| Tears of mixed happiness and sorrow were welling in my eyes. I missed my grandfather, and I missed my cousin, but I knew they were somewhere together watching over me and helping me recall the adventure of creating Christmas that year.
Christmas always seemed to bring mixed emotions to me. That Christmas turned out okay in the end, but it wasn’t always like that. I was reminded of this sad fact as I began looking at one of my parents’ albums. As I was flipping through pages of my brother’s goofy face next to mine with his fingers in the precarious vee of rabbit ears over my head, and shots of my parents’ vacations that we were not included in for the sake of their sanity, I found a group of pictures where my family held up newly opened Christmas gifts with forced smiles on their faces. In the background was a picture of my mother. She is a wonderful woman who really went out of her way every year to make the holidays special for my brother and me. She would lavish gifts from Santa Claus on us and we were sure he had to be real because our often-stingy parents would never give us so many wonderful things. These pictures showed how far she would really go to make a day special for us.
(Story 2 – Ho, ho, ho)
“Tanya, I know that you don’t believe in Santa Claus any more, and this year, your brother knows the truth, so I just don’t want you to expect a ton of presents at your aunt’s house this Christmas.”
“Fine, whatever,” I replied in my sullen, twelve year old voice. I wanted to sound like I didn’t care about Santa Claus anymore, but the truth was I was going to miss the joy of waking up to so many cool things on Christmas morning, even if I had to pretend they were from some imaginary fat man for my brother’s sake. What’s better than Santa Claus? He brings you presents, and never makes threats to you when you’re not cleaning your room or you’re trying to kick your brother in the shin just to see whom your mom will believe when you claim you’re being framed.
Santa was gone. I wanted to sound cool and unconcerned about the whole thing. I was in eighth grade. Boys and clothes and music took up too much of my mind to dream about big, jolly men and elves. I also didn’t want to sound like a selfish brat and ask if that meant we would really be getting less presents from now on. So I finished wrapping some action figure or whatnot for my nine-year-old brother, and acted like I didn’t care if my childhood had officially been ended.
We almost always went to my Aunt Maggie’s house for Christmas Eve. She lived about an hour north of my uncle and us, and a half hour south of my grandparents, and she had enough room for all of us. We would usually have dinner there and open presents that night. Many times we spent the night unless there was a reason we had to be back early to spend time with Dad’s side of the family. Last year, with nine of us in the house, my aunt had run out of toilet paper and there were no stores open to get more. This year, everyone had brought a multi pack with us, partially to make sure it didn’t happen again, but mostly to be obnoxious.
Things went as usual that Christmas Eve. It was cold, but there wasn’t snow. We had a wonderful dinner and way too many leftovers, though the rest of the apple salad would probably be gone by morning. We laughed and ate cookies and seven-layer candy and opened presents. My aunt had asked me that year if she bought me clothes, did I want quality or quantity. Being a status seeking junior high denizen, I told her quality and I received a pair of designer jeans. If someone were to ask me that question now, my answer would be quite different. My distaste for most label culture formed through my lean college years and the first few years of marriage, when I often had to choose between having meat at dinner and buying a new shade of lipstick.
It was a typical year, a pleasant evening full of pleasant gifts and genial barbs thrown around from relative to relative. That Christmas would have never really stood out in my mind from any other Christmas under normal circumstances. Mom and Dad slept in one of the spare rooms that night, my aunt and uncle slept in another spare room and gave their bed to my grandparents. My uncle slept on the couch and my brother and I got the living room floor. I was never crazy about sleeping on the floor, but when you aren’t given a choice, I guess it’s better than the front porch in the middle of winter in Ohio.
Normally, I have always been a light sleeper. Maybe it was the excitement of the day, or the fact that there was a warm fire in the fireplace. Whatever the reason, I was awakened from a sound sleep by my grandfather. He was telling me I had to get up so the paramedics could get through.
“What do you mean paramedics?” I asked. I was suddenly wide-awake and looking around trying to find out what had happened. My brother was already up, and no one else was in the room. A minute later the medics were pushing through the living room and my aunt was telling them the steps were down the hall.
