I received a toaster for Christmas the year I was five. Like all small children, I’d been asked for several weeks what I wanted Santa to bring me. I was the youngest in my immediate family, and I seemed to have sprung from the womb thinking that I was as old as everyone around me, which led me to believe that I would be getting my own place any day. Instinctively, I seemed to know that I would need appliances of my own, and I had already realized that an investment of that magnitude couldn’t be achieved with my dollar-per-month allowance, which I earned by folding washcloths.
Therefore, I strategized that I would ask for an appliance or some other thing for the kitchen at each birthday or Christmas. This strategy paid off a few years later when I got my waffle iron, and later when I received pieces of anodized aluminum cookware.
The toaster, however, was my first appliance. When thinking back on the adult reactions at the time, my wish must’ve reinforced the perception that I was a weird little kid. “A toaster?” laughed Grandma Brown. “I’ve never heard that one. He must want toast!” She looked at my mother as if she was somehow to blame.
Instinctively, I knew not to elaborate on the real reasons I wanted the toaster. I also knew that I needed to counterbalance my adult request with something a kid would want. My cousin Brant is a year older, and he was always doing such wonderful things like crossing the street by himself or tying his shoes without help. I admired his abilities and realized that with each new thing he had learned to do that I could do them, too. My mother never told me to wait a year to cross the street alone as long as I looked both ways, and learning to tie my shoes meant that she wouldn’t have to do it any longer. Brant also had this wonderful toy in his arsenal that I just loved.
He had a Mattel See ’n Say Farmer Says, and whenever I was at his house, I couldn’t stop positioning the pointer and pulling the string. Yes, I might’ve been crossing streets, tying shoes and undertaking a mission to stock a kitchen, but I was five. I had to have a Farmer Says of my own. The problem is that I didn’t know what the thing was called. I couldn’t read, and I had too much pride to ask after playing with it all that time.
“What else do you want Santa to bring you?” Grandma asked. The only thing I could come up with was “A clock.” For days I’d tried describing The Farmer Says to my parents. “Brant has one. It’s this big,” I demonstrated with my hands. “It’s round, you pull a string and the center spins.” I’d forgotten to mention that the spinner lands on an animal, and then the device makes the corresponding sounds. No one ever seemed to understand that I was describing The Farmer Says. It was one of my first experiences at not making myself clearly understood.
As it happened, Mattel actually made a clock that was like The Farmer Says only it was blue and told you what happened at each hour of the day when you pulled the string. I suspect my parents knew this and probably thought learning to tell time was more appropriate than learning what farm animals sounded like. After all, I’d had a lot of exposure to farm animals already. Learning to tell time was more important, especially since I was planning to move out.
Mother must’ve realized this because she’d been encouraging me to say that I wanted a clock for Christmas when asked. However, following up the toaster question with “I also want a clock,” caused Grandma to get a perplexed look on her face. She probably blamed my mother’s side of the family for my peculiarities.
“A clock? You want a clock? I’ve got a clock.” She got up and left the room, and I felt very strange like I was going to have a talk in the car on the way home. She came back a few minutes later with a baby blue alarm clock from the 1930s that hadn’t been used in years. Without giftwrap or any ceremony, she handed the dusty thing to me as if it were a glass of milk. “There’s a clock for you.” I’m sure the look on my face was similar to hers when I’d first mentioned the word.
I unwrapped the toaster on Christmas Eve. This miracle appliance was the highpoint of that Christmas. When I unwrapped the package to reveal the pasteboard box with the image of the toaster, I’m sure I squealed with delight. It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes until we plugged in this chrome marvel with black plastic trim. I seem to recall hovering over it right there on the living room floor. We filled both slots, and the aroma was marvelous as the coils lit up and started browning those slices of Wonder Bread.
My desire to move out had nothing to do with my home life. I was not deprived. I had horses to ride, toys to play with and a smart sister who taught me lots of things. I believe something in my family’s DNA pushes each of us to get our own places. We all want to run things our way, and reigning over your own domain seems to be a sure way of taking control. I just happened to want this at the age of five, and now that I had a toaster, I was on my way!
Moving day finally came. After three years in the dorm, I finally got my first apartment. The toaster, however, didn’t make the trip. Its handle had cracked and fallen off, and its ability to brown had become unreliable. You might get warm bread or a slice of charcoal. You never knew what was going to slide up as the toast no longer popped.
Six years later, my best friend Randy and I quit our jobs, loaded everything onto a U-Haul that we were willing to keep, and headed for San Diego. We’d spent months imagining the lives we would have. We’d be close to the beach in a city that knows nothing of cold winters. No more suits and ties, but the feeling that we were constantly on vacation. We’d find jobs, affordable housing and just have fun! We’d worked out the transition very carefully. Some friends who had moved there the year before had a house, and they’d asked us to stay with them. In fact, they were the ones who convinced us that a move to San Diego during the 1992 recession was perfectly logical.
These people explained that they were converting their two-car garage into a guesthouse. They said they were getting bids from contractors and the place would be ready in time for our arrival in two months. We wouldn’t have to pay rent if we were there less than three months, at which point we should have jobs and be on our feet.
In the weeks before we moved, they called with weekly updates on the construction. 20 years ago, we didn’t have the technology to send photos electronically. We simply believed what we were told. When we drove up with our truck full of everything we owned, we were told that the place wasn’t ready. When we got up the next morning to inspect the progress in daylight, we discovered that the reason the guesthouse was not ready was because they’d not gotten a single bid from a contractor.
A few weeks after we stayed in their guestroom without a door for any sort of privacy, we found a 1915 cottage owned by a charming Midwesterner who called us “The final threads in a tapestry of loving and supportive neighbors.” I gave this airhead our total savings to cover the deposit and first month’s rent, and he disappeared for the next three weeks without returning a phone call.
Because our hosts had grown increasingly crazy as Christmas approached, we simply couldn’t stay at their house a moment longer. We finally heard from the landlord who apologized for having “been away for a few days.” He assured us that all was well, and I left for work that Christmas Eve morning with all of my clothes stuffed into my car. Moving over Christmas was not exactly a Norman Rockwell painting, but at least we’d have a permanent space away from our crazy hosts.
As I was leaving work that evening, excited to be in my own place at last, Randy phoned to say that our landlord didn’t have our place ready. Another delay! It turned out that we’d leased an occupied unit filled with a tenant who was not budging. Our landlord’s dishonesty is an entirely different story, but suffice it to say, we couldn’t return to our hosts. We’d have to go to a hotel until the situation could be sorted out.
With the move to California, the housing setbacks and the mounting costs, buying Christmas gifts was out of the question. When I got to our hotel room, I collapsed into a chair, and Randy presented me with a wrapped box.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Open it,” he said. I couldn’t imagine what it could be.
“We agreed not to exchange gifts. Neither of us has any money, and I feel bad that I didn’t get you anything.” He assured me that there was nothing to be concerned about, but he had seen this when he was out and thought it would make Christmas special.
It was a Black & Decker toaster, white with gray accents, and a browning selector that put my old Oster to shame. The dam burst. I would like to say that my tears were due solely to this touching moment that the person on the planet who had shared the last few weeks of stress and frustration was assuring me that everything was going to be okay. I was feeling some of that, but mostly I was scared out of my mind. We were technically homeless. Our families didn’t know where we were, and the only thing between having a roof over our heads and living in our cars was my credit card limit along with the cash from our meager paychecks.
We decided for one night not to worry about money or shelter and concentrate on the other basic need: food. We always seemed to eat well even during the darkest times.
© 2014 by Patrick Brown
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