom could bark out chores and we’d do them without hesitation. “Make your beds! Change out of your pajamas! Brush your teeth! Wash your faces! Clean your rooms! Hang your clothes up.” We did them all without as much as a peep, even stooping to help each other.
Mom’s orders were all about buying time for the old man to shake off the effects of eight hours of tree trimming, bicycle building, neighbor visiting, and moderated imbibing, topped off with three hours of sleep. It was the complete opposite of what the formula really should have been. Mom too was looking for just a few more minutes of rest, knowing what the long day would entail.
Finally, the chores were complete. We nervously took our positions at the top of the stairs.
“Mom! Is it oldest first?” I always asked hoping she’d change the order one year.
“Bobby you know it is youngest first.”
“Oh ma, it’s never oldest first.”
“Bobby, listen to yourself. You are ten years old. You’re whining like a little baby. Youngest first!” She was right of course—about the whining.
“Ah gee wiz.” And with that I pushed my way past the other boys as we re-ordered our bodies for the descent.
Doug was getting hyper. He was munching away on his cuticles. Not a good thing.
“Comon’ ma. Hurry up!” he barked. When would he learn?
“I’ll be there in a minute Dougie. Do you have socks on?”
I don’t know how she did it. How did she know what to ask without looking? It was as if she had x-ray vision or something.
“Do I have to?”
“What kind of question is that? Do you want to die from pneumonia? I mean if you do, go ahead. Be my guest. It’ll be one less mouth to feed! Bobby won’t mind that. More food for him.” Mom sure had a way with child psychology. It was pretty effective though.
“Oh, okay!” Doug sauntered past me, head down, defeated.
Then in an unusual moment of alertness Rick asked, “What about Bibbit? Is she still in bed?”
Holy mackerels! Where was she? I had completely forgotten about her. The four of us clamored up the attic stairs to rustle her out of bed. Weary from a night filled with interrupted sleep, she seemed a bit out of sorts about the whole thing.
“Bibbit! Bibbit! Get up! It’s time! We can’t go downstairs until you get up!”
The four of us each took a corner of the bed, surrounding her like a pack of hounds on a fox up a tree. We pulled and tugged and in general were real pains in the butt.
“Okay! I’m coming. Just give me a second will ya. I need a cigarette first.”
“Here you can have one downstairs on the couch!” I grabbed her pack of Pall Malls and took off.
She wasn’t excited about that idea. She wanted one right then and there.
“Where do you think you are going with that Bobby? Bring them back right now.”
I didn’t listen. I got to the top of the second floor landing, launched them down the stairs, and took my place at the top of the stairs once again.
Doug was the first to come down from the third floor.
“You really did it now. She was cursing and stuff. I don’t think she is ever coming back here.”
“Hmm. Well deserves her right. She shouldn’t smoke anyway! I’m doing her a favor.”
“She thinks you are trying to kill her. I’d stay out of her way.”
“Fine by me.”
Rick rounded the bend next, shaking his head.
“She’s gonna kill you dead for sure.”
“She’ll get over it.”
Steve was the last to return, clutching his favorite stuffed giraffe, something he did when he was a bit nervous.
“Bibbit said ‘dammit’. Santa isn’t going to like that.”
“We’ll see. Get in your spot.”
Mom stood at the bottom of the attic stairs waiting for Bibbit to come down. As frail as she was, she sure could make noise coming down stairs.
“Well Merry Christmas! Get a good night’s sleep?” mom asked, displaying the slight hint of a smirk.
“I’m telling you right now, as God is my witness, I will never be back. That boy has a problem.”
“Yeah, he gets a little excited.”
“Bibbit! Your cigarettes are down at the bottom of the stairs.” I belted out.
She eased past us without making any eye contact, zero acknowledgement of our existence. Her hands shook as she reached for the banister.
“Be quiet please,” I warned. “Dad hasn’t checked for Santa yet.”
Nothing. She continued to make her way down the stairs, disappearing around the bend like a pale robed ghost, floating almost.
Speaking of the big guy.
“Where’s dad?” Doug blurted out. “Can we go without him?”
There was an unsettling, throat-clearing sound. Then a gruff, tired voice came from the bathroom.
“You boys wait right there. I need to go down and check to see if Santa is still here.”
It was the same line we would hear years later in high-school, in college, even with grandchildren in tow. It was the single most time-honored line, “I need to go down and check to see if Santa is still here.”
It has taken on a life of its own now, but that year I was falling off the cliff of belief, joining the ranks of Doug when it came to what was truly going on. I think dad’s proclamation reminded me of the jump I was facing. It was upsetting for a flash.
Nevertheless, the moment of Christmas spirit heights had arrived. My zenith was precisely that instant when dad bumped his way down the stairs to do his ‘checking’, as we sat anxiously at the top of the steps waiting. Youngest first! Locked in like race horses at the starting gate. Muscles twitching in anticipation of the bell to sound and the gates to open.
