The Little Christmas Liar, Part II

I realize now that my brother had been about to call her out on that Christmas day.

Thank you for reading along and sharing this memory with me. Part I is found here.

PART II

After presents, the three older of us kids were shooed outside into a world of crunchy snow and cool breezes. “Blow the stink out of your pants while I finish up with the ham”, Mom pushed us toward the door.  Grandma asked if she could now tidy the room and clean the dishes which were crusting over with half-eaten oatmeal. Grandpa wanted to see Dad break in that new pipe and join him with a well-worn one of his own.  

Thus occupied, the adults ignored us as we scrambled for our rubber boots and layers of wool socks.  A stack of used bread wrappers sat by the door.  These were to go over our socks before wrestling our feet into boots that were slightly too snug to begin with.  The wrappers made “swish-swash, swish-swash” sounds as we stomped through the snow, but they did serve well enough.  Our “poor-man-snow-boots” (as my brother called them) … they would suffice. Never mind that it was so cold that snot froze inside our noses almost as soon as we stepped off the porch or that we would get scolded for spreading soggy breadcrumbs throughout the house later.

Just as I don’t remember how we finally got to the tree and presents in the living room, I don’t remember how Marla came to join us in the front yard, but there she was.  The sun, which decided it wanted to be a part of the day, sang in falsetto as it did nothing to warm up the morning, yet in its brightness, created a stunning world of crystal and dancing light as we broke into the ice-layered snow and tried to form snowballs.

“Let’s make a snowman,” Marla suggested.

Photo by Jill Wellington on Pexels.com

We didn’t see our neighbor from down the block much in the winter time.  She went to a tiny, church school on the other end of town, so our playtimes were usually restricted to the summer months. The fact that she joined us now was unusual but welcome, and I wanted to please her so that she would stay.  My brother had a different mindset. 

“Snow’s too hard for that,” he snapped. “Don’t you know anything?”

Marla stay stooped over her pile of snow, patient with her attempts. Her mittens were worn through and soggy, so she stripped them off and worked bare-handed.  Once he saw that he wasn’t going to get a reaction from the girl, he huffed and marched to the garage in search of our sleds.

Marla had gotten used to ignoring him.  They were about the same age and had for some mysterious reason slid into the role of enemies.

There were a lot of things my brother didn’t seem to like about Marla. First of all, her parents were “as old as Methusela”. (He ignored the truth that our own father wasn’t any younger than Marla’s parents and was, in fact, almost two whole decades older than Mom.) He often taunted how poor they were.  We were poor too, but they did appear more in need than us.

The war between these two had escalated the summer before over a bag of bananas. The helpless bananas had been snatched out of Marla’s hands as my brother and his friends raced by her on their bikes.

Later that day, Marla’s mother trudged meekly up the sidewalk to our house and asked to see my mother.  She talked in quiet, yet firm tones which resulted in Brother having his bike locked in the garage for a week. Worse, he wasn’t allowed to play with his friends for twice that long.  It wasn’t just the stealing of the bananas, which were squished and thrown into the yard, it was the taunting.  “Marla is a baby! Marla is a baby!” they had  called out, making fun of the fact that they had caught the girl, who was their age, singing and playing make-believe with her dolls in her back yard, as if those toys were her real friends.

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Marla had not cried in front of them, but wasn’t seen outside of her house for most of the rest of the summer.  “See, she is a baby,” my brother’s friends chanted when they road by on their bikes.

She might not have come around our house at all except that there were other no kids in the neighborhood.  All those who went to her school lived far out in the countryside … too far to walk or even ride a bike. As an only child, she got lonely, I’m sure. 

“What did you get for Christmas, Marla?” 

She didn’t seem to hear as she swept more snow toward her mound and tried once more to get the pile to form a ball. Her hands were red and shiny, the way mine got when I grew so cold that the pain left me in tears.  Marla seemed to know no such pain; she worked on un-phased. 

