I’ll never forget the commercials that ran around Christmas time with jingles and slogans that take me back to my parents’ living room, the thick carpet at my feet, and the blurred faces of my favorite stars growing just a tad clearer with each toggle of the rabbit ears. I was a kid in 1976, standing way too close to the television screen as Johnny Cash held a Lionel train, "The Big Train for Small Hands" and Kodak touted the new Instant Camera, "For a Good Look at the Times of Your Life". My Christmas lists were inspired by these commercials, and I was lucky enough to get most of things I asked for. Gifts like Magna Doodle, Stretch Armstrong, and Connect Four were a far cry from the peppermint ribbons and pencil sets my parents used to get in their stockings as kids.
But Christmas morning came and went that year, and I found myself sulking over the fact that I was surely the only kid in my class who, at this very moment, wasn’t beating their little brother or sister in a game of PONG by the light of a TV screen. Instead, our television crackled with the sound of an artificial Yule Log, as my mom put me to work collecting all the crumpled wrapping paper that lay scattered about the room. Nevertheless, I held out hope that perhaps that night when we visited my grandparents’ home in Glassport, there’d be an extra special gift by the tree just for me.
Christmas at Penny and Rose’s was set in their basement, with garland dangling from the ceiling, decorations scattered and taped here and there, a few exposed lightbulbs guiding our gift giving, and Penny’s classic train set winding its way around the pool table. The family Penny and Rose started in 1938 had since grown fourfold, and the basement was the only space in the house that could accommodate all nine grandchildren in a single row, perched atop a bench for the much needed holiday photo.
The presents were stacked on a workbench behind us, all wrapped in identical paper, but varying in size. Before we were told to turn our backs, I had spied a good sized square box and thought certainly that was it, the present I had been dreaming about for months. I could barely contain my excitement as one by one each child was handed a present. The rule was that not a single gift was opened until every last one of us had a gift in hand. I looked around with empty hands. Everyone had a gift but me and Lisa. The excitement was near explosion at this point when...
“Alright” Rose cooed, “last but not least,” and handed me what looked like a shirt box. My eyes shot to Lisa who, without my knowledge, had received a box so large she could barely wrap her arms around it. I frantically searched the “shirt” box for a name. This couldn’t be my gift; there had been some sort of a mix up! But before I could find the name, Lisa was already tearing at her paper, as were my siblings and my other cousins. I waited, half in shock, half curious to see the look on Lisa’s face when she accidentally opened my Atari game console. She’d know right away it was for me, and we’d put all this nonsense behind us. But Lisa held her gift up with a huge smile, posing for her father’s camera. She had gotten an Easy Bake Oven. I was frozen, flabbergasted.
“Well, go on and open it,” a voice urged from behind me. Drawn from my daze, I began to slowly unwrap the box knowing full well my Christmas wish would not come true this year.
“Gee, thanks,” I whimpered, gripping yet another Magna Doodle in my hands like it was the front page of my dad’s morning newspaper.
“We’ve got the receipt,” my mom said, as she and Rose laughed over the mix-up. Did they not see how grave a mistake this was? I lazily retreated to the sofa, where my father sat cranking the lever of his new Kodak. He placed the photo on the table and within seconds a color image of me and my cousins appeared. I was met face to face with my ungrateful frown, bold and brazen among the other smiling faces, while everything good about Christmas in my grandparents’ basement danced about in pure merriment. It was in this moment, I knew I had to make the decision for myself. I could sit sulking for the rest of the evening, or I could pick up an empty tube of wrapping paper and challenge my cousins to the ultimate sword fight.
“En guard!” I cried and the battlefield was set.
It wasn’t long before the smell of coffee grounds from Penny’s train display was swept away by Rose’s new Emeraude perfume and the tearing of wrapping paper was bowled over by laughter and “Auld lang syne”. The large box of Queen Anne chocolates and tins full of apricot and poppy seed cookies were brought downstairs as we sucked on peppermint ribbon candy, our fingers growing stickier by the second. Once our bellies were bursting with sweets, Penny would make the rounds for one last gift, an intricately crafted piece, made from wood, and perfectly engineered in the palm of his hand. Each year brought some new masterpiece and each grandkid received their very own. This year’s gift was a 3-level Mississippi River Steamboat, painted white with a bright red paddle wheel and a toothpick sized flag pole that proudly waved the stars and stripes. Though my toys received the most attention through the years, it’s these handmade gifts from Penny I now treasure most.
