Christmas Eve stretched into twenty four thousand hours when I was a young child. My pudgy fingers gummed pink with candy cane slobber stuck together like webbed things. Such resin stopped hands, especially those on clocks.
Instead of staring at the face chiming the quarter hours in the dining room, my father lead us to the kitchen table. The TV sat silent with nothing on anyway in the late Cretaceous Period of my youth when only three crackly channels landed at our house, lonely, spaced on the round analog dial, not one touching the other, 7, 9 & 13.
In Dad’s hands stacked the colorful and worn boxes of board games. Mystery Mansion, Clue, Parcheesi, Monopoly, Pictionary, Trivial Pursuit. We would play away the late morning and early afternoon when the weather was soft, a precipitate brown holiday, no diamond sharp snows sparkling to sled upon. Those interminable hours of Christmas Eve before dinner defied the laws of planetary motion. Elliptical orbits stalled and the spin of the earth seized up like an old truck’s engine in the depth of winter.
My sister, my father and I would sit and roll and spin and deal and move our chattel pieces about the sticker covered cardboard. We would argue and laugh, exalt in victory, pout in defeat, or cast accusations of cheating (long before hanging chads, hacked e-mails, vacant Supreme Court seats, Fakebook news or Wikileaks). After crossed arm protests and bird perch lips, we would usually return to the table to play again. We would switch to Chutes and Ladders, a skill-less game, so that I might win if the spinner was not rigged.
My mother would make intermittent, harried passes of our table. When I would notice the contrail and wind rush on the back of my neck from her low altitude holiday flight, I would turn and beg her to play. She most usually declined and made barricade in her bedroom. At five-years-old I thought she just did not enjoy fun, but in time I discovered my parents’ joint subterfuge. My father’s distraction allowed my mother to abscond from sight to wrap the presents that would appear under the tree in twelve loooong hours.
If the lull of Atlantic City real estate deals dropped our volume below a bellowing we might have heard the crackle of unwrinkled wrapping paper hugging the edges of our gifts, plastic teeth ripping tape, or the thump in the attic of presents reborn from the months long gestation where my mother stacked them since spring. Her countless trips to town squirreled gifts since forgotten that now appeared like homeless bricks.
Her festive fortress climbed around her in silver, gold and red that she labeled with a fine tipped Flair pen. Only occasionally did I unwrap a blouse meant for my sister on Christmas morning that clearly read “To: Brett” on the label. That child’s disappointment found denouement in the lasting gift that survived the decades, my mother’s laughter at realizing her gift-wrap-frenzied error.
By the time the supper pans met the pre-heat of the oven, the last winner would shut the lid on the final game. My sister and I fought over who must take on the mighty chore of walking the games down a whole flight of stairs to the game cabinet. We decided to split them and each carry a load, God forbid an uneven number of boxes and one child burdened with ten ounces more work. Oh, the forced labor camps of our youth!
We elbowed each other at the mouth of the cabinet rushing to solve the three dimensional puzzle of how these games might fit back inside, Christmas Eve Tetris before anyone ever thought of Nintendo. Behind my big sister I scrambled to fit the last game in the cabinet, but the door would not shut and the game tumbled out to the floor splaying dice and wooden discs across the carpet. I left it on top of the cabinet covered haphazardly by the green wool army blanket. I hoped Dad would not notice and make me reconfigure the entire precarious stack. No matter, the blanket slid to the floor the moment my back turned. In a last ditch effort I blamed my sister. I rested on the hope that her six more years would lose out to my cute rubicund cheeks when Dad ruled without benefit of witnessing the event first hand. After dinner when the four of us returned to the basement to watch Frosty the Snowman or the Grinch unsuccessfully stealing Christmas, Dad looked at me and pointed to the back of the room. I knelt in front of the cabinet working, such a shoddy cover up.
But my parent’s cover up, oh it worked to perfection. I had not seen a thing nor heard a sound. Each took their turn at my bedside pulling the blankets up to my chin, a kiss on the forehead to send me to sleep would not dissuade my plan to hear the magic bells at midnight on the roof or perhaps a hoof. I would lay vigilant all night, my ears pricked up instead of to the ground like they should have been.
Both my parents disassembled the solid wall built in their attic into armloads they muled down two flights of stairs to set them below the blue spruce in the basement. Once the Santa watcher fell asleep the gifts pooled in the shimmering gum drop light. My sister in on the caper, “slept” in her bedroom in the basement. They all played me for a dupe.
By the summer of six I announced that I no longer believed in Santa. I reasoned the roof pitch too steep, the flue too narrow, the world too wide for a billion surreptitious deliveries. My logic went down like strong black coffee. Hold the cream. No thanks on the sugar. I would taste the bitter bean of maturity unfiltered, unsweetened, unadulterated. Somebody hand me a cigarette and a scotch; I am a child no more.
But December 24th loomed again, an empty space between me and a present filled paradise, stretching forever like Nebraska to the horizon before reaching the snows of the Rockies, like Purgatory, like a drilled tooth. If only there were a way to speed up time.
“Hey, Dad, Aimee. Wanna play a game? Mom’s got some presents to wrap.”