Once upon a time, I used one of the tiny circa 1960 bedroom closets as a repository for Christmas gifts, gifts in waiting for that special day. I took such pleasure in shopping year-round for our five granddaughters. Sale hunting was my sport of choice. Capturing a prized possession: earrings, Barbie dolls, Legos, books on insects, pink lip gloss, and lacey tops, each item would be stowed away in the Christmas closet, waiting for its great unveiling in the future.
In the meantime, there were the necessary tasks of industry and commerce – that ‘8 to 5’ job that fueled the Christmas closet. The job required some stateside travel. And while attending to the demands of my responsibilities to my employer and our customers, I scoured the periphery for bargains.
Deep within the recesses of a hotel gift shop on a dusty shelf, I’d oftentimes find a gem. Smiling a perpetual grin, sitting there, longing to be found, would be a soft dolly or glittery purse. Art sets, books, obscure games, crafts – there was an amazing abundance of slow-moving marked-down merchandise just waiting for someone like me, a grandmother shopping for the mere pleasure of finding a special something for a special little girl.
Secreting those items in my suitcase for the trip back home, I’d imagine how each grandchild would respond to a gift no one else would ever have thought to buy for her. I was fully aware that the fun was transitory; kids are fickle as a whole. It didn’t matter. My expendable income used to buy gifts for the girls turned the December holiday into a year-round joyful quest for me.
By October of each year, while the girls were little, such a brief period of time reflection has proven, the closet shelves would be stuffed with stuff. When the girls weren’t around, I’d pull everything out and sort the items according to their recipients. I needed to make sure the bounty was evenly shared, and that the items were appropriate, given where the child was in her growth cycle. After all, the older girls wouldn’t appreciate a doll, and the younger ones didn’t need earrings. Opening that closet door for me was like watching each beloved girl open gifts over and over again.
For those few years when the girls were young enough to want to spend time with us, we’d make a Christmas sleepover weekend as close to the actual holiday as possible. In a blended family, it’s important that time concessions be made. On the appointed Saturday morning, my husband and I would drive the multi-passenger Dodge van, the one equipped with built-in child seats, to pick-up the girls and begin what would be an exhausting – but fun – 24 hours.
There were those two years in a row that we took the kids to Edaville Railroad. The girls loved the train ride through cranberry bogs and piney woodlands where Christmas lights depicted animals and elves and even Santa. In the main building, there was hot chocolate, popcorn, and games to play. Some of the girls eagerly choose to sit on Santa’s lap for a picture; some didn’t. I have those pictures and will one day will surrender them to each respective girl, now a woman. As they look at themselves in that long-ago moment, either smiling or suffering silently, will they think of me, of my husband? Giving children happy childhood memories is the gift that keeps on giving long after we are gone.
Later that evening they would open gifts, delighting at what they found inside the wrappings. Then it was time to set up the air mattresses on the living room floor, put on a video, and watch as each girl attempted to settle down sufficiently to rest their sleepy heads – or not. They sometimes stayed awake until the wee hours.
In the morning, their grandfather would make pancakes as I cleaned up the bedding and got the girls dressed for the day. After breakfast and before we returned them home, we’d take them on an outdoor adventure, weather permitting. Maybe a walk along the beach to collect shells and rocks, or a visit to that farm in Westport where they could feed the pigs and chickens. Sundays would wind down slowly. Then it would be time to give the children back to their parents, each kid weighted down with gifts and rocks in their pockets.
Returning to our home, the house would be deathly quiet. And though I was bone tired, that quiet was not really welcomed. These are fleeting occasions. How many Christmas seasons were actually spent that way – maybe five consecutive years before the older ones preferred spending time with friends or felt that they were too mature to sleep on their grandparents’ floor. But they were golden years for us.
Now when Christmas comes around, my husband and I relive those days; laugh at something remembered, how exhausted we’d been after a girls’ sleepover weekend – the smell of pancakes lingers still. We gave them so much more than what came out of the Christmas closet. We gave them each other. We gave them ourselves. We gave them happy memories.
In the winter of our lives, my husband and I unwrap those memories again and again – joy by way of a synapse that is still functioning. And although the Christmas closet is now the overflow closet for my coats, whenever I reach for the doorknob, I hear their voices and feel an abundance of gratitude. Their lives are a gift. We knew that then and we surely know that now.
This Mattapoisett Life
By Marilou Newell