On Decembers Past


With so much pressure and anticipation, this — namely, the week before Christmas — was when we could stand it no longer: it was time to mount an expedition into that most forbidden and exotic of all domestic locales, our mother’s bedroom closet. To even enter our parents’ bedroom felt dangerous; it was the one room in the house (even more than the dining room) in which we never had a good reason (or justification if it came to that) to be found alone; consequently we knew that any transgression would be viewed with strict scrutiny and so — even though our mother had gone out — tried to walk as quietly as possible.

The door of the closet, when we finally made it there, opened easily but with an ominous rustle as it scraped across the wall-to-wall carpet, a sound that might have deterred us if the door was not at this point completely open. Any thought of turning back now jettisoned, we stepped in and allowed our eyes to adjust to the dim space; we pushed aside the rows and rows of long dresses and heavy wool coats that lived there in perennial languor and paused to consider several towers of precariously stacked hat and shoe boxes we knew would have to moved to achieve our ultimate goal: the location and nature of our unwrapped Christmas presents.

While there was a part of us that wanted to continue as stealthily as possible in order not to leave any trace of this treachery, this was certainly not the full story, for why else would we have so carelessly rearranged the boxes except for an unacknowledged desire — the same one possessed by so many criminals — to be caught? In fact, after we “accidentally” knocked over one of these towers, it made it even more exhilarating to see the boxes strewn about, and made our heart beat all the faster as we arrived at the deepest depths of the closet and uncovered our lost treasures in the sand, the toys and games and books! (Thankfully, our mother did not buy us clothes at Christmas.)

Hardly noting the passage of time — already, our mother was due back at any moment — we sat there entranced, tracing our fingers over each item, whispering brand names and titles, savoring how good it would feel to fully possess such bounty in just a few days. (This did not completely eliminate the suspense, given that we were not always sure which present would be given to us and which to our siblings until Christmas morning; more than once we watched someone open a present with a pang of jealousy made all the more intense by our guilt.)

Did our mother know that we had done this? If so, it was never discussed, even after the time we — again, “accidentally” — blurted out the identity of a gift before we were given the opportunity to open it on Christmas Eve. When we consider this now, it seems obvious that our mother was far too focused on staging what (with all respect) was a very complicated production to acknowledge the shifting arrangement of boxes in her closet or to allow the feigned surprise of her children as they opened gifts to outweigh the somewhat perfunctory (if cheerful) displays of enthusiasm and gratitude.

As with so many facets of our family (and our country), we can only ask one question: how did she do it? This year, with the facade of such a life long ago (thankfully) shattered, we find ourselves considering Christmas with a smaller but more honest sense of pleasure: we hope to spend the day asleep, just as we like to imagine our mother now that she has finished her work.

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