It was literally downhill from there. Don’t get me wrong, it was a wonderfully long descent as the day unfolded, but the energy, the hope and the wonder were never so peaked as they were at the top of the steps. It was a moment that lasted about two minutes. Worth every fret and worry it took to arrive there. It is no different for me today.
“Is that you Santa Claus?” Dad repeated, as he plugged the tree lights on, turned the heat up, and lit a fire.
“Ho! Ho! Ho!” he bellowed, impersonating the jolly fat fellow. Steve’s eyes became as big as ping pong balls. Doug shook his head in mockery. Rick scratched the back of his throat with his index finger, barely in our world. I wrestled with the thought that this might be it for me.
“How does he do that? How does he get up the chimney like that?” Dad continued on, as he took care of a few last second details. Apparently, Bibbit had settled in too, as the sudden scent of smoke snaked its way up the stairway in bursts of billowing white clouds. Hopefully, the cigarette would smooth her out a bit.
“Is he gone?” Steve asked, his knees bouncing up and down uncontrollably.
“Hold on! One second!” Dad turned on his prized stereo tuner to a station playing the Christmas classics 24-7.
“It looks like the coast is clear.”
“Can we come dow—” I started to ask before Doug rudely interrupted me by crawling over Rick, clawing at Steve who was rising to make his way down the stairs.
The time had come. The race was on. It was a rugby scrum most of the way down, usually resulting in a few minor scratches, once in a while with a poked eye, and in one rare occurrence, a bloody nose. Regardless, it ended the same way every time. We started youngest first but ended oldest first by the time the tree was in sight.
And what a tree it was. Large, bright, lifesaver-colored lights, soft cotton snow, twinkling glass decorations, the dangling paper chain, and the perfectly placed icicles. Ah, Santa, or the old man, or whoever, worked a miracle once again. As it turned out that was no $9.25 tree we had after all. It was a million bucks.
The folks sat with Bibbit on the perimeter, occasionally refereeing a gift dispute or locating a misplaced toy, while they exchanged gifts quietly and drank endless cups of coffee.
After I was done rifling through my presents, I went to the closet and pulled out the gifts for mom and dad I had wrapped and hid in my coat sleeve.
I’m pretty sure that mom was impressed by my shopping prowess. She seemed to like the eyelashes and eyeliner. She was even more impressed by my logic, that there was a theme, that Liz Taylor had nothing on her. Dad was pleased to get another chap stick and seemed unfazed by Bibbit’s cackling when he unwrapped the Indian belt. It was a home run.
The day played out like years before. Clothes and a dollar from Pop-pop and Nan Hock. Five dollars from Nan Crane. A dollar or two from Bibbit. Uncle Duke and Aunt Bess surprised us all that Christmas. Usually under the control of Aunt Bess, they were good for mittens or a hat or boots. But not this time.
Uncle Duke did the shopping. Well, it wasn’t quite shopping. I’m not sure what he was thinking actually. Granted he was pretty old and a little out there, but when it came to free stuff, he was coherent and always scheming. Apparently, he had learned that he could open a bank account, get a free gift, close the bank account, open a new one at a different bank, and get another free gift, so on and so on. And that’s what he did, at least four times, grabbing a different free gift with each new account, one for each of us. Steve got a dandy set of lady hair brushes. Rick got a multi-purpose frying pan. Doug got an electric steam iron. I got a set of extra absorbent dish towels in an interesting orange and green, tea kettle pattern.
Bibbit got a hiatal hernia from laughing, especially in anticipation of Doug’s response to the iron. But we each thanked them for the gifts, although void of any reference to thoughtfulness.
By the latter part of the evening, the adults were gathered in the kitchen, yapping away. I was ready to call it a night, already thinking about the next year, pondering the prior year’s wait—did it feel long or short. I tapped dad on the shoulder as he snored in much deserved sleep while watching TV, sitting perfectly straight up, his head tilted down, and chin resting comfortably on his neck.
“Dad thanks for everything.”
“Wha … oh … yeah … ah … no … thank Santa,” he replied, his enunciation muted by sleep deprivation, two pounds of fresh ham and plenty of hearty adult beverage.
“Sure, Santa.” I said. I didn’t want to think about it.
I made my way to the kitchen to thank everyone and say goodnight. As I was shuffling through the short hallway to the kitchen, I overheard Bibbit talking about the night she had. There was a lot of laughter going on too.
“At one point, he confessed that he saw some friend’s sister … what’s his name … up the street … sneakers?”
“Kedso?” mom answered.
“Yeah Kedso’s sister in a BRA!”
Everyone broke out in hysterical laughter. She continued on. I paused in the hallway to listen in on her some more.
“He was so worried about what Santa Claus was going to think. I was so tired from him waking me up every five minutes that I almost told him that there is no Santa Claus just to shut him up. I’ll tell ya one thing, I’ll never do this again.”
“Yeah, Bob and I were real close to telling him before you came over yesterday. He is a little old. I mean even Dougie doesn’t believe anymore. But Bobby is different. I don’t know, maybe we should have told him.”
“Nah, let the child be. He’ll grow out of it. You never thought he’d give up his blankie and he finally did.” Nan Hock added, the only one who had any sense.