“I got a doll,” my little sister rambled, “And candy. And so many, many toys.  Santa brought us a whole sleigh full!”

“I got a China doll,” Marla suddenly stood up.

“The doll was just part of it,”  her words started in a slow cadence but gained speed as her eyes widened with excitement.  “She will sit on a shelf in our front room. She came with three of the most beautiful outfits a person ever saw.  And … “

She paused as if trying to find the perfect, magical words for something so magnificent that natural words might not do justice.

“And … I got three dresses in my size to match.  Such beautiful dresses … too beautiful for our town.  When I wear them, people are sure to mistake me for a princess.”

I sighed. I  couldn’t imagine owning something beautiful enough to be be mistaken for a princess, not that I liked dresses much or ever considered being a princess before this.

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Marla wasn’t finished. Her gray eyes, much too big for such a thin face, sparkled like the crystalized snow around us. Her yellow hair stuck out in a number of spots on her hatless head like the straw of a scarecrow.  With a long neck and red cheeks, she reminded me of one of my picture books of Alice in Wonderland, minus pretty ribbons and a flowing gown. 

“We got the hugest fruit basket with the sweetest, most tasty fruits. Tropical fruits. And then! Then, there was a brand new chess set … boxes and boxes of chocolates … new stationary … a wooden yo-yo … a shiny pair of Mary Janes with an ever-so-slight heel … bubble bath and perfume … and brand new sheet music for Mama.  A new felt hat for Father and … lace curtains for our front windows, and so much food for our pantry that I couldn’t name it all … and a goose.  We’re eating goose for dinner.”

My brother had returned from the garage with our banged up metal sled … the Flying Saucer … in time to hear this extravagant list.  He “Hmmm-huffffffed” past, marching to the small hill at the end of the driveway. Once there, he suddenly spun around, gritted his teeth, and opened his mouth like he was about to shout something, but instead shut it, and chewed on his bottom lip..

“Are you going sledding with me or not?” he glared as he gripped the rope handles our dad had fastened to the round and dented metal disc that served as our favorite sled for the way it spun us round and round as we whooshed down hills.

I was not. I wanted to hear more of such gifts, so did my sister. Brother stomped off on his own.

I was both entranced and dismayed, a cloud I did not understand covering me.  It would take looking back to understand the weight of jealousy that had found its way to my heart.  My six-year-old brain wrestled with the thought that it somehow seemed unfair that my family had finally experienced great riches at Christmas, and yet plain, ol’ Marla should have gotten so much more.

Marla lived in a broken down house … more broken than ours … with broken down things.  My Dad patched our things, while Marla’s parents seemed unable or just too tired with age.  They were rarely seen except at their church or when coaxing a severely complaining truck to the mountains to gather wood  … their source of income and of heat.  Their unpainted, wooden house was paper thin.  No insulation padded the walls.  Newspapers covered the windows in the winter; both to add warmth and to keep out the stares of the nosey boys who tormented them.

Photo by Sausmus Photography/property of smallstuffliving.com

We all thought her parents odd and Marla odder.  Not only did she still play with dolls, she built forts and playhouses outside as if she were a member of the Swiss Family Robinson, banished to a life on a deserted island. Once, before the feud with my brother, she invited the two of us to roast potatoes in “my jungle” as she called it.  She had smuggled three mid-sized bakers out of the house and kept us in hushed tones as we tried to coax a flame out of leftover logs.  Without enough kindling to encourage a fire, we burned up all the matches. She crept into the house in search of more, but her mother heard and discovered what we were up to. We were sent home. I always wondered if Marla got her roasted potato that day; she seemed so hungry. 

Music. The one truly normal thing about this family was music.  Morning, afternoon, early evening, piano music escaped through those thin window pains, drifting as far as our house sometimes.  Often I snuck to the trees next to their lot and sat underneath, listening to the hymns and classical pieces played by someone who seemed to have magic fingers the way they made elegant sounds come out of that dingy house.

