I was in charge this year, and I knew what sorts of things I wanted for us on Christmas morning. Since kindergarten, I’d wanted a decorated tree in the house with presents under it. I wanted good things for my sister and me to eat –– no greasy goose, no stringy turnips, no heavy spoon-bread.
And I wanted “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and “Jingle Bell Rock” –– the silliest of the Christmas songs –– playing on the radio, loud.
So as my sister was forever advising, I made a plan. When the two of us got up late and ate cookies for breakfast with the radio playing popular carols full blast, my sister would open first the small, heavy package of batteries, then the leather-bound old book I found for her at a rummage sale and finally she’d tear the wrapping off the big, rattling box of Operation by Milton Bradley. I’d taken the trip to the Sears store in Watertown with one of my baby-sitting families, so I was sure she’d be completely surprised.
After presents, we’d eat more cookies and play Operation until we were ready to eat the cold sliced ham and mashed sweet-potatoes and pumpkin pie I’d made for dinner.
I was happy that night. On Christmas eve, with the wind whispering around the corner of the house, I did not feel lonesome. I made Christmas cookies and refilled the tea-kettle. I brought in extra loads of firewood to save having to go outside the next morning. I snipped paper snowflakes to hang in all the windows and considered the many advantages of my sister’s and my solo state. When Viv came home, I was happier yet. She kept her pea-coat buttoned when she came in and she dashed upstairs with her hands in her pockets, clutching something lumpy under her coat. From upstairs, she shouted, “Will you start me a pot of tea? Peppermint?”
I made the tea slowly, with a lot of extra scrapings and clankings so that if Viv were making any noise, she’d know I wouldn’t be able to hear her. When she came downstairs, she dunked cookies into her tea and admired the tree and the decorations.
I think it snowed a little overnight that Christmas. Or anyway, it felt like it had snowed for that first Christmas: a light, beautiful blanket of white covering everything outside the windows. Perhaps I’m making the memory prettier than it was, but I remember the field being as picturesque as a Grandma Moses scene.
On Christmas morning we slept in a little and when we made our way downstairs, we each had gifts tucked under our arms. My sister –– contrary to every Paris-edition-Vogue-influenced particle of taste –– produced an extravagantly wrapped package of pastel day-of-the-week underpants for me. In the autumn, when I told her about how all the girls in my gym-class had day-of-the-week panties, she said it was the tackiest thing she had ever heard. Her scorn hadn’t really changed my wanting them, but I hadn’t mentioned it again.
Still, sometime between then and Christmas, she’d made the trip to Woolworth’s in the face of her own sense of fashion. She also got me a sleek and expensive Koh-I-Noor technical pen, which I knew for a fact I had never mentioned aloud. She must have noticed me silently fingering it at the art-supply store in Watertown and gone back for advice, because the pen came with two bottles of ink and a tin of horrible-smelling cleaning solution.
Viv and I stayed in our pajamas all morning with the woodstove pouring off heat, drinking cup after cup of hot chocolate and eating cookies. We sang along with the radio, making up a silly dance for the various versions of “The Little Drummer Boy” that kept playing.
Viv was unbeatable at Operation, as anyone could have predicted; she took out and replaced the breadbasket piece four times in a row before Sam’s red nose lit up.
Later, when Viv had curled up on the couch and stuck her nose into the dusty old book, I filled the ink reservoir of the technical pen and then applied its unforgiving pinpoint nib to paper. I sketched my sister with her hair messy and her sock-feet drawn up to her butt on the saggy old couch, I sketched the fat little Christmas tree beside her, each needle of the pine tree a tiny, single, scratch of ink.
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