While studying the elements of fiction with my students, I encourage them to do some writing of their own. I ask them to think of their most embarrassing moment, or the moment they were most angry, or most excited, or most surprised. While writing my own story, in preparation for tomorrow’s lesson, I realize I have found a moment that captures a multitude of memories. It is a moment from the Christmas season that brought me from anger, to happiness, to guilt, to joy. It was a whirlwind of emotions. After all, isn’t that the way the holiday season usually works?
The year was 1978 and I was six years old. It was Christmas time and I was in a state of elation. To a child there is nothing more magical than the month of December. You spend your hours daydreaming about the big day and all of the wonderful treasures you will be given. You mark the date on your calendar; you plan.
This particular year there was a gift I wanted more than anything: The Deluxe Barbie Dream House. Not just any regular dollhouse, this house came with a hot pink bathtub (complete with running water) and a two-stall garage. Parked in the garage was Barbie’s hot pink convertible. This house was luxurious and it filled my thoughts. During school I would sketch out the floor plan in my scented Strawberry Shortcake folder. During church, I would focus my eyes on the preacher while my thoughts wandered. I imagined just the way that house would look sitting in the corner of my bedroom. It was my one desire.
Over the weeks that led up to Christmas I mapped out my strategy. I knew my parents were against the idea of the Dream House. They thought it was expensive and a bit excessive. What did Barbie need with a three- bedroom house anyway? She wasn’t even married. I knew that they would need some convincing and I set about on a campaign of persuasion. I left love notes in my mom’s purse, brought my dad his paper in the morning, cleaned my room with precision and never (well, rarely) fought with my brother.
As the weeks crept by, Christmas drew nearer.The tree was up, the decorations hung. All that was left was the waiting. Each day, scrambling off the school bus, my brother and I would race to the front door. Kicking and punching each other, we would struggle to be the first to the living room where the tree stood in all its majesty. We were looking for the gifts. Each day we would walk away disappointed. Except for a few stray pieces of silver tinsel, the floor would stand empty.
Finally, on a cold Friday afternoon my brother and I made our way off of the school bus. It was cloudy and gray outside, the snow a bit wet as it hit our jackets. We trudged through the slush in our soggy moon boots and made our way into the house. The gloom and grey of the outside was erased instantly by the glory of our Christmas tree. The lights were glittering brightly and the floor was a menagerie of color. Big boxes, small boxes, bows, ribbons and patterns galore. My brother and I exploded.
Instantly we were sizing up the gifts. We looked for the ones labeled with our names and made precise judgments. “That one’s from great grandma,” my brother cringed. “A wool scarf,” we said in unison. “This one feels like clothes to me,” I said with distaste. We both rolled our eyes. I had no time to waste; I had to find my dream house. I worked my way around the mountain of gifts. A variety of names popped out at me as I read the tags.
And then I saw it. There, behind the tree, in the back corner of the room was a huge box. It had to be mine. I began the long journey to the back of the tree. My feet collapsed the containers as I balanced myself with urgency. I had to see if my name was on that box. I stretched across the gifts, my arms bearing scratches from the tree’s brittle needles, and read the tag. –To Lisa. Love, Mom and Dad-. I was victorious.
I ran down the hallway toward my bedroom. Grabbing Barbie by the wrist I shouted, “It’s here! It’s here! Your house is almost here!” Quickly I started to assemble a makeshift suitcase. Barbie was moving. I picked out a new outfit for her, one that would be suitable for the big event. This called for heels and a mini-skirt. I decided on the turquoise blue. My heart was beating with elation. All was right in Barbie’s world.
Days passed and the big moment, Christmas morning, finally arrived. After sleeping sporadically the night before, I woke to a sense of spectacular anticipation. The day I had been awaiting for months was here. Now, adults will always tell you, around this time of year, that this sacred holiday is about the baby Jesus. It’s about family. It’s about sacrifice and selflessness. But on that morning, on that particular Christmas, it was about me.
I had already planned the whole thing out. We would eat breakfast with the family. We would take a family picture, the four of us covered in velvet and silk and polyester- varying colors of red and green and black. We would call our aunts and uncles and grandparents to wish them well. We would get all of the traditions of Christmas out of the way. The morning was a haze. My eyes never left the giant box waiting for me behind the tree.
