Friday, November 24, 2006

waiting for something wonderful

Every year at Thanksgiving time I get sort of morose. I never really know why it happens. I enjoy Thanksgiving. In fact, it's even one of my favorite holidays. But then I also get this dark, foreboding feeling too. Somewhere between after the Thanksgiving dinner and before the 5 a.m. Friday shopping spree it hits me. An anticipatory, closed-in kind of mood bearing down on me, an actual weight that reminds me, however subtly, of some very old, unspoken sadness.

You'd have to really know me, would have had to be me, in fact, to get why it is I associate after-Thanksgiving with everything that's glum. And I know I'm 37, and it's high time I get over it, but the fact is, I didn't have the Christmas experience that everyone else seemed to have.

Whatever that was, which from my viewpoint is: a string of blue lights hung out on your porch. A great green tree poking every which way in green and red and orange and yellow in your living room. Singing Christmas carols at the top of your lungs in school choir. That's Christmas.

From where I'd seen it, this is what Christmas, as a truly devout and religious person, should be: abstention from all worldly celebration of a wildly erroneous, even randomly chosen, birth date. A refusal to participate in school functions honoring or even making mention of the same. A complete withdrawal from all the usual traditional festivities: especially the giving or sending of cards and/or gifts.

When asked by well-meaning adults: What do you want for Christmas? I was well instructed to reply formally: I do not want anything for Christmas. Christmas is a crass, merchant-driven, man-made holiday that in no way honors the sanctity of our Almighty God.

My grandfather faithfully sent us a check every year at Christmastime, funds parceled out for each child individually to spend as he or she saw fit. Some discussion always arose over this -- what to do with the money (usually, ten dollars each).

Ordinarily were someone to proffer us a gift we would be compelled to refuse it; yet in this circumstance, that would hardly be polite. After some discussion my parents would decide it would not be sinning to simply save the money, set aside and spend it for an occasion not at all related to Christmas. In such a manner was this minute ethical dilemma settled.

For me this was especially easy to do, since my birthday three months later in March would also guarantee a similar sum. Coupled with the Christmas money one could indulge almost unimaginable whims at the Toys section of the department store. Of course, I wasn't really supposed to celebrate birthdays either, but on birthdays we tended to fudge a bit (if quietly).

Most of the time I managed to scrape through Christmas without an excess of resentment. I could forego the coloring of Santa Claus mimeographs after the reading lessons, or the writing of letters to Santa Claus to be published in the weekly newspaper, with a feeling of carefully built-up virtuousness. I walked up to the neighbors' house on Christmas morning and watched them opening their presents with my hands in my lap, quietly absorbing their exuberance and delight and making myself not ask to play with their new toys for fear of offending them and causing them to send me back home. These pagans, I'd think wistfully, they really know how to have a good time.

But then there was this one memorable year when I looked through the newspaper ads and saw a Crayola Caddy for $9.97. It was a color advertisement for a collection of crayons and markers and various other sundry creative delights, on a stand that was circular and could spin around to accomodate the feverishly busy artist. This one thing, I wanted it more than anything I'd ever seen or imagined (except for a piano, but that's another story).

I went to my parents and told them to keep my yearly check; I didn't want to save it, I said. If they could just cash it and buy me this Crayola Caddy, I'd never ask for anything again, not ever.

And of course they frowned, but I plunged ahead in a rush before they could tell me this was wrong: It's not for Christmas. I promise it's not for Christmas. It's just on sale now before Christmas; but it's not a toy, it's not a Christmas thing. It's just the handiest thing I've ever seen in my life, and I could make so many pictures with it. Please, buy me this Crayola Caddy. If you don't buy it for me now I'll buy it in January after Christmas, and it won't be as cheap then as it is now and I won't be able to afford it; so please, won't you?

The Almighty Father, they said reprovingly, and His Love far exceeds anything this carnal world could offer you, and His Rewards are so much greater. He gives you Everlasting Life! And you want ...a Crayola Caddy? For this you'd sacrifice our principles? ...For art supplies?

Yes, I said in a little little voice. I would. And I felt overwhelmed with guilt. But it was the truth. I knew it was truth.

The truth -- that I was a carnal, crass lover of Christmas, and I would not only hang blue lights on our house, but I'd festoon myself in them and belt out "Frosty the Snowman" at the top of my lungs if only I could suddenly, mysteriously get abducted by aliens and be the only one to teach them how to sing it. And there would be joy in my heart while I was doing it, too. I wanted to be a celebrater and a gift giver and a present-opener and basically just a greedy, selfish, loud-mouthed, sinner of a kid more than anything. It's all true. I admit it. I am so imperfect as to be almost beyond all hope. I have never been able to live up to the ideal. Not ever.