It was Marla’s mother who mostly played, but sometimes I heard the banging of keys and halting measures repeated again and again and again until there was less halting and fewer sour notes. I assumed it was Marla practicing, eventually growing in skill so that I had to listen very carefully to know which of them was playing.

Just as I was about to ask Marla how they were going to cook that goose for their dinner, we were called in to ours. All thoughts of Marla and my jealousy faded as we sat under the beam of Grandpa’s smiling face, stuffing our stomachs with ham, cheesy potatoes, and orange jello salad, trying to leave room for the cherry – pudding cheesecake with a graham cracker crust and Grandma’s once a year traditional, licorice-flavored, Springerle cookies. BUT not enough room for her mincemeat pie.

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The rose colored glasses that viewed that wondrous Christmas didn’t crack until college.  It made no sense that while laboring over some all important paper about layers of deceit in King Lear or something like that, it hit me.  

That. Big. Fat. Liar! 

It took me a moment to know what I was even thinking about … the memory so random and so long tucked away.

Marla …. Marla lied. 

No china doll. 

No fancy gowns.  

No piles of books and puzzles or boxes of chocolate and stationery. 

No goose dinner.  

No lace curtains to replace the yellowed newspapers. (Why had I never noticed that they never appeared in those windows?)

I realize now that my brother had been about to call her out on that Christmas day.   There had been no tree in the window or decorations outside. There was likely a box of oranges and some baked goods from church members.  Maybe even a gift-wrapped classical book or sturdy, practical shoes, but that would have been it. 

My brother … yes, he could have ratted on her that morning … put his enemy on the spot. And why wouldn’t he, given the chance to get even for squealing about the bananas. But he didn’t.

He gave her her imaginary Christmas. 

And … then it occurred to me … my Dad was complicit too. He could have spoken up that day as well. He could have said no to my Grandfather’s whims … but he didn’t. He carried the burden of letting Grandpa pay for our house and a car big enough to carry all of us about. And then, to jab the knife a bit deeper, he paid for Christmas while Dad struggled to keep basic bills covered all year long.

Dad also knew the stories of Grandpa’s neglect when my mom was our age and that not all of the drinking binges led to funny endings like the night he had been locked out of the house. Now, there he was … taking the spotlight on that Christmas … a spotlight Dad might have felt was undeserved.

But Dad let Grandpa be the star.  And that was a good thing because Grandpa left us the next spring … illness swooping in and snatching him away with no warning.

Those are supposed to some of my most glorious Christmas memories because they were our last with Grandpa. But now they’re invaded by a liar, leaving a residue of guilt.  We had our wonderful Christmas … Marla’s was dismal.  And I had been jealous of her bragging only to discover that it was my bragging that likely heaped more misery on her. 

I have no idea what became of Marla, but a new thought occurs to me today.  Somewhere out there is a 60-something-year-old woman preparing for another Christmas.  It is a dark world for all of us right now (2020) but I pray for her today … and I wish I could say …

Marla,

You may have never gotten those fancy dresses or eaten goose for dinner (trust me, it’s not that great) … you may have never found your way to a mansion and may still have newspapers for curtains …

but I hope that wherever you are, that you have a piano to tap out songs of joy and peace … and I hope that the light of Love has found its way to you … you dear little Christmas Liar.

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Thank you for reading “Small Stuff”.  This is the second of two blogs sites that I keep.  You can find more on my thought&faith blog at rashellbud.wordpress.com. Wishing you a beautiful day full of the Small Stuff that transforms life into BIG STUFF.

A note to my “silent” readers … thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to read my work. I’ve learned that many of you are shy about commenting or hitting the like button, but I want you to know that I appreciate your visits and invite you into the conversations whenever you are ready.

Wishing you peace in all things … Shelly

The Little Christmas Liar, Part I

People often ask me if I do any “real” writing … “besides your blog, I mean,” they add. 

