Stiletto Prints in the Sand

IMG_4225I was going to attempt a clever article about the holidays, perhaps reminiscing about Christmases past, but then I remembered I’ve already shared anecdotes about my childhood at Christmas, which you can read here.

I have touched on my role as a singing Martian, fictionalized in A Final Folly, and my crushing disappointment upon learning of the nonexistent special effects budget when called upon to vanish during a live stage production.

I have a few other stories yet to be told about smoke alarms as gifts, a church Christmas pageant that was overtaken by an evil soprano who should’ve been cast in The Exorcist, and the year a towering drag queen lip-synching Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree stole the show (she exceeded seven feet while wearing a red and green double feather boa that arched from the crown of her head). I also get a smile on my face when remembering the year when five cousins returned from a ride around the lake in a 1965 Mustang unusually famished less than two hours after a big lunch.

Before you get too excited, I’m saving those stories until you’re a little older. Until then, just picture me as one of the beatific child shepherds outfitted with one of my mother’s plush Royal Velvet guest towels tied on my head. Someone tied it so tightly that I developed an unbearable headache before they killed the spotlight on that year’s production.

When all those moments were taking place, I didn’t find them as funny as I do now. Holidays are hard on so many people, and I’m one of those who doesn’t spend Labor Day weekend diagraming my lighted yard display. Even before my years in church music and a few spent in retail, I have been a person who steels myself for the holiday season as if December is a big wave heading for shore. I sympathize with those who feel the pressure to consume, whether it’s commercialism or what we stuff into our bodies. I’m one of those who strives for cheerfulness even when I don’t know where it’s going to come from, and I understand the feelings that this Christmas isn’t going to be nearly as great as the one way back when.

Disappointment affects each of us to varying degrees. People experience loss, and devastating events don’t schedule themselves with our personal calendars in mind. Add layers of advertisements, nostalgic shows, and sentimental music to bring home the fact that this holiday season isn’t going to be as good as that year when we thought everything finally fell into place. It’s no wonder we set ourselves up for disappointment.

A large part of my holiday expectation problem has been perspective. Much like photographs that I hated at the moment they were taken, I realize twenty years later that I didn’t look as bad as I thought. And so it is with Christmas. At the time, I might have been sad that a favorite family member or best friend couldn’t make it. Perhaps we couldn’t be together one year or maybe we never were again. There have been years when I’ve worried there wasn’t enough money to pay for presents, special meals, or parties, or there was the time a significant other decided to break up the day after the gifts went under the tree. All of those terrible moments seemed to occur while Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas played over and over.

All of our worst holiday experiences affix themselves to our psyches. I’ve had some terrible years, and I’ve heard stories of even worse experiences. As I dug deep into my memory to find a heart-warming story to share this December, I quickly passed over the more difficult years, which seemed to remind me why I am not always immediately filled with hope. After pondering the holidays I consider to be some of my best, I realized that those really terrible Christmases had mellowed with age. At the time, I was very unhappy, but each year contained at least a morsel of joy that continues to make me smile.

You might say that when I looked back to see one set of footprints and thought I’d faced a particularly sad Christmas on my own, I’d never been truly alone for an extremely tall drag queen wearing a double feather boa had been carrying me all along.

© 2017 by Patrick Brown

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The Toast of Christmas Past

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.

I couldn't wait until Christmas even if I had only asked for a toaster and a clock. Notice the color wheel in the left corner of the photo. I thought the silver tree was beautiful.

I couldn’t wait until Christmas even if I had only asked for a toaster and a clock. Notice the color wheel in the left corner of the photo. I thought the silver tree was beautiful.

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.

The toaster had already been taken to the kitchen, but it was more important than the Tonka trucks and the Mickey Mouse watch, pictured here.

The toaster had already been taken to the kitchen, but it was more important than the Tonka trucks and the Mickey Mouse watch, pictured here.

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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