Friday, April 6, 2012

My Christmas

Photo by David Castillio Dominici
by Tom Stearns

Kasey, Kelly, Robin, Chip and I clicked like new deer off the front porch and into our too, too small home on Betty Sue Terrace. This year was my Christmas. I checked and re-checked the dates. This year was certainly my year. I hadn’t forgotten. And intermittently throughout the year, I reminded the governing body of our family, as well as its constituents, that this was my year to get the big Christmas (a tradition in our family whereby each year a child is singled from the five to receive the lion’s share of gifts from Santa). At eight and a half, I knew Mom and Dad were working the levers and whistles behind Santa’s curtain, but they both seemed distracted from the profound importance of my coming day. And so I reminded them.  

“Hi, Mom.You know it’s my year this year, right?”

“Go call your brother and sisters and tell your Father his supper is getting cold.”

Mom and Dad were distant. The air was tight with Kool cigarette smoke, nail polish remover, dying pine, and sub-text.

“Dad, are you ready for Christmas?  I sure am ‘cause it’s my year this year ‘cause Kelly’s was last year, and I go behind Kelly, and I am sooo excited.”

“Tommy, go and get one of my handkerchiefs off of my dresser, son, and tell your Mom I’m not hungry.”

That damned yellow cat. Our cat was named Cat, and his or her odd smelling yellow molt made Dad, Chip, and I wheeze, clog up and redden. When my Dad blew his nose, it was a violent episode. He would blare his huge schnozzle like a tuba in a rain storm. Then he’d roll his eyes, make a face and stick out his tongue. Mom would laugh.

Though, not recently.

It is bedtime the night before Christmas: one part hot cocoa, two parts torture. Sleep does not come. The frigid night air is brisk with anticipation. It is so intensely quiet I can hear my heart thumping in my chest. My big brother, Chip, scratches my back to help me doze. We have a menu of scratch options: soft scratch, hard scratch, rub, half scratch-half rub, half soft scratch-half rub, and tinglies. I do not remember falling asleep, but I was unquestionably the first one to wake.

I transported into the living room. Six a.m...Dark with the gray morning gloam sifting through the breathy curtains…I rake through the haze, my eyes telescoping around the tree…

Uh oh what’s this?”…TROUBLE!

Everything’s wrapped!!  Every single gift is taped and wrapped and wholly unattainable!!!  Good sweet Lord, WHY!!

We were not allowed to unwrap any gifts until everyone was up, so I had to move fast!  I had no trouble with Kasey and Kelly. They were not above the excitement of a Christmas morning. Then with my little sister Kasey signed on, my big brother Chip was cake.

“Chippie, can you come see?” Kasey pleaded, all freckles and goo as she snaked herself around him in her footie pajamas.

Once Chip was up, there was no way Robin, the eldest and most dangerous, would be able to stay in bed.

“Robin!!! Wake up!!!” He leapt on her bed and bounced her high in the air, dislodging two curlers and her retainer.

“Chip, I will KILL YOU!”

“You will kill your favorite brother on the day of the sweet baby Jesus’ birth?  Rise, Robin and come celebrate the Nativity with your loving family.” Then he stole a Monkeys poster from her wall and ran into the living room with Robin in hot pursuit, a blur of finger nails and bobby pins.

I sprinted in to wake Mom and Dad, who were sleeping disconnected in the bed.

“Daddy, it’s Christmas!!...Time to wake up!  Mommy time to get up, it’s Christmas….PLEASE! PLEASE! PLEASE!  Can we open the presents now, we’re all waiting!!! I will just die if you don’t get up.”

They eventually surrendered to me and were mobilized towards the Yule. The un-wrapping was savage. The coffee maker was started, and before the aroma of Maxwell House could reach the pot, we could not tell the gift from the wrap.

Kasey squealed with joy. She pulled in an Easy Bake Oven and an edible worm maker. My slightly older sister, Kelly, (who liked boys now), pulled in a stack of clothes and hair products -“BLECH”- but she seemed euphoric. Robin got her Barbizon lessons and the swanky Bible with the colored pictures of Moses parting the Red Sea. All okay, I guess, if you’re a girl.  And Chip got a brand new stereo system for his Mustang with a bunch of Chicago and Grand Funk Railroad eight tracks.  

Me?  I got a damned Erector Set.

I never once in my life…I could not imagine how in the hell they came up with the idea.
Not for one skinny little second did I ever in my life even think about playing with an erector set… never…never…ever!

What in the world were they thinking?


“How do you like your present Tommy?”

What could I say?  What but a lie would get me to my bedroom where I could scream into a pillow?

“It’s great. Thank you for my Erector set…and the socks and underwear…and the pencils…the note book….I don’t feel good.”

I slinked off not paying any attention to the gifts my parents received or the damaged feelings I left in that room.