I do … mostly short stories … most of them tied into my childhood and rural upbringing. This piece was intended for a Memoir Writing Contest, but with all of 2020’s curve balls, I set it aside and didn’t finish it up by the deadline. Somewhat ironic, given this is a year for being locked inside … a perfect formula to force writers into finishing up projects … apparently that formula doesn’t work on me tho’. (Smiley face)

The timing for getting back to this does have the perk of falling into the right season. And it’s been therapeutic right now to compare the rural life I was raised in to the one I’ve recently returned to.

Note: Some names have been changed in this. Also, I’ve decided to divide it into two parts because it’s so large for a regular blog post. Hope you will find your way to Part II (the true meat of the story)when I post it in a couple of days. A two-parter lines up with my childhood experience of listening to radio programs like The Cinnamon Bear at Christmastime … having to check back the next several nights to hear the whole thing. Promise … I won’t drag it out that long … just two parts. Enjoy … I’d love to hear your thoughts and your own memories.

Part I

Grandpa was a lot of things: handsome, a dependable farm worker, an avid hunter, and a binge drinker.  He was both likable and crusty.  When sober, he was respected by all, sought after.  When drunk … well … my Grandmother locked him out of the house

The Christmas morning of these memories, I recall him as a smiling, laughing man.  Uncharacteristically giddy, even.  It was he who burst into the bedroom I shared with my sister and hurried us down the stairs, but not before stopping across the hall to lift my baby brother, stinky diaper and all, out of his crib.  My older brother had much earlier made his way to the fought-over, fat, cushy, purple chair next to our tree. The tree created a great mystery because overnight it birthed a room full of sparkly wrapped packages. Julie Andrews carried on about Three Ships of Christmas morning from the record console in the corner.  My brother grumbled that if “the babies would ever get up, we could get on with presents and the good stuff.

My Grandmother owns part of the memory too. At 5’4, she was a plump little round ball next to Grandpa’s half-a-foot-taller, lean mass. Like Grandpa, she was a mix of many things: a good cook, a fair gardener, fond of quirky riddles, fond of anything sweet, and a bit of a mouse. “Mouse” understates her.  Whenever she was nervous she started sentences with her pet phrase, “Aren’t you afraid?”  “Aren’t you afraid no one will come to the party?” “Aren’t you afraid we’ll run out of money?” “Aren’t you afraid you didn’t study enough?”  “Aren’t you afraid of … well … everything.”

I can think of only a few times that Grandma appeared determined without apologizing.  She insisted that she’d take any piece of chicken except “the one that went over the fence last.” Then, there was the story passed down from my mother where Grandma locked Grandpa out of the house for coming home too late and too tipsy.  He had managed to drag a ladder from their shed and teetered his way to the second floor. There he found an unlocked window and passage into one of the sneezy rooms used only for storing furniture and canning jars. She locked the door to the stairwell too, and he had to bang on it the next morning, mumbling forgiveness before she let him out for his toast and coffee

This Christmas morning was one of Grandma’s “so determined” days.

“Breakfast first.” She stood unmoved at the stove with a wooden spoon in her hand

Grandpa clearly didn’t have breakfast on his agenda.  He stood in the doorway between the kitchen and room full of presents, looking towards the tree with longing eyes. Grandma shifted only to move back on her heels as if they were suddenly nailed into the floor, and she tapped the spoon against her palm.  I’m not sure what that signaled to her husband, but he slumped his shoulders like a pouting boy and told my brother, “Hurry up now. Wash your hands and eat something.

Oatmeal … thankfully heavily doctored with cinnamon and raisins  … I hated oatmeal …and orange rolls dripping with butter frosting … the hungry yeastiness of them filling the room with such ferociousness that we forgot about unopened gifts for a moment … this was the breakfast of Christmas champions.

