I am 8 years old, or thereabouts. It’s Christmas Eve. My grandma and great-grandma have come to our house for a sleepover. I see them all the time–my grandmother lives next door, and great-grandma is a few miles away in town–but still, they are staying over tonight, so this is SPECIAL! My mom decides to make a Christmas Eve buffet of waffles, hashbrowns, sausage, eggnog, and other assorted breakfast things, and I get to run the waffle-maker, which makes me feel very grown up and important. I get to have a job! The Christmas tree has been up for a week or so, and there are lots of presents under it, many of them for me. I get to open one before bedtime; I can choose which one I want, but my mom will steer me toward the one holding a new nightgown. She has put it inside an old cereal box and then wrapped it, because you just can’t make good corners when wrapping a nightgown unboxed. Even this young, I do understand that it is poor form to pick the biggest present, though that is the one I want most to see. Whatever that is, it will wait until Christmas morning, and will be the very last one I open. Of course, the Christmas Eve present-opening is a Faustian bargain, because once I open it, it will be bedtime. I know this, but my sister is only 4, so she doesn’t understand why I am delaying what she thinks is the best part. I want to stay up with the grown-ups and see what magical things they do after we go to bed! I also am pretty clear on the non-existence of Santa, but Sissy doesn’t know that either, so we pretend.
My dad is in one of his rare happy moods. Even he has caught the Christmas spirit. Maybe it’s the rum in the eggnog. He keeps sneaking out to the woodshop for something, but is really good about making sure we don’t know what, and that we don’t follow him.
Eventually I am unable to delay the present/bedtime thing anymore. I don’t want the happy night to get ugly with a bedtime fight, and I know I have pushed it to the edge of that. We settle in the living room to pick our one present each. I pick the square, cereal-box-shaped gift that my mom promises will be the best one–after all, it has a pretty bow, and most of the others don’t! Holy cow, new pajamas! Sissy and I have matching ones! Flannel with little pink flowers on them, and ruffles down the front. What a surprise! Of course, I wasn’t surprised, but they are warm and pretty, so I put them on, and grandma takes us up to bed. Sissy and I are sharing a bed tonight, so the grandmas can have her room, and it’s all warm and cozy laying there together whispering about what we think we will get under the tree. There is just no bond that is the same as that with a sibling, and we are busily forging that tonight.
Just before we are about to doze off finally, I hear it–bells! Really, bells, like on my uncle’s sleigh! And some noise from the roof of the house! Some deep male voice yells “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas, girls!” My gosh, it’s Santa! I want to get up and go look outside, but I am afraid he will leave if I do. I snuggle down under the quilts with my sissy, who is just glowing with the knowledge that Santa really did come here. He knew how to find us, even though we live out in the middle of nowhere, and our chimney goes to a woodstove, not a fireplace. (In the morning, I’ll notice the ladder against the house by our bedroom window and dad-sized footprints in the snow, and that the sleighbells from my dad’s shop are in the kitchen, rather than hanging over the shop door like usual, but for now, I am convinced again about magical elves from the North Pole.)
The next thing I know, it’s Christmas morning. It’s still dark, but I know it in my heart that it’s Christmas. I wake up Sissy and we sneak downstairs. There is a big new lump in the kitchen, covered by a bedsheet, and Christmas stockings–the ones grandma knitted for all of us–have appeared on the couch and chairs in the living room. There is one for each of us, and they stand up because of the orange in the toe, and the candy and goodies packed in each one. We go back upstairs and into where my grandmas are sleeping, and climb in bed with them and try to convince them it’s time to get up. My grandma says she won’t get up until she smells coffee, but my great-grandma says, “Phyllis, you know those girls can’t wait any longer! It’s Christmas! Girls, go wake your parents–tell them I said it’s time to get up.”
Backed by the authority of the matriarch, we go downstairs and cajole the grown-ups out of bed. Mom and dad get the coffee going, and grandma starts making muffins. For Christmas, it has to be the streusel-topped cinnamon muffins, and eggs and there’s even orange juice, which is a treat! I’m dying to see what’s under the bedsheet, but we keep being shooed away from the kitchen. After breakfast, my grandma insists on washing the dishes, while we jump around dying to get to the presents. It’s a running joke to the adults that she keeps finding things to do to hold up the gift-opening. “Ooops, I forgot my handcream,” she says, and runs to the kitchen. “Ooops, got to take my medication.” She’s killing us!
Finally–finally!–it’s time. We sit down to the gifts and take turns; one for mom, one for dad, one for Sissy, and so on. I have a new Barbie, and slippers, and several other things I was looking for, but I really want to see what’s in the kitchen. We tear through our gifts and then, it’s time. To the kitchen we go. My dad says this is a joint gift for us, and that we need to share it. We nod and say we agree. He grabs the edge of the sheet, and with all the drama he can muster, he whips it off like a waiter removing a table cloth from under the dishes. Revealed is a small table with two benches–our own little booth! It has hearts cut out of the backs, and has seats that are hinged to store things in. My dad, unbeknownst to us, has been working on this in his shop for the last several weeks, routing out the hearts, cutting the table so that it will be just the right height for two little kids, staining it a dark walnut and varnishing to a sheen. This is love, hewn in wood. For all the days I think he is mean, I still understand that he does love us. We ate our Christmas dinner in that booth, and sat in it doing homework, playing pretend, and just generally being children every day until I was too big to do so. It was our own special, kid-sized place, and I loved it.
The last time I saw it was several years ago when I had occasion to be in my hometown for a wedding. After we grew up, my mom gave the booth away to the little cafe in town, where it serves as a kids’ area in the back. Another 20 years of children have sat in it and colored and felt like it was their own special little place away from the grown-ups. Since I don’t have kids to pass it on to, and live halfway across the country now, I guess that’s a good place for it, and I hope they keep it forever. My flawed, unhappy father’s act of love gets to live on. A good legacy.