Just as the evening was winding down, and the cookie tins were dusted with nothing but crumbs, my mother made an announcement:
“We have two more gifts!” she sang, and once again, my stomach lifted. This would be my 'Christmas Story', and PONG being the Red Ryder BB Gun Ralphie tucked silently beside the Christmas tree. They had gotten it for me afterall!
But instead of a large game console wrapped in red and green, she revealed two robes, one red and one blue, and hung them proudly from an overhead pipe. From the front, they looked like your average robes, but once she had everyone’s attention, she flipped them around to reveal 40 $20 bills on each robe and two hand-drawn pictures: on Rose’s robe, the farmhouse, and on Penny’s robe, the barn. Though they could certainly use a new mattress on their bed upstairs or a better toilet in the basement, we all knew they would put every last bill toward the farmhouse on Butternut Road. My grandparents were all smiles, as they gazed at one another from opposite sides of a wooden support beam, looking like young lovers who had just etched their initials into a tree trunk. Though snow lay heavy on the streets outside and summer was still months away, the farm was alive in their eyes. I too gazed upon them in awe, not because of their love for one another, but because they were now rich! I counted to two-hundred before I lost track and got lost in all the plans Penny had for the money. He’d extend the dock and build a bridge, maybe build a new car for the race track, and of course, make sure the fireworks that 4th of July were bigger and better than ever.
When most of us kids were already in our pajamas and the cars packed up with new gadgets, toys, and books, I managed to swipe one more ribbon of peppermint candy for the road and the Magna Doodle my grandparents had gifted me, the receipt now taped to its box. We said our “good-byes” and ran to the car, our teeth chattering in the icy cold. The radio played the last of the Christmas songs, and though the same songs had been played a million times since Thanksgiving, we soaked in every note, knowing we’d have to wait a full year to hear them once again. When we got home, I tucked the Magna Doodle under my bed for safekeeping and placed the Mississippi Steamboat on my shelf next to a piggy bank full of pennies.
Before lights out, my mother came into my room to say goodnight. She smiled as I read aloud from Frog and Toad and kissed me gently on the forehead.
“What did you do with the Magna Doodle Gram and Grandpa gave you?” she asked. “I’ll return it to the store this week. You can pick something out with the money.”
“It’s under my bed,” I said. “It’s for the farm.”
She looked at me with confusion. “Oh? But you can just take the one you opened this morning.”
“I want to give it to a foster kid,” I explained. “There’ll be a kid there this summer, right?”
She touched my shoulder and kissed me one more time. “Yes, sweetheart, I’m sure there will be.” I felt the darkness blanket me as my mom closed my bedroom door, tucking me in for a long winter’s nap.
When I woke, the year was 2018. I was a father, telling my daughter not to hold the iPad so close to her face as she watched a video on YouTube. Her Christmas list is inspired by these videos and the channels of her favorite YouTube stars. Gifts like a robotic tiger, a fidget spinner, and some egg thing called Hatchimals are a far cry from the Connect Four and Stretch Armstrong I received on Christmas Day. Our artificial Christmas tree stands in the corner of the room as a Blue Spruce candle burns and fills the room with Christmases past. It’s just easier this way. The scent drifts toward the bookshelves, which hold mostly framed photos, and the miniature wooden toys my grandfather used to make each of his grandchildren every year for Christmas. The Mississippi Steamboat sits front and center.
“Have you ever had a peppermint ribbon?” I ask my daughter, my eyes still fixated on the Mississippi Steamboat. Her eyes, too, remain fixated on her screen, but she responds,
“Like a candy cane?”
“No,” I laugh. “Much better than a candy cane.” I open my phone to a Google search and type in “peppermint candy ribbons”. Four ounces for seven bucks. Sold. They’ll arrive in 2-4 business days.
I look over to my daughter, still too close to the screen of her iPad, but this time, I don’t say a thing. When the candy arrives in a few days, I’ll watch her fingers grow stickier by the second as she rattles off her Christmas wishlist to me for the hundredth time. Maybe then I’ll tell her about my holidays with Penny and Rose, the basement in Glassport, and the row of miniature wooden toys that sit inside our bookshelf.
Holidays with Penny & Rose - Glassport, PA