when pictures fail me…
I was born into the spirit of Christmas gift excess. The proof sits in family archives passed down to me, the oldest and the childless. It is in the meticulously organized photo albums, well-oiled time machines assembled by my mother, and in the sidecars of shoe boxes filled haphazardly with deckle-edged snapshots from colliding decades. It is in grainy home movies that soundlessly capture a time of patriotism and optimism, melding perfectly with giving gifts shiny and new and mass-produced, in an era when the concept of frenzied Black Friday mobs could only be fodder for science fiction.
The 8 mm movie camera is rolling in 1955 and I am two. I stand in the living room entrance, wide-eyed with confusion at the visual din of sparkling lights and sights: the camera, the tinsel garland and icicles, the rhinestone cardigan sweater clasps that stretch across the bosoms of my grandmothers and aunts. Mountains of gift-wrapped boxes will need to be conquered before I can climb into the laps and arms of my father and mother, shiny and young as movie stars. The pink flush of this new land of plenty will be backlighting for the first four years of my life.
In the spotlight cast by the camera’s aim, I toddle about, blinking in sleepy wonder and a little apprehension. What is all this stuff? And why? I pick up a little steam, careening from package to package, responding to festive bows and the “oohs” and “aahs” of my family. Our crèche (“manger scene” we called it; we didn’t speak French) was nearby, the Magi supervising the transition of frankincense, gold, and myrrh into a toy telephone, a rocking horse, a Betsy Wetsy.
Post-WWII dreamscapes were being scouted by young working class families like mine, staking their claims on the New Frontier and discovering in the process an exhilarating sense of perceived affluence: a prize in the Cracker Jack box of our middle income bracket. The innocent consumerism that blanketed tract housing in suburbia was like the first fresh snowfall of the season. We couldn’t see the avalanche approaching.
Fast forward to 1964. I am eleven, years past believing in Santa. My father is dead, and my mother has assumed the role of making sure my sister and I have plenty of gifts to open on Christmas day. She manages this on Social Security payments and layaway plans, but the stress of choosing what to buy her increasingly selective older daughter has forced my mother into simply asking me to make a list. A list! Carte blanche to pour out my material desires. I carefully consider my wants through the narrow prism of a self-centered and self-conscious pre-teen. At the top of the list I write: Beatles Album – “A Hard Day’s Night.”
And it continued, with ribbed “poor boy” sweaters and manicure sets, a Kodak Brownie camera and Ambush cologne. Desire and hormones were converging, and the list grew and grew. A few weeks before Christmas day I decided to nose around my mother’s closet, hoping to find evidence of granted wishes. High up on a shelf I saw it, flat and graphic, with my Liverpool heartthrobs’ faces teasing me a soundless “yeah, yeah, yeah!” My initial thrill that I would be playing this nonstop on our Magnavox stereo was soon eclipsed by a sense that I had ruined something in the tenuous weave of our family fabric. I no longer believed in Santa, or that any man could make me happy with material gifts. But I did believe in my mother’s sincere efforts to provide me with my heart’s desires.
The morning we opened our gifts, I acted surprised. But I was disturbed and ashamed of myself for reasons far more complicated than an eleven-year-old girl could fathom.
Years later I tell my mother: “Please, no gifts. I have everything.”
And I do.