Finally, later that afternoon, the gift giving commenced. My plan was simple. I would start with the less-wanted gifts and work my way toward my ultimate gift: my dream house. Our family began the procession, passing gifts around the room, watching each other as we opened them and responding in turn. I don’t recall any of the other gifts that afternoon. I think I received some stuffed animals. I faintly remember some paint and an easel. Of course, I distinctly remember the wool scarf. I was distracted, impatient and a bit annoyed.
I had planned all along to be the last to open a gift and finally my moment had arrived. My father got up from his lazy-boy and brought the huge box from behind the tree. He tugged and pulled and collapsed back into his chair once the box was positioned. I sprang into action. Attacking the box, I threw bits of wrapping paper to the side with determination and skill. I had no time to waste. As I pulled, however, I noticed something strange. This box, the same one my father was just tugging and pulling across the room, felt very…light. I kicked at it a bit with my foot. It glided over some discarded wrapping paper with ease. I was confused.
My parents and my brother were watching me, faint smirks covering their faces. I opened the top of the box and peered in. Nothing. I stepped back, tried to gain my composure. I looked again. Nothing. I was beginning to panic. “What’s going on?” I demanded. “There’s nothing there!” My dad smiled at me assuredly, “Yes there is Lisa. Look again.” I pulled the box onto its side, peering into the dark abyss. I felt around with my hand. Moved further in. Felt around some more. Suddenly, my hand latched onto something. Something small and gooey and something that smelled, faintly, of peanut butter. I pulled my hand from the box and there, within my grasp, was a soggy peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Now, I don’t have to tell you; I was devastated. My brother was rolling on the floor, holding his stomach, laughing. My father was wiping tears from his eyes, the choked sound of his guffaws filling the room. My mother, hand placed over her mouth, softly giggled. And I, well I didn’t know quite what to do. I began to shake and my eyes clouded over with moisture. But I was not sad. No, I was angry. I was filled with rage. I grabbed that peanut butter and jelly sandwich and I threw with all my might. (Now, the story differs depending on who is telling it, but I will always swear that I was aiming for my brother.) The soggy peanut butter and jelly sandwich landed, with a deafening, “Fop!” right in the middle of my dad’s Christmas sweater.
“I hate you! I hate all of you!” I screamed. I ran out, kicking the box on my way, and headed toward my room. My mind was racing; I was enraged. I was considering running away. I thought about checking into adoption. (Could a kid adopt herself out?) I was making a list in my head of all of the ways I hoped my brother would die a slow and painful death. I cursed my father and my mother. Things were ugly in my little mind.
And then I opened my bedroom door.
There, in the middle of my room, was the Deluxe Barbie Dream House, complete with pool, convertible and a brand new outfit for Barbie.
My mouth opened, my thoughts swirled, my heart dropped. I sat down on the side of my bed, looked down the hall at my mother and father and brother, and I cried. I don’t know if I was crying because I was still upset about the sandwich, crying because I realized I had just ruined Christmas, or crying because I was so happy to have my dream house at last. But the tears kept coming.
My brother, still laughing in the other room, was oblivious to the rage inside my little heart. My father was torn between scolding me for staining his sweater or letting me get away with my outburst. (It was the holiday season, after all.) My mother, having pity on me, came into the room and softly began to calm me. “Your father was up until midnight putting this together for you, Lisa,” she explained.
She ushered me over to the corner of my room where the house sat waiting and encouraged me to take a look around. Within moments, I was able to compose myself. Brushing the tears away, I sat down on the floor and began to do what I had been imagining doing for weeks, moving Barbie and all of her belongings into her dream home.
But, after a half an hour of trying to enjoy my new gift, the guilt overwhelmed me. I walked into the living room where my mom was cleaning up the wrapping paper. My brother was playing with his new set of Lincoln logs under the glow of the tree. My father, stuffed on too much Christmas ham and apple pie, was napping in his chair. I climbed up next to him and nestled into his now dry sweater that still smelled faintly of peanut butter. My mother, humming along to the Christmas album playing on the record player, lulled me to sleep.
And, to all, it was a good night.