When I was about 9 years old, I desperately wanted a bike for Christmas. I had been riding for a few years but had never had a new one, just a blue banana-seated hand-me-down from my sister.
I loved the freedom that the bike represented. When I hopped on it, the day was suddenly full of possibility. I may at that point only have been allowed to ride to the end of our block–but that was enough, I could see how much bigger the world was, even from there.
My older brother wanted a bike for Christmas too. For months I daydreamed about all of the places we would go together, all of the adventures we would have. I was sure that life would change when we got our bikes; they would bring such independence– things would be different.
That Christmas Eve I got little to no sleep. I hadn’t believed in Santa for years so I wasn’t fantasizing about reindeer or chimneys or magic. I was just really concerned. I had looked everywhere around our house where a bike could be stored and I hadn’t found anything. I started to go over the past several months in my head. Had I emphasized my desire for a bike enough? What if my parents had decided that a new bike was too expensive?
My only comfort that night was the ease, joy, and excitement of my siblings. As was our tradition on Christmas Eve, we were all sleeping in the same room. Since I can remember and now, I’ve possessed the often tiresome ability to carry on anxiety filled dialogues in my head while simultaneously participating in quite emotionally different conversations with actual human beings. We stayed up late and laughed till our bellies hurt. I was the last to fall asleep; I looked over everyone else and called out their names softly to make sure. I was alone again with my thoughts, eagerly anticipating Christmas morning.
We woke up and all went downstairs together–like always. We ran to the family room, all of us were so eager. I’m not sure anything can match a kid’s excitement on Christmas morning; there is some sort of magic in that scurry towards the tree.
I took it all in at once, the whole scene. The tree was lit up and more splendid than ever, undoubtedly bolstered by the mountain of presents underneath. My eyes scanned the whole room–every corner. No bike. My heart sank.
Everyone else gathered around the tree and plopped down in front of it. I remember my Mom calling me over to my pile. My Mom was the best at organizing gifts under the tree–to this day I can recall her perfection in that. Our trees nowadays look like a dump-truck unloaded and left-but not my Mom’s; everyone had their perfect piles of gifts laid up against the next persons–things were separate but absolutely cohesive.
I reluctantly sat down and took my position in front of my pile. Once my Mom gave the go-ahead everyone began ripping into their gifts. Once again she had to prompt me to get started. All eagerness had left my body. If I wasn’t getting my bike, I didn’t care about anything else.
I’ve never been one who’s been able to hide my feelings. Right around this same age I received a gift from one of my uncles–a bright purple dress with flowers on it. My whole extended family watched me lift it out of the box–they were oohing and aahing. My mom had to rush me out of the room quickly before I burst into tears. Who the hell wanted a dress?!
I remember opening a bunch of gifts–the only item I can remember now was a brand new pack of markers. I remember them because they were the BOLD colors–admittedly, those were the best. The rest of my gifts were blurred by my disappointment; I sat there sulking, determined to be depressed the rest of the day.
After everyone was finished opening their presents, my mom threw us some garbage bags to collect all the wrapping paper. She then asked my brother and I to come to the basement to help her with something. I begrudgingly followed him, angered that I now on top of everything else had to do chores on Christmas.
I slunk down the stairs and turned the corner to see my Mom beaming. There she stood in the middle of two bikes–a maroon Giant for my brother, and a black Schwinn with hot pink lettering for me. It was the most beautiful bike I had ever seen.
I leapt down the remaining stairs and into my mom’s arms; I was ecstatic and grateful. I was also sick to my stomach. After we took the bikes for a quick spin around our tiny basement (inhibited by several inches of snow outside) we returned to the rest of our family upstairs. My mom started to get breakfast together.
I laid around on the brown shag carpet in our family room with the rest of my siblings as they admired their gifts and some Christmas movie played in the background. I wanted to be happy, I had gotten everything I wanted. Instead, my feelings were mixed up in shame. I eyed my pile of presents but was reluctant to touch any of them, I felt undeserving.
Scrooge must have been what was playing in the VCR because all I could think was Tiny Tim would have been grateful for all of these gifts, he wouldn’t have acted like a jerk if he didn’t get a bike. Then I reasoned with myself that Tiny Tim could not have ridden a bike so it really wasn’t a fair comparison. I went back and forth in my head. Even with all the joy around me, I couldn’t escape feeling ashamed about how I had acted.
I fully expected my mom to eventually say something to me; I figured she’d have me spell out to her the lesson I had learned. She didn’t. Instead she let me enjoy the day. I remember her asking me at one point, “Do you like the bike punkin?” “I love it Mama,” I replied to her with every bit of sincerity my 9 year old body could muster.
