Once, a boyfriend and I were drinking spiked egg nog and sitting on the couch in his seedy apartment, surrounded by the trappings of our small, personal Christmas Eve gift exchange. I was planning to go home later in the evening and spend Christmas Day proper with my parents, and, since neither of us believed in Santa anymore, although I was wearing a smashing Mrs. Claus number from Frederick’s of Hollywood that he’d just given me, we saw nothing wrong with doing the gifts on Christmas Eve rather than pushing in on my family celebration for the morning.
His arm around me while we watched a burning log on a channel he’d found on the television, this boyfriend asked me, “What’s your favorite Christmas memory?”
My favorite Christmas memory. I was four years old and we lived in our second doublewide and, being a runt and not even considering myself worthy of a bed but dimly aware that it was too near a waste of money to buy child-sized things, as we would just outgrow them and render the gesture useless, I still slept in a crib. It was the year Strawberry Shortcake was first really huge, and I used to beg my parents to rent a VCR so we could watch Strawberry Shortcake tapes.
We went to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. It was the first time I’d ever been to Midnight Mass and been awake for it. All the lights were off in the church and we each carried a candle with a little cardboard-paper holder to protect our hands from the wax. I cradled mine in front of me and tried to guard the flame from my breathing — you know how kids breathe hotter and harder than adults, like they take in bigger gulps of the world, like we give up more on wanting a part of it all the older we grow, until at the end we can only reluctantly take in these thin little sips that don’t even stir the air. I shifted from foot to foot and spun my head around to get the best view of Our Lady Star of the Sea, looming and receding, so deliciously unfamiliar and creepy, in the flickering shadows thrown up by the candlelight, as the cantor sang the lineage of Christ.
At the final lines, “And thus, all things being right in the universe (or something like that) … Jesus Christ is born,” and the lights all came up at once and a tympani rolled and trumpets began as the choir started singing “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” and it blew my mind.
On the ride home, the defrost on the Honda we had didn’t work anymore, and my dad had his window down and kept leaning out and wiping the windshield. In the backseat, the dew on the windows refracted the orange sodium vapor lights and I could see myself reflected in the window, suffused with the glow of dancing lights as we passed under them.
It was a pretty decent trailer court (one of those ones that says it is a Mobile Home Park) and a lot of people had gone all out on decorations. Because I was only four, I hadn’t been out and about seeing the lights at night in the weeks prior, so it was new to me. Everything looked unearthly, serene and intended and transformed, and the air that came through my father’s rolled-down window was humid because our town was surrounded by bogs but frosty, too, like sucking in freezer air, or the blowback of your breath against a tray of ice cubes. It was bracing and beautiful in that way that only very cold things can be.
When we got home, I went to my room to put on my pyjamas and there was a bed in my room. It had an actual headboard, which my parents’ bed and certainly the hide-a-bed in the couch did not, and turned-back striped pink and green sheets and a Strawberry Shortcake quilt. There was a red heart-shaped decorative pillow on top of my regular pillow, edged with cotton eyelet lace. Propped against the heart pillow sat a Strawberry Shortcake doll, and I could tell she was one of the new ones that had strawberry-scented breath. The doll was the part that startled me the most, because it grounded the experience: this was something I’d seen on the television and not even dared ask for. This room could not be mine.
I stood in the doorway gaping. I remember I had to pee and was freaked out that this beautiful bed was in the middle of my room, where my crib should be. My first reaction was anxiety. I felt like I shouldn’t be there, or that someone was going to take it away. My father came in and threw me on the bed, so I bounced, and my mother took pictures of me holding the pillow and the doll.
After I’d changed and gotten ready for bed, and climbed in it for the first time, my mother came and sat by me and told me how my father got the pieces for the frame and my grandfather and uncle had put the bed together while we were at Mass. My aunt had bought the doll, my mother made the heart pillow, and my grandmother sewed the quilt. Money was very tight for my family at that time, and everyone had come together to make sure I got a big girl bed for the first Christmas I’d remember. While she described their plans, this feeling in my stomach shook looser and looser, and it got away from me and filled the room and I started crying.
My mother clucked over me and said I was tired, and stayed next to me with the light off until I made my breathing regular enough to convince her I was asleep and she left. I lay in the dark looking at the textured ceiling, trying to avoid the spots where in the dark it made shapes that scared me, and felt tears run backward down my cheeks and drip slowly in to my ears. It was like Christmas and the choir at Mass and the cold vastness of the empty town on the drive home, with the lights on and no one on the street, and yet the tiny little family with all their love filling up the inside of my room and our home — was all so big and simultaneous that I could only cry, not from being sad, but from being humbled.
I thought about all that when my boyfriend asked me my favorite Christmas memory, and got shy. “You go first,” I said.
He described how one Christmas, after they’d opened all their toys and were having breakfast and watching cartoons, his mother surprised them with another box full of toys for him and his sister.
I asked, “Do you think — was that maybe the first Christmas after your parents divorced?”
“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “That all runs together. It was just awesome when she brought in that box and I knew it was full of more toys. I got everything that year — G.I. Joes, the Castle Greyskull, like, seriously. Everything.”
I looked at him and he had these particularly garish colored lights strung up on his fake Christmas tree, the kind where the red is really pink, and he’d set them to blink, and at that moment he was lit by them in a way that made me not recognize him as he stared at the television. He seemed like a total alien, like someone with whom I’d never spent hours: a stranger the planes of whose face I had never memorized in the dark. And I never told him my memory.
It wasn’t his fault, and I railed against myself for it later and tried to pretend it hadn’t happened, but, in that exchange, this sharp divide fell down between us, for me, and I could never seem to want to get it back up. Maybe if I’d told him then about this disparity in our childhood memories, things would have been different, because it really wasn’t a big deal and might even, in the telling, have picked up some softer and selfless side, some deeper soul in him that I cheated out of revealing itself. I’ll never know, because I never told him about it.
Now, when I remember the Strawberry Shortcake bed, I remember, too, those decades later, sitting in self-imposed silence in my cheaply-ribboned red velvet and mirabou beside a stranger with a pink forehead and shadow-socketed eyes before a picture of a burning log, when I maybe missed the mark — or maybe ducked a knife — and I think again of the bigness of my family’s love and the smallness of the details of our lives, and am grateful more than ever before. And I still let tears roll into my ears sometimes, because of course they will all die, they have already begun, just as I will and have nearly, and all that I can do is cling to these passionate recollected moments, captured so clearly in my memory, and hold them close enough to keep my heart in its right shape, so then when I join them they’ll be able to recognize me.