Our first Christmas Eve without my Dad, older brother, and sister, was peaceful and magical. I loved the closeness and kindness between Mom, John and me. There was no yelling, no complaining, no fights and no tension. It was the best Christmas so far.
The next morning John and I were up early playing with our new toys. When Mom woke up she told us we had to get dressed and ready to go.
“Go where?” I asked.
“To your Dad’s house. You’re going to go there today to celebrate Christmas with him.”
“Do we have to?” I whined. “Why can’t we just stay here?”
“Because that’s what we’ve worked out – you need to spend some time with your dad.”
My heart sank. Christmas was over.
I don’t remember much about that visit with my Dad, except that I didn’t know half the people. It was at Bev’s house – with Dad, Ken, Leslie, John, Bev’s two sons (one was a year or two older than Ken, and the other was a year or two younger than Ken.) The neighbors – the Belfields – were there too with their two sons who were around the same age as Bev’s sons. (The Smiths, the Belfields and the Schroeders used to get together a lot before the divorce. The 3 couples were best friends.) Bev’s mother was probably there as well. I just became lost in the shuffle of people. Bev made a big dinner, which was nice. I remember appreciating the food – I was pretty hungry most of the time. Dad always had the TV on with some football game and there was a lot of cigarette smoke in the air. People laughed and had a great time. I remained quiet, opened up the gifts that seemed obligatory, (everyone opened them all at once – unlike my house, where we each opened gifts one at a time) thanked Dad and Bev with hugs, had too much sugar and couldn’t wait to go back home.
We weren’t home for long. Mom then announced that we were going to spend a couple of days with Grandma and Grandpa Schroeder – my Dad’s parents. Traditionally we would spend Christmas day with them. (That’s why we always had our celebration at home on Christmas Eve.) We would see my dad’s parents, but not my mom’s mom. I don’t remember ever seeing her on Christmas. Maybe because she died when I was 8 years old and I just don’t remember her being around for Christmas.
It was a bit sterile at Grandma and Grandpa Schroeder’s house for Christmas, and felt more like “family tradition” than Christmas to me. My dad’s brother would be there with his wife and kids and it felt crowded to me. I didn’t know my cousins or aunt and uncle that well. I only saw them once or twice year, and when I was younger, it felt like I was in a room full of strangers.
I remember walking in my grandparents’ house this year, noticing how strange everything was without half of my family or my uncle’s family being there. I felt a little exposed. Mom was thanking our grandparents for taking us for a few days. She cried a little when she said, “You are the only parents I have now,” and seemed to really appreciate their continued acceptance of her. I doubt she would have stayed in contact with them “as her only parents,” though. It felt like she was happy to have a place where we could go and she could get a break from us. It was understandable, but as a child, I felt a little bit of manipulation going on with that particular conversation. Something about it wasn’t completely genuine. If she really felt that way, she would have stayed. But instead, she just said her goodbyes and dropped us off. This became our Christmas routine until Dad had his own house several years later and we were old enough to stay home on our own during Christmas break.
While I’m on the subject of my grandparents’ house, I do have a couple of favorite Christmas memories there.
When I was old enough to know that Santa came on Christmas, and we could ask for something we really wanted, I started asking for a doll. I was four or five years old. A lot of my toys (and clothes) were hand-me-downs from my sister, and I was getting to the age of wanting something of my own. I didn’t have a specific doll in mind. I hadn’t seen one at the store that triggered my interest. I just knew I wanted one. My mom used to brush off the request. I’m not sure if it was because she couldn’t afford it, or if she thought it was silly for me to have one. My siblings didn’t care about it either. There’s a faint feeling that I would get teased for having one. But I knew in my heart of hearts, all I wanted was a baby doll. Christmases came and went, and no doll.
When I was about 6 or 7 years old, I remember being in my grandparents’ living room, lying across the seat of the chair, with my feet dangling over the arm. I was feeling melancholy because it was the 2nd or 3rd Christmas that I didn’t get my Christmas wish. Everyone else seemed to have gotten exactly what they wanted, but it was another year of disappointment for me.
My grandma came up to me and laid a box in my lap. It was as if the room had silenced as she looked in my eyes and smiled, encouraging me to open it. As I pulled back the paper off of the box, a beautiful face emerged. A baby doll! I’ll never forget the moment. My heart was filled with a feeling of love, of being seen and heard. Her face was perfect. Her sparkling blue eyes closed when I laid her down in my arms and opened as I picked her up. I was enchanted and immediately fell in love with her. I heard my mom saying, “Oh you shouldn’t have” – not in a wonderful tone of “Oh! You shouldn’t have, how wonderful of you to buy it for her!” But more in the tone of, “Why did you do that? You’re spoiling her – giving into her whining about wanting a doll,” Her words felt like a dagger in my heart. Why she wanted to withhold this gift from me was beyond my imagination. I had an outlet to express my love. And that little doll was the beginning of an intimate friendship for me that lasted for years to come. I named her Tabitha, and shared my love with her as I thought a mother would love a child. It’s almost as if I was loving myself through that baby.