That night I was up late again, though this time in contemplation rather than anticipation. I stared up at my ceiling with wonder. It had been the best Christmas ever, but the bike I had gotten had nothing to do with it.
I had sat around the family room all day with my brothers and my sister and our dog, Dynamite. We watched movies and played with our new toys. Dynamite chewed her new rawhide. My Dad sat in his chair and smoked his pipe– exhausted after working the midnight shift in the ER. Every so often one of us would go sit on his lap; I would try to suck in the smoke he blew out of his pipe.
My mom was busy in the kitchen all day, but would sneak in when she could to sit with us or read a bit of one of the books we had gotten as gifts. From breakfast to dinner and all the Christmas cookies in between, everything I put in my mouth that day seemed like the best thing I had ever eaten.
I laid in my bed that night and felt like I finally (after 9 long years) understood the true meaning of Christmas. Looking back, I was never happier as a kid than when I was lying around on that brown shag carpet with the rest of my family. Each person contributed in their own way to my nostalgia for those moments.
My sister Julie was a great big sister. Even though I would often annoy her, she was almost always kind to me. She’d let me get up on her bed and she would tell me about her friends and other kids at school. I loved going to her basketball games because I would see people she had told me about and think yeah, I know ALL about YOU.
My older brother O.D. was someone I always wanted to emulate; he was so good at everything he did. He was smart, great at sports, and people really liked him. He played chess and he was still one of the cool kids. I was always so proud to tell someone that O.D. was my big brother.
Jonny, my little brother, always provided the comic relief. If I was ever sad he would make it his mission to make me laugh; he didn’t like to see anyone unhappy. I can remember sitting at our kitchen table pouting, and him trying to spread my mouth open with his fingers to reveal a smile. I always admired Jonny because he always marched to the beat of his own drum. He would wear crazy outfits everywhere, including church, and he would strut with the confidence of a supermodel. I would act embarrassed sometimes but really I was proud of him, and even envious. I wished I felt as free to be my authentic self as he did.
My Dad, by example, taught us that it was ok to laugh at our own jokes. He brought so much laughter into our home, both through storytelling and through his film selections. While my friends were glued to Nickelodeon, we were watching Bob Hope and Danny Kaye movies. When he would finally get home after those long shifts at the hospital, it meant so much to have him sitting in his chair. Even if he would fall asleep while we were watching a movie, I didn’t care. All I could think was Dad’s home, we’re all together, life is good.
Last is my Ma. As an adult, it is so clear to see that my Ma was always behind the scenes making everything happen. That was harder to understand as a kid; I don’t think I ever gave her the credit she deserved. My Ma was my greatest comfort. I’d often interrupt the little time she got to herself and sit next to her on the sofa or on her bed. She’d put down the book she was reading and tickle my arm and listen to whatever was on my mind. To this day that is how I most like to be comforted. My husband is still perfecting his tickling skills; nobody does it quite like my Ma.
So while I remember that Christmas when I was 9 as the “Christmas with the bike”, that Schwinn is probably the least significant part of that memory. Instead I remember staring up at my ceiling from my bed that night and thinking, I have the best family in the whole wide world.
In the couple weeks before this Christmas, I started to scramble and get worried about gifts. Was my brother going to like what I got him? Was what I got my sister, enough? Then I remembered the true meaning of Christmas; I thought of everything else I was bringing home to my family besides “stuff”.
Today I will be in the kitchen cooking for them from the early morning till we sit down to eat around 5; it’ll be my favorite meal I’ve cooked this year. They’ll hear my loud boisterous laugh all day because each one of them is hilarious in their own way, especially when we are all together. They’ll get banter back and forth over what’s going on in the world or about what’s wrong with our favorite sports teams. They’ll get punchlines up the wazoo cause I happen to specialize in perfectly timed sideline commentary.
Most of all, they’ll get my love. We don’t have the brown shag carpet anymore but I hope that feeling is still there. I hope each member of my family will sit around that living room, or on the counter on Facetime, and know that they are one of my favorite people in the world. My Christmas would not be the same without them. My life would not be the same without them.
I’ll leave you now with a few snaps of the little munchkin who has recently made our holidays a thousand times more special. Seeing her excitement and joy on Christmas morning is what I’ve waited for all year long. She’s brought the magic back into Christmas.
I also leave you with my very favorite Christmas song. My brother O.D. will say that the Little Drummer Boy is the best of all time. He is wrong. Let your heart be light.
Merry Christmas all. x