Local View: What I really wanted that Christmas
Grandpa and Grandma Anderson owned a Country Store on Namakagon Lake marked by a big old Texaco gas sign mounted between two pumping stations. My mom and her two older brothers grew up in the housing quarters that were in the back and were raised to do their part in supporting the family business. The store was always stocked full with fresh produce, meats and cheeses. Canned and dried goods were displayed on the pine shelving that lined the walls. It astounded me that Grandma could go to the shelf and pick out my favorite package of cookies without ever paying a dime for them. I loved the tinge of gasoline on my grandfather's clothes after he came back indoors from waiting on a customer.
As far back as I can remember, every Sunday after church, my family of eight would pile into our car for the hour-long drive to our grandparents' house. The only scenery along the winding country roads in wintertime were of bare trees spiked into blankets of white and of evergreens bowing from the weight of the snow.
At Christmastime, Grandpa cut down a fresh tree from the forest and strung bubble lights. Those were my favorite. It was enchanting to watch the colored water bubble from the brightly colored bases of the bulbs. The tinkling of the tinsel and the scent of the evergreen calmed and excited the senses.
The first Christmas family gathering at the store that I can remember was in 1966. We used to dress up back in those days for our holiday celebration. I wore my red dress, white tights, and black strap shoes. My three brothers had white dress shirts with ties. My baby sister looked cute in her frilly baby-blue dress. Uncle John and Aunt Jean's kids were teenagers, and their sons, Johnny and David, reminded me of movie stars in their suit coats and fancy slip-on shoes. The girls, Nancy and Kathy, were stylish in their fashionable dresses, bob haircuts, and flowery perfumes.
The gift-giving started simple. The gifts us kids made at school were passed to our grandparents. My big brothers, Del and Lou, hung out with cousins Bryan and Jimmy. My brother Mark, cousin Lon, and I got into a discussion of what we hoped for in the presents marked with our names. We weren't allowed to touch our gifts, but the size and shape of the packages were more than enough to get our imaginations going.
I can still remember my Uncle John tapping me on the shoulder to get my attention. I knew it was him because I could smell the sweet tobacco of his cigar. When I turned, he was smiling as he held out a small gift-wrapped box.
"Thank you," I said with a shy smile. It was the first gift of Christmas for me. I opened the package with care and can still remember the heart-shaped pendant that hung on the silver chain. I thought it was such a grown-up kind of gift for a tomboy kind of a girl like me. But it was also the reason I loved it so.
The chatter got louder once the smaller gifts were opened. The laughter and thanks that spread through the living room announced that the celebration of Christmas was building to a peak.
It was time for us kids to open our gifts from Grandma and Grandpa. They were always something more on the expensive side, something each of us really wanted.
The squeals and shouts of my brothers and younger cousins must have been exactly the response my grandparents hoped to hear. I quickly tore into my package and was shocked to see what was inside. I searched the ground around me to make sure I hadn't missed anything. There was nothing else. I looked up and forced a smile for my grandma as I held up my new box of crayons, coloring book, and puzzle. Grandma barely paid any attention. She seemed more interested in the serious conversation she was having with my mom.
I was having trouble holding back tears. I already had a ton of coloring books at home. My gift wasn't — special. I began to wonder: Did my grandparents no longer love me?
I figured I'd do an inventory of the gifts my cousins received. I sat up on my knees so I could get a better look. My mom was holding my 6-month-old sister Laurie. She got clothes. I guessed that wasn't overly special. But the cousins my age were all excited. They were ripping open toys and games from store packaging. Play areas were getting set up.
Lon and Mark must have noticed my silence. They asked to see what I got. When I showed them my collection, I saw the pity in their eyes. I remember fighting back the tears and the boys' willingness to share their landfall with me.
I honestly don't remember much of what happened after that. I was 5 years old, so as much as I'd like to believe I was quiet and respectful the rest of the evening, I'm guessing my behavior turned more cranky and whiny. I may even have complained to my mom. You see, when Grandma had asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I had told her I wanted a table to color on. Not a stupid coloring book.
As a parent, I know it's not easy to teach children lessons, especially during the holidays. You want your children to learn appreciation, not expectation. It's the only way they will ever feel the true magic of Christmas.
Back at our own house the next morning, Christmas morning, my mom brought me to the porch where there was a huge present that had my name on it. It was from Grandma and Grandpa. I remember thinking it strange I didn't get the present the night before, but I was more than happy to start ripping away at the wrapping paper. I looked at the picture on the box and started to squeal when I saw the child-sized table-and-chair set I had wanted more than anything else. It was all I really wanted.
My mom looked at me and said, "It wouldn't have fit in the car. I thought it would make more sense for you to open it here." Mom sat down on a chair and added with a touch of remorse, "Grandma wanted to tell you last night, but I told her not to. I thought if we did that, it would spoil your surprise."
I looked at my table-and-chair set and thought how silly it was of me to think even for a second that Grandma and Grandpa didn't love me anymore. In fact, in that moment, I couldn't help but wonder if they loved me the best.
There was so much I learned that first Christmas I can remember. Most of all, I learned I should have faith in the people who love me, because, after that, who knew what magical thing could happen.