My other favorite Christmas story at Grandma and Grandpa Schroeder’s house happened a few years later, when Bev, my stepmother, bought me a tape recorder. (All the Christmas gifts I received from my dad were really picked out and purchased by Bev, my stepmother. The only one he bought for me that I’m aware of, was that Barbie Fashion Show that I mentioned in an earlier blog.)
That year when we went to our grandparents for a couple of days during Christmas break, I brought some of my Christmas gifts with me, including the tape recorder.
John and I had to sleep in the living room on the couch. Grandma would pull apart the sections so my brother and I would each have a place to sleep. I remember a little night light they would turn on that looked like a miniature fireplace. I loved the way it looked, but it made a strange gurgling sound that kept me up at night. It was either that, or the fact that they put us to bed at least 2 hours earlier than our usual time. (At least it seemed like 2 hours early.) Grandma had her own bedroom, and Grandpa slept in the back guest room off of the kitchen.
My grandparents had a sweet miniature poodle named Tootsie. She was adorable, but she always begged at the kitchen table, which was somewhat annoying. She was mostly Grandma’s dog. She slept on a little pad next to Grandma’s bed at night and other than the begging, was pretty low maintenance.
My grandparents had a TV, but they never allowed it to be turned on when we were there. They also had a stereo, but I don’t remember them ever playing music or the radio in the house. It’s a wonder my dad was musical. The house was in the middle of the city so it was quiet in the house, with the occasional neighborhood traffic and sirens. I loved the popsicle truck that would come by in the summers. If we caught it in time, Grandma would give us some money so we could buy one.
This particular winter night, Grandma had made our beds, and our grandparents retired to their bedrooms. The house was quiet, and the living room was lit up with the streetlights and porch lights of the neighborhood. There was no way John and I were going to go to sleep. Neither one of us were tired, but because of my early “training” I remained in bed, staring at the fireplace nightlight.
“Hey Julie…” John whispered. “I have an idea. Let’s set up your new tape recorder in front of Grandma’s bedroom door and record her snoring!”
I giggled. It was a great idea. Grandpa used to tell her how loud she snored, and she always denied it. She slept with her door open, so it would be easy to do. “Go ahead,” I said. “You do it.”
He quietly placed it just inside her doorway in such a way that no one would accidentally walk into it. It had a 30-minute tape in it, so we had time for it to work.
John got restless again and got up.
“Where are you going?” I whispered.
“Shhhh….I heard something.”
He came back a couple of minutes later and said, “Grandpa got up! He’s in the kitchen in the dark eating a snack. C’mon! Let’s go see him.”
He took off and I stayed on my couch, waiting to see if Grandpa was going to yell at him. I didn’t hear anything from the kitchen, and John was gone for awhile, so I decided to get up.
We never caught Grandpa sneaking food before. He seemed childlike sitting there at the table acting like he was doing something he shouldn’t, yet having a wonderful time. He was pleased to see us both, but whispered very quietly, “You can sit hear with me, but we have to be quiet. I don’t want Grandma to know I’m eating the fruitcake.” He offered us some, but John and I both declined. We thought the fruitcake looked disgusting.
Tootsie suddenly appeared right next to Grandpa, and put herself in her cutest begging pose.
“No Tootsie,” Grandpa whispered. “I can’t give you any fruitcake. You’ll go and tell Grandma.”
John and I giggled. The thought of Tootsie telling Grandma was really funny to us. But Tootsie was never one to give up when it came to food.
“Go on, Tootsie. I can’t give you any of this. I know you’ll tell Grandma.”
Tootsie and Grandpa went back and forth. Grandpa in his kind and delightfully-sneaky whisper, and Tootsie with her relentless begging.
Grandpa couldn’t take it anymore. He finally caved in and gave her a little piece of the fruitcake, while saying, “Ok, but don’t tell Grandma!”
Tootsie didn’t eat her treat immediately like she usually did. She took it and ran into Grandma’s bedroom. Suddenly, we all heard Grandma’s voice, “Ed, are you eating that fruitcake again?”
We looked at each other in disbelief. Tootsie told on Grandpa?!! We remained quiet, and then Grandma asked again. “Ed, are you eating the fruitcake?” We couldn’t take it anymore, we burst out laughing. Grandma came into the kitchen and turned on the light. “What is going on here?”
Grandpa began explaining how Tootsie told on him, when John suddenly looked at me and said, “The tape recorder!”
He ran and got the tape recorder and confessed that we were trying to record Grandma snoring. He rewound it for a few moments and landed on the perfect spot. You could hear Tootsie’s little toe nails jog right past the tape recorder. And after a 2-second silence, Grandma’s voice boomed out, “Eddddd?” (She drew his name out while sliding the pitch up like you do when asking a question) “Are you eating that fruitcake again?”
The timing of Tootsie’s toenails and Grandma’s response was the perfect evidence that Tootsie did tell on Grandpa. John rewound that tape recorder and we listened to it over and over – at least 10 times. Each time we laughed harder and harder. Even Grandma had tears rolling down her face. I still laugh out loud just thinking about it. John created so many funny moments. He was curious, restless, kind, imaginative and had an excellent sense of humor. He made life fun for us.