Ghost of Christmas Past

Family photoBefore childhood memories surface of loading the station wagon with presents and heading up to Green Bay to spend Christmas with a gaggle of cousins, aunts and uncles, and my grandmas who cooked delicious meals and my grandpas who complained about all the ruckus, there is this memory:

I am six years old and my parents take my younger sisters, Kelli and Missi, and me to Gimbels department store in downtown Milwaukee. It’s an ornate corner stone building with storefront windows decked out in Christmas scenes. I stand in awe as mechanical reindeer tilt their heads and carolers blink their eyes and part their small, oval mouths in unison as the music, piped through speakers, reaches the streets. We walk in the store where Christmas trees and miles of garland twinkle with lights. I am pretty sure we have arrived at the North Pole.

Gimbels 2We have been promised a train ride, and I’m disappointed because we have to first sit on Santa’s lap for pictures. The line of parents and squealing kids wraps around the cosmetic counter. Missi, who is two years old, sees Santa and starts wailing. My dad utters, “For Christ’s sake,” before disappearing into the crowd of shoppers; leaving my mom alone to tend to the three of us.

After we cajole Missi through a tearful introduction and photos with Santa, it’s off to the train! My dad mysteriously reappears and up a crowded escalator we go. Another line, but this time my dad stays with us. He loves trains and above our heads an engine the size of a sofa followed by four or five brightly painted tin cars jerks and sputters along a metal rail attached to the ceiling by giant bolts. This is an engineering feat, my dad tells us. Kids wave from the train cars. They look scared. My sisters and I are wearing matching Holiday dresses my mom sewed for us. I yank on my white tights. I hate anything confining on my body. Watching the train circling above me, I want to tear off all of my clothes and run out into the cold. I can’t get on the train. It makes no sense to me. Trains belong on the ground. The line is moving and soon my mom will let go of my hand so that my sisters and I can ascend a set of white-washed, rickety stairs that will take me to my death. I pull on the cuff of my mom’s coat. She bends down and straightens the collar on my dress. “What is it?” she asks.

I point to the train. “I can’t go on that,” I say.

She is smiling. “Of course you can,” she says. “You’re a big girl.”

She gives me a little push toward the stairs. I am now in charge of my sisters. I look behind me. My parents are waving. Climbing the stairs brings me closer to the ceiling. I tug again on my tights. It’s very hot and I bite my lip to keep from screaming. You’re a big girl, I think as a lady in a white sweater ushers us into one of the little train cars. You’re a big girl, I reason as the car jerks and I hit my head against the icy tin. My sisters are looking at me. They will cry if I cry, and my parents will blame me for ruining Christmas. You’re a big girl. You’re a big girl. You’re a big girl, I tell myself until it’s over. Family Photo 2

Nearly fifty years have passed since that awful day, and yet I can still smell my mom’s perfume and see my reflection in my dad’s horned-rimmed glasses. It was the early 70’s. A scary time for people like my parents wedged between the moral codes of the fifties and those of a new generation. We were at war in Viet Nam, the summer of love at Woodstock was still fresh in people’s minds, and bands like the Rolling Stones and The Who were rallying young people to do unthinkable things. It would have been easy for my parents to tuck their little family away someplace safe until things cooled down, but instead we were encouraged to be a part of the world rather than hidden from it. We are living in scary times now, and part of me wanted to shut the doors on Christmas this year. Between the political rhetoric, the devastating wildfires in California, and my beloved border torn asunder, it just seemed easier to pull the curtains and turn off the lights.

But then there is Ron’s granddaughter, Ada; a little beam of light who is looking to us to make her world magical this Christmas. Tuesday she and I are baking cookies. I bought all the glitter and sprinkles I could find. We’ll drink hot chocolate and dance to Christmas carols. I can’t think of anything that would bring me more joy right now.

Many of us have a scary train memory that creeps up during the Holidays. If you’re feeling a bit blue right now, you may borrow my mantra, “You’re a big girl”, while you search for that special thing that brings you joy this Holiday Season.

Gimbels