I sat in my room listening to Nibbles run on his wheel and waited. I should have been asleep but this day I had been wide awake for hours. I knew my brother was in the room across the hall, sitting on the edge of his bed, staring at his clock, dressed and hopeful. The clock said six a.m.
I crept into Terry’s room, where he was exactly as I had pictured; dressed, shoes and all, perfectly groomed, and waiting for me to break the Christmas morning ice.
“How long have you been up?” he asks.
“What did you do?”
What did I do? What did he mean, do. I waited, I fantasized, I prayed, you know, the usual.
“What are you talking about do?”
“With all that time you could have at least combed your hair?”
“Are you kidding? Maybe Santa left you a crowbar we can use to unclench your ass cheeks.”
"Ha, ha, maybe Santa brought you some funny jokes. Are you going to wake them up?” he asks.
“No, I’m going to look first.”
“Erin, that’s not a good idea. At least go get Mom.”
“C’mon, don’t be such a baby.”
“Dad will get mad if you peek and the whole day will be ruined.”
Although a bit dramatic, he did have a point. We still hadn’t completely recovered from the Christmas pageant. Our choir teacher had a depression issue and her choice of music was a bit gloomy for the third grade. I could hear my father say, “Jesus Christ, is she kidding? Does she want us to have a happy holiday or put our heads in the oven?" Any song that starts with “Hello darkness, my old friend” may be a bit heavy for the holidays, even for the Irish. My father, Fran, ended up pouting through the entire show and refused to stay for the party that followed.
I went to my parents room to see my mother looking at me.
“It’s six o’clock, Mom. Can we get up yet?”
“Come back in a half hour.”
I return to my brother’s room and let him in on the plan. He suggested I use that time to clean up a bit.
“If caroler’s come you will scare them to death.”
“That’s the chance they take.”
Finally, it was time. I quietly re-entered my parents room and find them both getting up. My father said “Stockings only. Wait for the rest.” Terry and I ran down stairs to find the room filled with packages. A pile of pink boxes with light blue bows; gifts from my mothers favorite clothing store. It is the only time of year I ever see my parents pleasantly exchange anything. The rest is for us.
Fran insisted we eat breakfast before we open our gifts. I silently vowed to never make my kids eat first. We ate as quickly as we could without being called pigs; being called a pig on Christmas can dampen an otherwise lovely occasion.
Every year Fran would devise a Christmas scavenger hunt. The game was competitive and stressful, particularly for my brother. If Terry panicked under the pressure of my Fran's taunting, his gift gathering could take forever and ultimately hold up my gift getting. My father would hide gifts throughout the house and give us clues. “Jackson is freezing.” I would run to the freezer and grab a twenty dollar bill and read my next clue. The clues were obscure and clever and if you got stumped? You were all done. Fran was not a hint person and my mother's eyelid Morse code was pig-latin.
After the hunt we were able to open the rest of our things. Fran would always withhold the “big” gift and lead us to believe we didn’t get it. If we looked too upset he would remind us of all we did get and of the many children who went without. I recall thinking blah, blah, blah. I fell for this once but poor Terry bit every year.
I had stopped believing in Santa at four. My parents took me to the mall to sit on Santa’s lap. It was my cousin Mike. I knew it and he knew I knew it. He started to sweat as I peppered him with questions only a family member would know. He couldn’t get rid of me quick enough. When I asked my parents about Santa really being Mike in a suit; they emphatically denied it. I knew right then. Santa was a fake.
We were prepared for the Christmas morning torture but it seemed a reasonable trade off in the end. A little humiliation for a new bike was an even exchange. Then the traveling dysfunction road tour extravaganza would begin. I remember the feeling of stepping out of our front door and having the cold fill my nose and sting my face. I was nauseous with anticipation and rapidly eaten eggs. Our first stop was always my grandmothers. I had never met my grandfather, Fran’s father. They were divorced and he was lovingly referred to as the “cockroach”. My grandmother was usually good for a cool toy for Terry that he would share with me, a skateboard, a model rocket ship, paint by number kits. I got the usual, an offer to fat camp and a bathrobe. I never went to fat camp but I did have a dozen bathrobes before I turned ten.
Our last stop was my maternal grandparents house. My grandmother was mentally ill. At the time I thought she was just odd. She chain smoked unfiltered cigarettes and had Harlequin romance novels everywhere. Stacked ceiling high in her spare room. When she moved into a nursing home, after my grandfather died, we stopped counting her yellowed romance novels at four thousand. She had been a fire hazzard. Who knew?
We always dropped my father off at home first. He was always good for making a bad situation worse. We arrived at my grandparents late in the day to find my grandmother in her usual beaten up bathrobe, smoking and reading. It dawned on me that I should have brought her a bathrobe, I did have an abundance. My grandfather was asleep. When asked, my grandmother said,“ I didn’t feel like giving him his insulin today. Then he’d want lunch you know.” My mother ran into his room and after about an hour came out with Grandpa looking like he’d been mauled by a bear.
My grandmother never looked up from her book or got out of her chair. She never spoke to us directly and just pointed to the other room where the “gifts” were. I use the term gift loosely. We never got actual gifts. This year we had stockings with a banana and an apple and one wrapped gift. Not one for each of us, just one. This year it had my name on it. A step up from last year. Last year it was addressed to Charlie.
We didn’t know any Charlie.
This time, in black marker, clear as day "ERIN". My heart started to pound. I couldn’t believe she had remembered me. Finally the recognition I had been hoping for.I had one grandmother who loved and appreciated me, even if she was the crazy one. Well, the crazier one. I carefully peeled back the paper which revealed a red box with familiar logo.
My grandmother had given me a carton of cigarettes.
I was eight.
It was the only time during our visit my grandmother looked up. “Hey! Those are mine.” She grabbed them out of my hand and returned to her romance novel.
As soon as my mother revived my grandfather we were off. As per our usual holiday end of day events, my mother cried the whole way home. It was an annual affair. We arrived home to my father who inquired about our visit to the asylum. My mother didn’t respond but the compulsive cleaning was about to begin.
My brother and I scrambled to grab as many gifts as we could before my mother began to pack them up. We were aware that this time of day would come. We had made a mental inventory of our newly acquired stock. Our gifts were put away and all but the tree was left by nine that night. Our tree would be on the curb in the next twenty four hours. Ours was always the first on the curb and the last one erected. I think this was my mother’s way to erase the day from our minds. By days end I was exhausted. I curled up on my bed, with the gifts that survived my mother’s rampage, and slept like the dead.