by Rainee Denham
In December, when my mother pulled out the aluminum silver Christmas tree, my little sister and I would jump up and down excitedly. Mom would add red satin balls that over time became frayed. I made it my job to trim them and smooth them down to make them new. When the tree was ready, she’d plug in the color-wheel that rotated from blue to green to red to yellow that projected on the tree. Our living room became a wonderland.
Behind the scenes, my single Mom worked a second job to buy gifts to make our Christmas bountiful. In the daytime, after she left her secretarial job in Downtown Chicago,she’d walk over to 16 W. Washington, where the Stop and Shop was located. Not to be confused with today’s discount Shop & Save;Stop & Shop was an upscale Dean and DeLuca’s of Chicago.Gourmet meats & cheeses, International crackers & cookies,and a huge chocolate counter in the center of the store. That’s where my beautiful Mom worked. The display was so immense, she was on an elevated platform and I saw for the first time how she belonged on a stage. Whether I came alone, or with my little sister, she’d make us feel special by “sneaking” us a chocolate.
Talking Casper was the highlight of one Christmas when I was a little girl. Casper had a pull string which would activate his cute little machine voice. His phrases were “I’m cold” “I’m a friendly ghost” “Boo” “I’m not afraid”“Don’t be afraid of me” and my favorite, “I like you”. He wore a white terrycloth ghost onesie, had a shiny plastic head, and there was a hard box in his chest. If Casper hit you (or your sister), he’d pack a wallop. I am only speculating on that.
My Mom brought home a beautiful box of chocolates one year for all of us to share. By the time I got to it(after my five other siblings) I discovered every single chocolate remaining in the box had a bite missing from its bottom. One of my sisters proudly boasted she had sampled them and only ate the ones she liked. She felt no holiday remorse. I know that ruined our relationship forever.
The first Christmas I was living on my own, my Mom sent me a box. She wrote a lovely card, “now that you are making a living in show business, you need festive berets to wear to parties.” My life was more about schlepping to make agency rounds or go to classes, but a beret is always cool. Unless it’s glittery and sparkly in which case it’s unwearable and goes to Salvation Army.
The first Christmas I owned a home, I received a huge box in the mail from Mom, who had retired in California. When opened, the box revealed an endless supply of crocheted Styrofoam balls. Dozens. Too many for one Christmas Tree. I didn’t want to feel this, but I thought they were tacky. And the amount of them was overwhelming. I gave most of them away and put the others on the back of the tree.
Around this time, I took over the holiday hosting for the family. Perfectly planned afternoons were punctuated by that weird relative who read a book under the tree while eating; the nieces who unknowingly riled up my dog that now was tearing their clothes; and ignoring the complaints from the sister,yes, that I couldn’t trust because she ate the bottoms of the chocolates that year.
When my son was born, I was so excited to create the holiday magic that I felt as a kid. Because of my business, I had access to actors who I enlisted to send 8×10 autographed head shots of themselves in full Santa glossiness every year. Then one would call my son on Christmas Day,having inside knowledge only Santa would know, “did you like the Nintendo set?” or “did you find my scarf?” Which he did because I had professional costume pieces left in the window, or under the fireplace. It was shameless parental deception that came back to haunt me when my son discovered there was no Santa and told me, “you have ruined my life”. Hopefully, he remembers that he got the cat he wanted one year. This was, after all, a sixteen-year gift.
Since loved ones & cats have passed, my son is grown, my sisters all live in other cities,Christmas has changed. Evolved. Thankfully, I have too. I don’t care anymore to create the Martha Stewart, Hallmark Card version of Christmas perfection. That is missing the point.
This year, I shopped for two young girls I don’t know. I was mindful to choose fun PJ’s and silly socks and bedtime books that had positive messages. I wrapped these things with care. I wanted them to feel special. Seen. Loved. The way my mother made me feel.
As I pull out my Christmas decorations, I lovingly admire my Mom’s crocheted Styrofoam Christmas balls; grateful I saved a couple of dozen. They now hang on the front of the tree, where they’ve always belonged.