“Your mom fell down the basement steps. They have to take her to the hospital, “ my grandfather told me. “She’ll be alright, now just sit on the couch so you’re not in anyone’s way.”
An hour passed it seemed, but only about ten minutes later they were carrying my mother through the living room on a stretcher to the ambulance. She looked like someone had beaten her up. As she passed by, she smiled at my brother and me and told us to get some sleep. She’d be okay and she’d be back in the morning. Then she was gone into the cold, dark night.
Obviously, no one could get back to sleep right away. My father had gone to the hospital with her, so we were left with the rest of the family. I asked someone what had happened, how mom had fallen down the steps. I can’t recall now who answered me, as I was still very upset and worried about my mom, but someone explained the situation to us.
“Well, your mom was feeling kind of bad that you kids weren’t going to have Santa Claus anymore. She knew how excited you always got Christmas morning. So she decided to give you one last Santa experience. She kept some of your presents back and was going to surprise you by putting them out. She knew you wouldn’t be expecting them, so she thought it would be fun. She gathered a bunch of the packages in her arms, and was taking them down the hall from her room to the living room. She didn’t turn any lights on so no one would wake up, and thought she was taking everything into the kitchen for some reason. Well, apparently the basement door was left open, and she couldn’t see where she was going because of all the presents. We all heard a crash, and your mom yelled, and your dad jumped up and ran out to the kitchen because he thought the refrigerator had fallen on her. When he didn’t see anything there, he walked back into the hall and heard your mom crying down at the foot of the steps. When he turned the light on, he saw her lying down there with boxes all around her. I’m surprised you kids slept through all the racket.”
So that was what happened. My mother, in her attempt to make one small happy Christmas memory for my brother and me, had taken a head first fall down a flight of steps and hit the concrete wall and floor at the bottom. Suddenly, it didn’t seem like Christmas at all. I just wanted to know how my mom was, and I didn’t want to have anything else to do with presents. No gift was worth my mom nearly dying. Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep the rest of the night.
The next day, my mother finally returned from the hospital around lunchtime. She had a badly broken arm, and a gash and a lump on her forehead, and bruises all over so she could barely stand to move. Someone brought all the presents up from the basement, and gave them to my brother and me. I didn’t want them; I blamed them for what had happened to her. I heard my father telling someone that if the boxes hadn’t been in her arms to soften the blow when she hit the bottom of the steps, she probably would have died on impact from a massive head trauma. In my eyes, she wouldn’t have even been out of bed if it hadn’t been for those presents. My grandfather reminded me that my mom was watching, and she really wanted us to have those presents. He said we should be happy and grateful to make my mom feel like it was okay she got hurt so we could have a few extra trinkets from Santa Claus. I looked over at her, and she sat at the kitchen table, beaten and bruised with a weak smile and small amount of hopeful pride in her eyes that she had really surprised us with some nice, unexpected gifts. So I opened them, and put on a smile, and thanked my mom for the presents and for trying to give us a last Santa surprise.
I have no recollection of what those presents were. The really unexpected gift I got that year was a big dose of reality. I had spent all this time sulking that I wasn’t going to get as many gifts that year, and here I almost lost my mother because of those gifts. It made me truly appreciate what I had, and opened my eyes to the true spirit of Christmas. She had it. She knew the joy was in the giving, not the receiving, and wanted nothing more than to see the look on our faces one last time that we used to get as small children on Christmas morning. We weren’t small children anymore, and she knew she would miss that twinkle in our eyes. All she wanted was to really be Santa one more time. All I really wanted was to have my mom around to celebrate Christmas again.
It took a long time for mom to heal. Her arm wasn’t really the same for years, and I think it still gives her trouble to this day. We went back to my aunt’s house the next Christmas. The basement door was closed, with a new slide lock across the top, and yellow caution tape crisscrossed over from top to bottom, and a sign on it saying “Basement – Not the kitchen! Do not enter!” My mom laughed, we all laughed, and Christmas was just the way it was supposed to be. But Santa, smart guy that he is, decided to stay home.
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