Bibbit proudly reminded everyone how she stopped my dependence on my security blanket using tough love. “Yeah but that was because I hid it from him when he stayed over that one time, and told him it had died and gone to heaven.” Sporadic chuckles followed.
“Yeah, I remember how that didn’t work so well,” mom muttered.
“It fixed him didn’t it?” She sure was tough.
Well, anyway, what I had earlier concluded in the day, Bibbit in her infinite wisdom just confirmed.
I really did jump off the cliff.
I turned around and walked back into the living room. I decided it was best if I just went to bed and skipped the ‘good night’ formalities. Before I went up the stairs though, I slid under the tree one last time to look for squirrels. While I lay on my back, I thought of Bibbit’s wisecrack about looking for nuts and Doug’s little comment. It made me smile again. But it didn’t last long. I was wrapped up in one of the safest places and most peaceful moments I could imagine, staring up at the lights, the glittering branches, the candy canes, and the twinkling ornaments. But again, I was reminded of that damn film clip, the needless destruction.
There really wasn’t any “sleep in heavenly peace”, as Rick and I sang just two days earlier. And now there was no Santa Claus.
None of it made any sense. I lingered a little longer. Eventually, I crawled out from underneath the tree to neaten up my pile, taking the extra padded NY Giants football helmet with me.
I stopped momentarily at the base of the stairs. I could hear muted laughter coming from the kitchen, probably at my expense. I put my football helmet on, hoping it would block out the sound. It did. I proceeded up the stairs.
I was lying in the bed, going over the day in great detail, when the sound of someone coming up the third floor stairs got my attention. It was mom.
“Hey, what’s with the helmet? You must really like it,” she asked.
“Yeah, it’s the best. That Santa is something. How does he do it?”
“I don’t know but he does, doesn’t he? Can you take it off a second?”
I pulled the helmet off and placed it at the side of my bed.
“So why didn’t you come in the kitchen to say good night?” she asked as she tucked me in.
“Oh, I am real tired and you guys sounded like you were having a lot of fun. I didn’t want to interrupt you.”
“Well, you know that it is good manners to thank everyone and say good night, especially after everything they gave you, including the dish towels.”
She smiled and when she did, she was strikingly pretty—more like Liz Taylor and less like mom.
“Hey ma, do you like the gifts you got?”
“I sure do and I can’t wait to put on those eyelashes and eyeliner along with the powder and lip stick from last year. That is once I get a wig.”
Of course, she would need a wig to finish the complete Liz makeover. How clever of her to set the seed so subtly. My mind was a bank vault, locking it all in place for next Christmas. I wondered how much wigs cost. Rick and I might have to branch out to neighboring streets when we go on the Crane Boy Carol Tour.
Mom continued, “Well, I’m going to chalk this up to being tired, but it’s not really like you not to say thank you. Are you sure nothing else is wrong?”
The old lady was like Dr. Joyce Brothers. It was seldom that I could pull the wool over her eyes. I mustered as much acting as I could under the circumstances.
“Nothin’s wrong ma. Christmas was great.”
She stared at me for a moment with those wide dark eyes. I was beginning to crack under the scrutiny.
“Okay then. Merry Christmas Bobby.”
I made it. I didn’t crack.
“Merry Christmas mom!”
She leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek.
“Me too,” I wasn’t good with the “love” word at that age for some reason.
She stood up and started towards the stairs, when something came over me, a sudden need to publicly acknowledge my new found maturity.
“Thanks for everything. Thanks for the presents too—Santa!” I let her know I was on to the truth.
She stood at the doorway for a moment.
“You’re welcome honey. Good night!” I could see the outline of her soft grin in the pale light as she spoke. She was prettier than Liz Taylor for sure.
She started down the steps and stopped to lean back, poking her head around the corner.
In a whisper, she added, “Oh. Don’t tell Ricky or Steve okay. They aren’t as old and wise as you.”
“My lips are sealed Santa,” I fired back through a grin as wide as the room.
She paused a moment.
“You know, you can still believe in the whole spirit of the thing. Nothing wrong with that. I still do. So does Bibbit for that matter, although you’d never know that by the way she talks. She’s just embarrassed to admit it I suppose. Some folks are like that.”
“Yeah, Bibbit sure is.”
“Yeah. Oh well. Ho! Ho! Ho!” Then her head disappeared as she made her way down the stairs.
“I love you ma,” I whispered to the empty doorway, another sure sign I was a bit older. And with that last exchange, I rolled over and pulled the covers close. I was asleep by the time she reached the bottom of the stairway and turned off the light.
I’m not going to lie. That extra hop in my step was missing the next few Christmases. It was more like a droop in my shuffle. It would take me a few years to really understand what mom meant by “believing in the whole spirit of the thing”. But I eventually got it, ending up in pretty good shape considering everything.
I’m also happy to say that I was able to eventually clear the clouds of nuclear war from my skies. It’s amazing how something as simple as “a man on the moon” had the power to repair the spirit of a broken dreamer—kind of snapped me right out of it.
That is, of course, until these trying times.