My parents were there, but faded into the pale and cracked plaster-coated kitchen walls.  Mom took over and changed Baby Brother’s diaper, but otherwise let her parents fuss away. Dad sat in the corner, folding and unfolding lanky legs, mindlessly rotating a steaming cup of coffee with one of his hands, waiting for it to cool.  He didn’t drink coffee unless he first watered it down with cold tap water, but he wasn’t going to say anything to my grandfather who had served him without his asking. With his other hand, he toyed with the button on his shirt pocket, wanting to pull out one of his hand-rolled cigarettes – a habit he’d picked up in army days –  but must have figured my mom would scold him. When my grandparents weren’t around, he smoked all day long.

Photo by Olenka Sergienko on Pexels.com

I don’t remember how we got into the living room, but suddenly Grandpa was in charge again and we were there, in front of the crooked pine, hauled down from the nearby Idaho forest back in the days when permits weren’t required.  Plump red and orange and blue and green and yellow bulbs peeped out between the branches, throwing happy shadows of light around a room still gray at the edges from the cloud-frosted morning outside.

Toys. There were so many toys. Dolls. Metal trucks. Coloring books. Water colors. Wooden airplanes that you had to snap together. Handmade doll clothes.  A two story dollhouse, open on one side so that we could reach in and arrange the little painted rooms with little plastic furniture. Building blocks. Stuffed lions and monkeys and bears. Cap guns.

And candy. Candy cane shaped tubes filled with red and green M&Ms. Ribbon shaped suckers. Red and green jellies. Foil wrapped chocolates formed into the likeness of Santa and reindeer. A box of pink peppermint bark … but this was for Grandma alone … to share only if she chose, which she always did.  Round peppermints with red stripes, wrapped individually and destined to be the last candies we would eat in the weeks after the holiday, and only then, if we were desperate for something sweet.  The strong peppermint scent reminded my nose of medicine.

And there were peanuts at the bottoms of our stockings.

And oranges, fat and juicy.

“You’re spoiling them, Daddy.” This was my mom to Grandpa, but the softness of her eyes said it was okay.  My own dad worked hard at two accounting jobs and repairing machinery for various farmers, but money was always scarce  He had talked of a slim Christmas this year, but Grandpa had other ideas.  Dad shifted uncomfortably, like he wanted to say or do something, but he finally slumped back in the square-backed wood rocker and more or less relaxed. He even smiled throughout the morning, especially when he unwrapped a can of fresh tobacco and a new pipe.  He looked pleased, too, when mom ooo-ed and awwww-ed over a terry cloth bath robe and lilac-scented body lotion.

Grandpa glowed like a gas station sign at midnight, arms still folded but a grin on his face. Grandma scurried around the room, crinkling her nose as she reached for the wrapping paper around our feet.  “Sorry, but please, don’t rip the paper … we can use it again.” She then smoothed the rescued pieces into tiny neat squares.  It was a room with three adults who had lived through something they called the Great Depression – this included my dad who was a lot older than my mom. Wasting anything became a personal insult to them.

It’s only as I write, that I realize that there were no presents for Grandpa and only the candy for Grandma, at least that I remember.  Yet they seemed happier than anyone.

My mom with her parents in the earlier 50’s. One of the few pictures of my Grandpa. Grandma looks so tall here, but then, she always said she shrunk a little with each passing year.

But this memory isn’t really about Grandpa or Grandma or those gifts … at least I don’t think it is.  It’s about a little Christmas liar lurking outside of our door and her big, fat, Christmas lie that tried to ruin that wondrous Christmas morning.

To Be Continued … Part II is found here.

Thank you for reading “Small Stuff”.  This is the second of two blogs sites that I keep.  You can find more on my thought&faith blog at rashellbud.wordpress.com. Wishing you a beautiful day full of the Small Stuff that transforms life into BIG STUFF.

A note to my “silent” readers … thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to read my work. I’ve learned that many of you are shy about commenting or hitting the like button, but I want you to know that I appreciate your visits and invite you into the conversations whenever you are ready.

