How do we explain when memories of certain delightful gifts, years later, return to us as unexpected treasures?
Please bring me a pair of ice skates. I’ve been very very very good.
P.S. Please say hello to Mrs. Santa Claus.
I’m sure my parents had a chuckle over my note before my mother slipped it into the envelope I addressed to the North Pole.
I was 7 and in the full throes of idolizing any ice skater I’d seen on TV. I wanted to be one. Badly. Never mind that I hadn’t ever been out on the ice. Or that I didn’t even own a pair of skates. I just knew that ice skating was the most wonderful thing anyone could ever do, and I was going to make sure Santa knew that my career goal hinged on an immediate response to my wish.
To my delight, on Christmas Eve night, the time my family traditionally opened gifts, I discovered that Santa once again had come through. My brother, who was 11, got a Junior Chemistry Set. He immediately took it into the basement to begin playing with it. And I, in the true exuberant and self-centered fashion of a 7-year-old, wanted to try out my skates right away.
I grew up in a working-class section of Queens, the kind of New York City neighborhood where a back yard, if one was lucky enough to have one, usually consisted of a small patch of dirt converted into a vegetable garden and maybe a section covered with concrete that enabled the family car to be kept off the busy street. In the winter, any snowfall had to be enjoyed within hours: a quick snowball fight, a hurried construction of a snowman, before the concrete part had to be cleared so the car could get in or out.
There were no sleigh rides and icy ponds in my youth. New York City blizzards meant hours of shoveling snow from the driveway to the street, only to have snowplows push the piles back up off the curbs. And each pass of the elevated train in front of our house dumped a few more inches onto the sidewalk, requiring another pass with the shovels. Of course, within a few hours, that snow would turn a dirty gray. Within days, if it didn’t melt, it would be frozen under a black crust of exhaust fumes and factory smoke.
Not a very romantic scene for a young, dreamy, would-be ice skater. The nearest hope of a winter wonderland was RockefellerCenter or Central Park, 20 miles away by subway, and out of the question for a day trip when one’s father had to work the midnight-to-eight shift at the railroad yard and one’s mother worked in a sweatshop.
I whined that night, when I begged my parents to take me into Manhattan the next day to try my skills on the ice. I certainly had no clue that my yearnings were eating away at them. Dad wouldn’t have a day off for at least another week, and Mom was already working overtime.
I went to bed at 10 p.m., teary, tired, and angry at Santa for simultaneously giving me what I wanted and keeping me from enjoying it. After all, my brother was already having fun downstairs, mixing up all sorts of strange concoctions.
Dad and Mom kissed me goodnight, closed the door to my bedroom, and went into the kitchen, where they talked in quiet voices. My father then got dressed in his overalls, work boots and heavy coat an hour earlier than usual.
When I awoke that next morning, it took me a few moments to realize it was Christmas Day. Unlike my brother, who had gotten up early and was already down in the basement working on his next diabolical experiment, I had no interest in beginning this new day. I slowly got out of bed and went into the kitchen, rubbing my eyes that still felt a little sore from crying.
It was almost 8:30, and Dad would soon be pulling the car through the driveway, climbing the three back steps and opening the door to the kitchen.
“Did you sleep OK, cookie?” Mom asked as she got out the frying pan to make eggs. She was humming and grinning, and I resented her joy. How could she be happy when she knew I wasn’t?
“Yeah.” I plopped myself down at the breakfast table and rested my head in my hand.
“Daddy will be home soon,” she said. “Go and get dressed.”
“It’s Christmas. Just do what I tell you. Please?”
I was in pants and a T-shirt when I heard my father come through the front door. The front door? It was the first time I’d ever known him to return from work by that entrance.
“Hey! Put your coat on. And your skates, too,” he told me. “We’re going ice skating!”
I couldn’t believe what I heard him say. Central Park? Rockefeller Center? I didn’t ask any questions aloud, but raced to get my coat on. I had my skates in my hands.
“No, no. Put your skates on, too,” he said.
I thought he was crazy. How would I climb the steps to the elevated train in my skates? But I did as I was told.
