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by Barbara Strakele
We set up the Christmas tree on a Saturday in December. My four siblings and I had been pestering our parents all week because it seemed as if everyone else except us had decorations showing through their windows. Our dilemma was how to make space for the tree in the living room.
Dad was in a good mood because he and Mom were going to a wedding that afternoon and he was looking forward to getting dressed up and dancing with her.
He carried up the artificial tree from the cellar, with us trailing right behind him, our arms filled with bulging bags of tinsel, glass balls and tangled strings of fat colored lights.
The skinny little tree was squeezed into the corner by the steam pipe, one side of it crunched against the TV stand and the other side reaching over the arm of the couch. Dad let us stand on the couch to place the ornaments on the upper branches.
Afterwards, I spent most of the afternoon pouring over the Sears Christmas catalogue - the “Wish Book”. It was a huge edition, as heavy as the phone directory, and featured a little girl on the cover. Only Mom and I were home. It was quiet because she hadn’t yet turned on the radio.
I relished having the kitchen table all to myself and knelt on a chair as I flipped through the pages of cowboy items and baby toys until I got to the good parts, where I could get ideas for my list to Santa.
Mom already said not to ask for more than four things because we had a big family and Santa could only carry so much to each home. So I went page by page, circling things I liked until I ended up with 20 items. Then I reviewed my options and crossed off what I didn’t want anymore.
My final four chosen items were a toy piano, a musical jewelry box with a dancing ballerina, bunny slippers and a white fur hat with pom-pom ties. When my legs started to get pins and needles I got up to stretch.
Mom was unusually quiet that day, not humming to herself nor wanting to chat at all. I had almost forgotten she was home. I found her rummaging through a rack high above her head in the living room closet, picking out something to wear to the wedding. Her hair was still in pin curls and her nylons were rolled down to her ankles.
After choosing a dress, she stepped backwards and winced, “Oh, my aching back.” She passed down to me a splintered wooden hanger which held a beautiful pale gold outfit that looked vaguely familiar.
“Mommy, have you worn that before?”
“Many times, but not for a few years. Not since your cousin got married.” She never looked over at me, just kept handling the beautiful fabric.
I wanted to talk and walked closer. “It’s so pretty. What color is that?”
“I guess you could call it champagne. Let’s just call it champagne.”
That’s about as much conversation as I heard from her all day. She should have been more excited about getting all dolled-up for Dad and going dancing.
I decided to cheer her up. “Mom! Wait ‘til you hear what Santa’s bringing me!” I skipped back to the kitchen and, from across the room, read my list to her.
Mom remained at the closet still holding the party dress. Why didn’t she say anything?
Finally, she came and sat next to me, moved the Sears book to the side and closed it. Her lips were squeezed and she was visibly upset with me. It took her a moment to say what was on her mind.
“Barbara,” she began. “There is no Santa Claus.” Her lip was quivering and her voice was hoarse. “Your Dad’s not working and we are going to have another baby in a few months. Don’t tell the others.”
My mouth fell open. No Santa Claus? Why was she so angry at me? Another baby… I barely had time to think about it when the doorbell rang.
Mom rose to answer it before disappearing into the bathroom to change into her wedding clothes. Dad came in, shaking a few snowflakes from the felt brim of his fedora then handing it to me.
“Take this from me, will you?”
Frankie was with him. They had gone to the Salvation Army to do some window shopping. The doorbell rang again. Mary Ellen was returning from the playground with Marty and Jackie in tow. She complained that Marty kept tugging hard on his harness and wouldn’t walk nice. As she fixed them a snack of bread and apple sauce, she reminded Dad to put away the baby stroller into the basement.
Everyone was talking at the same time. Kids with dripping noses needed help unbuttoning their jackets. Dad told us to straighten up for the babysitter. He gave Mom a kiss when she came out of the bathroom wearing her party dress and she smiled for him. She had put on lipstick and earrings and her hair had bouncy curls. When she carried her housecoat and sturdy shoes back to the living room to stash away, she glanced at me with a look that told me everything would be ok.
It’s very difficult for a seven year old to keep a secret, almost impossible when you learn two secrets at once. I was devastated to learn there was no Santa to bring us presents. Later, at school, I got upset when they announced who would play the part of Baby Jesus in the Nativity Play. Secrets… I was burdened with them. Why couldn’t we at least have a baby in time for the pageant?
The annual Christmas pageant was a big event at St. Matthias School. Every class participated, from the five-year-old angels to the older shepherds and wise men, to the eighth grade Mary and Joseph. If you weren’t picked for a part, you were in the chorus.
For weeks, we practiced the songs; the school corridors alive with music. The student actors got out of class to rehearse in the auditorium.
Year after year the story was the same: a pregnant young Mary (wearing a blue nightgown and a shawl over her long hair) is travelling a long way with her husband (in a brown robe tied with a thick rope and wearing a towel on his head). She is about to give birth and they are very upset because no one has any room for them to come in from the cold… until finally, they are allowed to rest in a stable filled with animals. This was the first home for our newborn King. Where would we find room for our new baby?
On Christmas morning, after the initial chaos subsided, Mom and Dad told the rest of the kids about the baby. Frankie insisted we needed a boy in order to have three and three. Mary Ellen told him we had enough boys in the family already. There was no time to linger on the topic.
We all got dressed up for the 9 o’clock children’s Mass. Mom wore the champagne maternity dress. After church, we rushed home to play with our new toys. The bunny slippers were the only thing from my list that I got, but there were other really nice things too, like new socks for my Girl Scout uniform and clothes for my doll.
Dad was happy with the replacement watchband we got him for his TIMEX and was assembling it at the table. I sat next to him, eating the tangerine from my stocking, savoring the scent it gave off as I bit into each juicy segment. Every inch of the table was cluttered with gift paraphernalia. Mom’s new giant package of bobby pins and bottle of red nail polish were barely visible amid pieces of torn wrapping paper and half-eaten candy canes stuck to cellophane wrappers.
Mary Ellen read her new book, sitting sideways to get the best light. Jackie’s high chair was squeezed in next to her. The boys were playing rough in the living room and Mom reminded them to stay far from the Christmas tree. The news about the baby dissolved into the pandemonium of the day.
Photographs published courtesy of Barbara Strakele
Barbara Strakele lives in Eastham with her husband, Bob. She is a prolific reader, writer and a community volunteer.
This story is a glimpse into her book-in-progress, "Anne with an E" about reversing roles and caring for her mother who had Alzheimers.