Wishing you peace in all things … Shelly

Small Stuff Christmas

Our new family motto: Make memories, not injures …

The Christmas forecast played with us.

Snow.

Oops …

No … rain.

Oops … hold that.  It’ll be a cloudy, dry Christmas.

Warm (winter warm) temperatures.

I love white Christmases, but with family driving over mountain passes and flying to an airport an hour away from us, I was okay with the final forecast of a mild Christmas day.

SURPRISE …

We woke up to a dusting of snow.

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White, frosted hope … a sprinkling of all things refreshed, made new.

How appropriate for a Christmas day.

A couple of days earlier, at our little church, the pastor asked the kids why they think people like snow so much at Christmas.

After giggled answers of  “It’s fun” … “I like sledding” … “Snowmen are awesome”… a second grader piped up.

“Snow reminds us that baby Jesus came so our bad stuff can be white … like what snow does.”

Well said, little boy.

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I have to say, the fresh snow felt like a gift from above … a little reminder that in a moment, life can look fresh and hopeful once again.

Since that snow dusted Christmas morning, we’ve slipped into the new year … a whole new decade, even.  A heavy snow met us on the last day of 2019, only to be washed away with heavy rain by the bursting of New Year fireworks.  At least, I think it was all washed away …  our weary bodies didn’t last until midnight to ring in the new year or watch any fireworks on TV.

That doesn’t mean we didn’t celebrate the New Year though … well … at least half of us did.  We’d been looking forward to pot luck and Bunco Night at the town restaurant.  We had joined in last year and had a blast, making new friends, laughing over simple, silly things.

Darn …

I was smote with a nasty sinus head ache late in the afternoon, so sent My Guy to forage for pot luck food at the little market where he found chips and store-bought cookies, while I sat by the fireplace and waited for the the essential oils and pain reliever to kick in.

As I sat there, looking at the fake flames in my otherwise cozy fire place, I thought of all the small stuff that made this holiday season and the upcoming year feel so rich:

The mystery plate of cookies at the front porch.

Another plate of cookies handed to me at work by a woman I admire but rarely get to interact with. It was such an unexpected, heart-felt gesture.  (Not to mention that my family was super pleased since I haven’t taken the time to make cookies the last few years.)

An unexpected text and then exchange of photos and more texts with a friend from childhood. We grew up together just 12 miles away from where I live now, having both travelled parts of the globe, and here we are, still connected at the heart.

The festivity of our small town, including a stunning show of lights across the train trestle that is soon to be converted to a bike and walking trail. 

The kindness of the community to put together a Sharing Tree that provided gifts for families needing extra support this year … a long standing tradition in the community.

The joint effort of two churches who come together at Thanksgiving to worship and then take up donations to provide meals for families during Christmas.

Mom “willed” herself to join us on Christmas.  It was not one of her easier days, but she came, and we so enjoyed the time.

Visits with our kids. Something I know we can’t take for granted. I was very aware of the huge gift these small moments were as many around us lost family and loved ones of late or just were too far away to be with family.

Well-thought out, simple gifts from family. (We kept our budgets very low this year, and somehow, I think the gifts were far more meaningful.)

Laughter as our son-in-law ventured up a giant tree to rescue My Guy’s brand new (bargain-priced) drone that magnetically drifted to the highest limbs of a 50+ foot tree.  (Well, laughter afterwards.  I actually was at work, so wasn’t told of the hi-jinks until all were safe on the ground again.  Thus … our new family motto: Make memories, not injures. Thankfully, we were successful!)

I saw a lot of kindnesses displayed this Christmas … more than I listed here, as many of the stories are not mine to tell.

I don’t watch news much anymore because I see so much cruelty and unkindness.

But, here, in the small stuff, I’ve seen that kindness and compassion for others is still alive and well.

That’s a good note on which to end one year and start another.

 

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Wishing you a year overflowing with kindness and small-stuff possibilities!

 

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Our main street and the whole town was so pretty and festive this year.