Later that evening, after a day of moping around, I lay down under the Christmas tree. Our crew cut carpet with the art deco design felt like sand paper. A stale butterscotch my only friend, I twiddled the angel hair and tinsel, poked the sharp points of the pine needles, and began talking out loud to God.

“God, it’s me, Tommy. I got this Erector Set for Christmas, and I don’t know why ‘cause I never ever asked for one. Could you please tell to my parents they made a mistake.”

“Tommy, that’s enough,” my Dad cautioned from HIS chair.

“Get out from under that tree son.”


“Cause I said so, now get up here on this couch,” caring and kind but unwavering.

It was the softest most inviting old nap inducing sofa, more cuddle than couch. But now it was my captor. I sat with a harrumph, my chest wedged between my folded arms like a penny in a dime slot.

“Tommy, why don’t you play with your erector set?” A little sad now.

“I don’t want to play with it now.”

“Tommy I said, get down here and play with your erector set.”

“No.” Silence grew like an infection through the house.

You NEVER say no to my Father. My ears were fire, and my ear drums throbbed. The butterscotch turned with an awkward sickness in my mouth. Kelly led Kasey to their room, leaving their own gifts behind; Robin went to pray, I am certain. Mom stiffened, and my dear brother, Chip, sitting in the kitchen, cautiously relocated to the living room to open the erector set.

“Come on, Tommy.” Kind Chip.

We could hear the red, green and blue lights of the Christmas tree come to life and whisper off again. The powerful current detonated then abandoned the fragile filaments.

“What did you say to me boy?!”

I could not imagine getting the belt for not playing with a present at Christmas. However, my head was whirling with dreadful possibilities. I leapt.


There it was again! The word was inexorable. My whole head burst into flames, and I could taste bile and that damned butterscotch. I was dizzy with fear.

What was I doing?  Please God make me stop!

My Dad’s head had to be filled with the same drunken hornets as mine because I had never in my life said “No” to him. It was inconceivable. I was certainly aware of the results from them that went before.

“Son, you get down here and play with that Erector Set or else!”

 I knew what “or else” meant. Everyone does, and yet…


My Dad leapt from his seat with frightening speed to get the belt.  I flew to my bedroom pleading desperately and wetting myself along the way.

“I’m sorry Daddy, I’m sorry Daddy, I’ll be good…I’ll be good Daddy!!

Ritually, I lowered my pajama bottoms. I could hear the dish washer in the kitchen splashing and churning like the waves against a fast approaching ship. My tiny hands clenched the hard wood slats of my head board, and I stared at the ivory eyes of my black elephant figurines. The belt was like fire on my backside…my back…my legs…my arms…my father wildly flailing with so much rage…on and on. His eyes were gone…my back again…my backside…my legs...on and on and on…I began to cry…long and hard and choking…I pleaded between lashes.

“Please Daddy Please! Daddy I’ll do it!  I’ll do what you say!  Please stop!!  Daddy please!!!Please Daddy, I’ll do it okay?!!!!   I’ll DO WHAT YOU WANT!!!  Please!!!  Oh God Please!!! ………….MOMMA!!!!  MOMMA!!!!” 

The beating stopped. My giant of a father crumbled onto my bed and began to cry. From the shock of the brutality and the confusion of my father’s roaring sobs my own tears began to still. I had no idea how much pain my father was going through, but it was all flooding out.

My mother had asked him for a divorce. His whole world was a wound. With my skinny little arms just barely over his shoulder I petted him and cooed and tried my best to comfort this disintegrating man who had just violently attacked me.

“It’s okay, Dad. It’s okay.”

“I am so sorry, Tommy. I am so sorry. Please forgive me son. I love you. I never want to hurt you, son. Come here, please.”

I tasted salt from my tears and again from my father’s tears when he hugged me tight to his face and held me as if for the last time. I rocked in his grizzly bear arms without time and stared at the bird tattoos on his chest…Held close…closer than ever… before or after.

All hush and ache.

Slowly, we began pulling apart to make that odd trip back to normal.

“Are you okay, son?”

“I was scared Daddy.”

“I know you were, son, and your Daddy is so sorry. I love you so much, Tommy. You know that don’t you?  I am so sorry. I will never do that again son.”

 How do things go back after that?

Without a map. Stops and starts. Fishing with cobwebs…

“You still love me son?”

“Uh huh.” Fragile silence.

“Daddy is so sorry, and he loves you so much you can’t even imagine. Please forgive me, son.”

“Okay, Daddy.”

“Okay,son. I love you.” A request.

“I love you too, daddy.” I put together the words.

We untangled from each other, and Dad rose, hoisting his new weight.

He stood swan-like in the doorway, the hall light behind him shadowing his bowing face, and then he walked away.

The smell of a rotting tree and old water, menthol cigarettes, my own urine, macaroni and cheese and cube steak, nail polish remover, candied apples and nuts blocked the air.


Post a Comment