He slowly guided a wobbly me to the back door. “Open the door,” he said. “I have a surprise for you.”
I flung it open. And there in the yard, a smooth, glistening sheet of ice covered the concrete area where the car would have been.
“Your own, personal ice skating rink,” Dad beamed.
“But what, I mean, how –– ? ” I stammered. I was delirious with joy.
He went down the three steps and then lifted me down and onto the ice. He walked gingerly next to me as I leaned on his arm and felt for the first time the silky sensation of ice beneath blades. After a few minutes, I was able to propel myself in a slow, jerky motion across the entire length of the ice. From the kitchen window, Mom looked down at me and grinned while Dad watched me proudly, his arms folded across his chest.
I enjoyed that ice over the course of the next week. As I got more adept and no longer had to look at my feet, I glanced around at my private rink. It was then that I saw the garden hose, wound up and hanging from the back wall of the house. So that’s how he did it, I thought. He left an hour early on Christmas Eve night and watered the concrete so that it would freeze by morning. And the car? It must have been parked out on the street.
The realization of what my father had done for me, of the creativity and effort of shifting the focus of my desire from improbability to reality, came as a second present, a second surprise. In the following days, as my dad watched me skate and wobble and fall and get up again, I knew that not even Santa could top him in the giving department.
It was forty years later that I got the chance to challenge his title.
“Dad, it’s me. Open the door.”
“Jeanette? Wait a minute.” I could hear the loud TV news suddenly lower and footsteps slowly approach the apartment door. I knew he’d be confused. I’d just dropped him off only a few hours earlier, after his Christmas Eve visit with me. It was now 10 p.m., about time for him to go to bed.
“Are you all right?” he said as he fumbled with the lock.
“Yeah. I’m fine. I’ve got something for you.”
Christmas 1997 was a particularly tough one for him, his first in North Carolina after many years of happy retirement in Florida with my mother. Mom had died of cancer two years earlier, and Dad’s health was deteriorating, so he, my brother, and I decided that he should live in Charlotte, in a retirement community not far from my home. He was working hard, I could tell, to adjust to this new place, make some friends, and go on with his life. But the holidays were bringing back poignant memories, and I realized that my efforts to cheer him up around my tree, in my surroundings, only magnified his loneliness and sense of displacement.
Dad opened the door. His mouth burst into a huge smile and his eyes grew brighter than I’d seen them in five years. “Wha ––, what’s this?” he stammered.
There I was, standing next to a lush, unadorned Christmas tree. The same one, in its stand but minus ornaments, that was set up at my place for the holidays.
“Merry Christmas, Pop.” I lifted the tree and placed it in the corner of the living room. “Wait, now. I’ve got to get the decorations from the car.”
When I returned with the boxes of ornaments, I saw him standing before the tree, his hands behind his back, his eyes drinking in the sight like a Norman Rockwell kid. And I knew I’d done the right thing.
He turned and looked at me, and in an instant I remembered the freshness of the air on that first day in my back yard rink, the sound of scraping blades, the shavings of ice that trailed from my feet, my squeals of joy, his pride.
“Jeanette? You need help? With those boxes, I mean.” Dad’s voice roused me from my memory. “Let me take some of those decorations,” he said. The muscular man in work overalls was replaced by the slightly stooped 80-year-old, whose blue eyes glistened with what looked like the beginnings of tears.
“You really put one over on your old man,” he said.
“Are you tired, Dad? You want to go to sleep?”
“Hell no! Let’s decorate this tree!”
Christmastime is a season of surprise. True, we may consciously plan to give certain gifts that can delight others, but how do we explain when memories of those same presents, years later, return to us as unexpected treasures?
I remembered vividly the joy of that Christmas surprise 40 years before, but what I learned from it emerged four decades later.
All it took was a shift of focus, as easy as opening a door.
Originally published in 'Tis the Season! The Gift of Holiday Memories, edited by Tom Peacock (Charlotte, NC: Novello Festival Press, 2001) pp. 62-66.