Once upon a time, there was an unbelievably brave little girl living way out West, where the plains roll up to meet the mountains. She was in need of a family with a cat, and we were in need of a girl. We packed her stuff into eight duffle bags, boarded a plane, and hauled her and seven Barbie dolls to our house and our cat in Maryland.
“Seven Barbie dolls?” The Veterinarian asked me. “I thought she was an orphan.”
“Remember all those years we bought Toys for Tots? Well, she was a Tot.”
The first Christmas that he and I were dating, in 1969, he gave me a bottle of Robitussin cough syrup, because I was recovering from what would become my annual bout of bronchitis. His mother made him give me a box of stationery with a Gemini zodiac sign, because his birthday was June 3, and mine is June 4. I gave him a tie. Three years later, I married him anyway. We were married 30 years before he ever figured out appropriate gifts. 30. Long. Years. He’s gone, but I still have the tie…and maybe the box of stationery.
The Daughter was our first (and only) child, arriving as an 8-year old, when we were 47. We always thought we were missing the joys of Christmas with children, hence the toy donations. Oh, we put up a tree and stockings and our nativity display for ourselves, but a little bit of sparkle and wonder was missing.
Having been raised in a dysfunctional household before she entered child protective services, The Daughter had experienced holidays in a haphazard way. She didn’t understand birthdays, experiencing her first at age 7, when she entered foster care. That first Christmas with her, we went absolutely crazy decorating and buying gifts. My Sister embroidered her a stocking with silvery threads. My Mother made her a fleecy robe decorated with teddy bears and a pillow to match.
I broke my rule about cookie-baking and made —ugh— gingerbread men with her, but I refused to make a gingerbread house. I hung her construction paper ornaments on the tree and wracked my brain for “Secret Santa” gifts for her classmates, who thought she was crazy for believing in Santa.
At eight years of age, The Daughter had never been to see Santa. A friend invited us to a breakfast with Santa at her church, so that we could explain to Santa in advance why an eight-year old child wanted to sit on his lap along with the tiny tots.
“What do I say to Santa?” she asked.
“Well,” I told her what my parents always told me. “You can ask for one or two things, but you have to finish with ‘Please bring me whatever you think I should have.’”
Instead, she patted his beard and engaged him in a long chat about the reindeer, where they were staying while he was inside, what they were eating, how long it took him to go around the world (“Well, just 24 hours, of course!”), all those things that a four-year old wouldn’t think to ask.
“Don’t you want Santa to bring you something?” he asked her.
“Oh…” she thought for a minute, “…a scooter. I’d really like to have a scooter.”
“No,” she shook her head, “a scooter would be good.”
At church on Christmas Eve, she participated in the pageant and sang with the Children’s Choir in her sweet little velvet dress and patent leather shoes.
So, what did Santa bring besides a scooter? The seven Barbies needed a deluxe mansion and a red Porsche Boxster like Mommy’s “Barbie” car. Stuart Little showed up in a radio-controlled roadster. An American Girl with The Daughter’s identical haircut, eye color, and wire-rimmed glasses came to stay. There were books and a science kit with microscope and Legos. It all went under the tree or in a stocking after she went to bed on Christmas Eve. I dressed her in winter pajamas, red with white polar bears, her favorite, so she’d be camera-ready in the morning.
Can you tell that we were excited?
The Veterinarian ate the cookies and milk she’d left for Santa and set the alarm for 5am, so he could set up the video camera at just the right angle. I wanted to make sure the hot cocoa was ready. My Mother and Sister were on speed-dial to run over at just the right moment. We just knew she’d be up before dawn, and none of us wanted to miss our first Christmas with a child in the house.
When the alarm sounded at 5, we jumped out of bed. It was dark and really cold. He lit the fire, and I started the cocoa. We’d beat her. Perfect! We sat down and listened for her little footsteps to hit the floor. And we waited. And waited. For two hours, we waited. We called her name upstairs, but she didn’t stir. I tiptoed up and saw her snoring away under her cozy quilts with her beloved cat on her pillow. I tiptoed back down.
“What do we do now?” he whispered. “I need to get into the clinic to do treatments.”
Finally, at 8, he woke her.
“Santa’s been here!” He told her. She crankily told him to go away.
“Don’t you want to see what Santa brought for you?”
“What?” She squinted at him, uncomprehending.
“It’s Christmas! Santa’s been here and left you something.”
“What do you mean?”
“Gifts.” He was getting exasperated. “Santa brought you gifts.”
She groaned and flopped back on the pillows. We were frantic in our own excitement.
“Get up,” he ordered and threw off the covers. “Let’s go see what’s under the tree.” She was not happy, but she slid out of bed. He brought her downstairs and stood her behind the closed door into the living room.
“Wait here. I’ll tell you when to open the door.” This was no holly-jolly start to Christmas. “And don’t go back upstairs.” We heard her sigh in the way that meant she was about to turn into Linda Blair in “The Exorcist.” He fumbled with the video camera.
“Hurry up!” I hissed. “We’re losing her.” I stood beside the tree with my digital camera.
“Ok, you can open the door.”
Her little face appeared, and she said, “What?”
“Look at the Christmas tree.” She took two steps in and stopped. The room, which is 18’ x 12’, had a 10’ tree in front of the window, so the mounds of presents radiated 4’ out from the base in all directions. [And that’s all the math I can do today.] She looked puzzled.
“Santa brought you presents!” I exclaimed.
“What?” She repeated.
“These are for you.”
“For me?” She approached the tree and knelt in front of the American Girl.
And then it hit us. She didn’t need the Barbie Deluxe Dream House
because she had a real house. Her dreams had already come true when she was adopted by a family with a cat. That’s all she ever wanted.
“These are mine?” A smile started to spread across her face.
“Yes,” I started to cry.
“Really? For me?” She reached out tentatively and picked up the doll that, unintentionally, had her face.
And that was our last peaceful Christmas. A year later, she still wanted to
visit Santa, so, at age 9, we took her to the mall at 8:30 at night, when few people were around. Surprisingly, lots of tween and teenaged girls were having their photos made with Santa, so it wasn’t nearly as strange as we thought. Who wants to give up the wonder of Christmas at any age?
Like many American children, a Christmas of plenty became the norm for several years but not for long enough. Inevitably, instead of singing in the Christmas pageant at 5 pm on Christmas Eve, she served in other ways, on the altar at the 11 pm service as a teenager, and this year, she is concerned about buying just the right gifts for us. A critical care nurse, she will work on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day from 3 pm to 11 pm. From being cared for, she cares for others.
So, who am I to complain? Life is good (mostly). Soli Deo Gloria!