My father took the money with a sigh. He promised he'd go to the pharmacy and buy me the Crayola Caddy, yes, the selfsame one. Even though I felt like he was humoring me and nursing a deep disappointment in me, all at once, I ripped the ad out and pushed it onto him, just so he could recognize it on sight and not bring home the wrong thing. I didn't really believe he'd do it, but when he pulled out of the driveway and headed toward town I felt almost sick with euphoria and heady anticipation. Oh yes! I could have this.

And when we all came back to school in January I had serious ambitions to mention it, oh so casually. Not the usual flat "I didn't get anything" when the other kids asked it carelessly: "What'd you get for Christmas?" No! I could say, "I got the Crayola Caddy with markers and crayons in a dozen different colors on a circular base that rotates as you go along." It was going to be really, really great.

I could hardly even sit still. I went upstairs and cleaned my room and moved the furniture around, just so. I knew exactly where the caddy would go. I knew exactly what I would draw, too. Feverishly I envisioned the interminable hours of Christmas vacation very pleasantly engaged.

I watched from the window as he returned, emerging empty-handed from the pickup truck. I told myself it was just a tease -- that he'd left the caddy in the truck, for me to carry out myself.

"They didn't have any more," he'd say, and I'd protest: "No, come on, really! Where is it?" And he'd give in with an indulgent laugh and say, "Go on, now, it's somewhere in the truck. I just forget where I put it." Because he'd be moved by my earnestness, instead of being so serious and diligent all the time -- I'd have jollied him into giving in.

And I'd run past him squealing and ferret it out from wherever he'd hidden it, under the seat or wherever (how did I know how big it really was? It was just a little picture in an advertisement). Isn't that what always happened on the TV shows? Where the world is a different place, not quite recognizable, and children always, somehow, end up getting what they want.

Only it wasn't in the truck. And he didn't tell me to go to look for it. "They just sold the last one, it was all they had, and they're not getting any more," he said, and I knew from the final tone of his voice that he meant it; I wasn't going to be getting a Crayola Caddy, not for Christmas, not ever.

And I would have to accept that, because anyway, the rules are the rules.

Of course it's a little thing. On such things the fate of the world does not depend. Still, it was a little thing that, nonetheless, crushed something down hard in my much-too-longing, nine-year-old soul.

"I'm sorry, Sharon. But you should consider that maybe God is trying to tell you that this is something you shouldn't have and don't really need."

My eyes were big with tears and I blinked them to keep from spilling. I could feel my mouth stretching tautly like a trampoline pulling downward with some invisible weight. If I spoke, I'd cry. So I ran upstairs instead and faced down my room -- a room, it seemed now, pathetically braced for something that would never come. I thought my heart would break with self-pity. One thing. I only wanted one thing, God, and all the other kids get so many every single year and all I wanted my whole life was just this one thing. Why not? Why? How do they get to be so lucky and all I get to do is wait for something wonderful?

I told my husband this over breakfast this morning.

I was making pancakes and it just spilled out because he asked me why I looked so pensive. "I don't know..." I said, waving the spatula in the air languidly. "I just feel so....I don't feel like hurrying into the day. I don't even feel like making a plan. Everyone's out there shopping and I just...I feel kind of fragile, you know? Like if I'm going to be in a good mood I'll have to really cultivate it to get there."

And then I launched into this memory. He didn't say anything much. Just went on eating, and listening.

After breakfast, we put the kids in the car and drove into town. He went a different route this time, parking in front of the art gallery that shows my work, and took the kids inside it, holding their hands. "See if you can find Mommy's work," he told them quietly, and they dashed toward it, looking up and sighing raptly, "Oh, that's you."

Then he walked us down the street, to a store that sells office and art supplies, and guided me to the back where they sell china markers and sketch pads and Berol turquoise pencils and other items I haven't seen since my college days. All I could do was mutter these barely audible oohs.

"I could seriously go nuts here," I said, trying to laugh. "There's so much to look at."
"Go ahead," he said. "Don't just look. Pick some out."
"No, not really," I protested. I picked up one black china marker out of a display of a dozen different colors. I waved it at him, questioningly, as if to say: This one?

"More than that," he insisted. "Get one of each."
"I can't," I said. "I --"
"Do it," he said, and he started handing them to me one by one. And going down the row, piling up more stuff in my hands.

I realized. "I didn't tell you about the caddy so you'd feel like you had to do this. I'm okay. Really. It's what's inside that matters."
"But you love this stuff," he said. "You should get it."

"Now I know it -- why it is I had to wait for something wonderful," I found myself murmuring.

And I could tell, from the look in his eyes, that he knew what I meant.