Thursday, June 15, 2006

A Christmas Memory

Grand Central Station, New York City... it was undergoing a major renovation when I moved here in 1995. They were repairing the ceiling, which has outlines of the major constellations in our hemisphere. I looked up at the beautiful blue on the part they had already cleaned and didn't remember it. The marble floor I remembered.

I had just turned seven, and it was the middle of the night. (At seven, you're much closer to the floor than the ceiling, especially in Grand Central.) We had been traveling for three days from Fort Lauderdale, FL, and were changing trains to go on to Portland, ME. It was the day before Christmas, 1952.

I don't know why we weren't at Penn Station, now that I think of it; maybe that was a different railroad then. We were definitely at Grand Central. My mom and I had three suitcases and two shopping bags full of presents and a long pole thing wrapped up in brown paper. It wasn't heavy, but I kept dropping it and my mom kept fussing at me to hold on to it tighter. I was sitting on the biggest suitcase, studying the marble floor. She had gone off in search of coffee for herself and something to eat for me.

It was a layover, and our next train would not leave for another several hours. I was tired and cranky and wanted to see if I could play hopscotch using the marble squares as my guidelines. She had said not to move from the suitcase. It was heavy and we had pretty much kicked it all the way across the floor. Nobody was around to ask if we needed any help carrying things... those days people actually did that. But at two-something A.M., the place was pretty much deserted.

I was just about to risk a hop or two away from the suitcase when she arrived with chocolate milk and a ham sandwich, so I passed the time munching my snack. She drank coffee and smoked. I don't remember much else about the trip: we kicked our suitcases the rest of the way to the next train, (someone may have helped us) and we arrived the next night at my grandparents' apartment just in time for bed so Santa Claus could come. I was pretty worried about Santa Claus not getting the message, considering we had up and moved at the last minute. But everyone seemed so sure it would be okay. He was magic, omniscient, he would know we had moved.

That was the year I wanted to be a cowboy when I grew up. I did not want to be a cowgirl, and so I had been pretty specific about the gift requests: cowboy hat, cap pistols, cowboy suit (meaning fringed pants not skirt) and a pogo stick horse. The horse I had seen in a department store window. It had a white striped pole above the pegs you stood on, and a stuffed white wool horse head with a black yarn mane. It was an advanced hobby horse of sorts, and I knew it would be the most perfect substitute for a real horse I could expect, since we were soon to live in a fourth floor apartment.

Christmas morning arrived and we gathered in the dining room at Nana's little table-top tree to see what Santa had left. Lots of wrapped presents? That was odd. Santa's presents were always just out in the open with no wrapping, everyone knew that. But, sure enough, all the tags said to me from Santa... so I started unwrapping.

Okay! a cowboy suit! Next came the cap guns. No, I could not shoot them off in the house. Or anywhere near the apartment, not even on the back piazza. We would go to "the Oaks" later, a large park down the street. The neighbors would not tolerate noisy cap guns. In fact, my grandparents revealed that the landlord had not wanted to rent the upstairs apartment to a woman with a small child, but everyone had assured him I was a quiet child and would not run up and down the four flights of stairs. I would walk quietly and be very ladylike. Awwww. Okay.

The next gift was a completely smashed red felt cowboy hat. We tried to smooth it out, and Nana said she would wet it down and reshape it for me, but I distinctly remembered having sat on one of the shopping bags when we were traveling. Hmmm. The adults began opening their gifts. My mother got a new pocketbook. That's funny, it looked exactly like one I had seen in Florida. Hmmm.

I was wondering what had happened to the horse. What good was a cowboy with no horse? I was afraid to ask. My mom had been crying earlier and I had heard Grampa swearing... "That bastard better not show his face around here!" and I knew bastard was one of the words I was not allowed to say and Nana had "shushed" him, and smiled at me kind of funny. So I didn't mention the horse.

By now, all of the gifts were open and the paper and ribbons were cleared away. Nana said "Isn't something missing?" Grampa chimed in, "Are you sure that's ALL the presents Helen?" talking to my mom. "oh. gee, maybe there's something else that we forgot..." as she got up and disappeared into the living room. She came back smiling, holding up another wrapped present... a long pole thing with lumps near the bottom. I opened it... a very modern shiny gray steel pogo stick. Where was my horse?!?

Everyone looked at me expectantly as I tried not to cry. This was not what I had asked Santa for and nobody seemed to get it. My mother looked hurt, "You said you wanted a pogo stick. This is a pogo stick." But I had wanted a horse pogo stick, not a Buck Rogers pogo stick. They still didn't get it.

I was an ungrateful brat. I hurt my mother's feelings, at a time when she was most vulnerable. I never learned to hop on it, never really tried. And I did shoot my cap gun off the back piazza when Nana wasn't home to tell on me. Until the caps were all gone.

Oh, and I figured out a couple of days later that the pogo stick was exactly the same size as that pole thing I'd been dropping, if you unbolted the pegs at the bottom... Santa Claus was a hoax.


kpjara said...

Are you telling me Santa Claus isn't coming this year?

That is such a sad story, I feel like I'm reading a book, but it's about someone I know actually exists! Your poor mother.

BTW I'm so glad you ended up here instead of riding a range some where.

Claire Joy said...

I'm not dead yet... there's time.
Oh, and when I became an adult I decided Santa was not a hoax afterall. So yes, of course he's coming this year!