A Christmas Carol of my Own
I was eleven. A bit older than my granddaughter Salo is now.
We’d just moved back to Miami from Charlotte, a city I’d loved, a school I’d loved, and the only house I’d lived in since our move to the States (apartments having been our staple). The only place I’d ever had a room of my own until I had my own apartment as a young adult.
I didn’t understand why we’d moved from Charlotte, we’d only been there for two years, but my step father (I always called him Pop) had been involved in an accident in North Carolina during the transition and evidently, had been hospitalized. All I knew was that he wasn’t with us in Miami, that my mother was doing the best she could with help from my stepfather’s sister, Mary, but that things weren’t quite right. I could get out of school whenever I wanted to by feigning the slightest illness, but more frequently, it was my mom who would find reasons for me to stay home. There was obviously something seriously wrong, but, at eleven, the obvious is not all that clear.
I was popular in school and popular in the neighborhood. Too popular with girls and I didn’t understand what that meant, only that Anita, not that attractive but loaded with comic books, and Roberta, cute, fought over me, and that I kind of liked Carol, who I knew from a previous school (I had seemed to change schools annually as long as I could remember). I recall that my brother Teddy and sister Marina seemed to have absolute faith in me (after all, what are older brothers for) and that all too frequently, when I returned from school, a fight would be waiting for me, arranged by my sister whom someone had aggrieved somehow, but which I could usually avoid through an inherent albeit only nascent sense of diplomacy. I loved being her hero and teddy’s too.
And of course, I remember that eventually, the seasons shifted and it was Christmas time. I’d kind of figured out there was no Santa but was in that interim where I also realized that if you didn’t believe, you didn’t receive, at least as much as you used to. But I had a younger sister and a much younger half-brother and I adored them both, and for them, Santa was bedrock.
We were barely able to eat regularly, a lot of hot dogs and beans as I recall, but that was fine. We had Anita’s comic books for which I paid with ambivalent kisses. I’d really much preferred Roberta; I wonder if she knew. But I was too young to realize just how grave our situation was. Only that Christmas was coming and coming fast, something I’d normally welcome, but not that year. And it seemed clear to me that while my stepdad was away and my mother not all that well, perhaps the time had come for me to grow up.
I wasn’t traumatized. I just had a problem that needed solving and, I don’t recall quite how, but I managed to scrounge up some gifts and perhaps even wrap them, I can’t recall now, Anita must have helped. I don’t even recall if we had a tree, it’s been well over half a century, a somewhat too eventful half century but that was my first big test. I do recall I’d hidden the gifts in a closet and that I needed to slip away on Christmas Eve to place them wherever Christmas gifts belonged in our little two bedroom, one bath apartment. But I was ready.
And then, …
The only real miracle I really recall. Night had already fallen when my stepfather walked through the door, with hugs and kisses and packages and incredible relief. I was still at an age when wherever he was, things were just fine, and I could become a kid again. He’d brought presents and food and reprieve for my mom. No Santa Claus ever did it better. I’d always loved him very much and he’d always treated my sister and me as his own. He’d made us his. And no father ever made a better entrance.
That was my very favorite Christmas. The ones I shared with my own children were always awesome, but in a very different way. They were calm and happy, and full of everything we could want. But this one was full of intangibles, nothings made of everything.
For a very long while I loved Christmas. It was my favorite time of year, not because of the snow (we’d eventually moved to New York) or the festivities and the presents but because it was a commemoration of someone who believed in peace and love and fairness, and who it seemed to me all the world idolized, even if his teachings were honored mainly in the breach. It was the season of peace, at least until I realized it really wasn’t, and then, it dawned on me that almost everything I’d been taught about religion and ethics and history was a lie. I’d become wiser and knowledgeable and very, very educated, but never quite as happy; at least until I became a father and my children became the only things that mattered.
Now my children are grown and I visit them in memories, but I also visit my siblings, and my stepfather, and my mom, now long gone, and I visit more innocent days, and write about them from a beautiful apartment on the tenth floor in the central range of the Colombian Andes, in the city of my birth, … but so, so far from home, which is where the heart is. And my heart has dwelt in way too many places.
I’ve been blessed and cursed and had an all too full life. I’m seemingly respected and admired, at least I think so. But, except with respect to my three sons, I’ve never quite had an instant as happy as the one when my Pop walked through that door.
© Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2017; all rights reserved