Christmas has always been magical to me, even if the circumstances of life in general weren’t so nice.
The year I was fifteen stands out in my mind. My mom and her sister, Aunt Ruthie, divorced women, found a little house they could afford, if they bought it together. My sister, Christy, and I, lived with our mom at the time.
My five cousins were Christy and my favorite companions all of our lives. The word cousin had a special place in both of our hearts. We were so happy we could all be together. The extra good part was, our Grandma lived with us too. Grandma, to us, was the ultimate of favorite people.
The house had two bedrooms. Grandma, Aunt Ruthie and the little girls, JoAnn and Peggy, shared a room. Mom slept on a daybed in the converted garage made into a family room. Wendy, Christy and I shared the other room. Two of the cousins, Julie and Jessica, chose to live with their dad in California.
Truckee River Walk
Wendy and I were the same age. We had a waiver so we could continue going to Reno High School for the year. It was a bit of a walk, but a pretty one, past the University and then downtown to the Truckee River Walk and on to school. Sometimes we got a ride, but not always.
My mom worked in the casinos as a Keno writer. It was a job that seemed glamorous, but after I grew up, I realized how hard it was on her to work constantly in that environment. At the time, (the 70’s) smoking, drinking at the bar after work, and popping valium, were in vogue. It was hard for mom to stay at one job for too long. I used to say there wasn’t a casino downtown that mom hadn’t worked in.
Mom was suseptable to many temptations, and was also a victim of circumstances. She had a mental illness that wasn’t diagnosed, Borderline Personality Disorder. She suffered and struggled with it, all of her life. If only there wasn’t such a stigma associated with mental illness, she might have had better chances.
At home we had Grandma. She cooked our food. She had grown vegetables in the summer, and canned or froze them. She had a sweet kitty named Rascal.
Even back then, Grandma was conscious of the environment. We were not allowed to throw away the empty milk cartons. Grandma said, “There’s still enough for my co-fee,” with her beautiful Finnish accent. She always rinsed and reused the cartons. She started seeds for her next garden in them, or used them for many other things.
That December, Wendy, Christy and I decided we were going to have “A Partridge in a Pear Tree” theme for Christmas. Our color was red. We made all of the ornaments for the tree, which we set up in the family room. We made paper mache partridges and fruits, all in red, pears, apples and oranges. Mom pitched in and made beautiful clusters of grapes out of hard candy wrapped in red cellophane.
It became a household project. The little girls and Grandma strung cranberries. We had a red partridge for the top of the tree. Mom got us red fairy lights. We only allowed red wrapping paper for the presents.
Wendy and I had babysitting jobs. We used some of our money for the presents to share with our family. Everyone had secret hiding places to put gifts, before we could wrap them, when no one was looking.
Our Grandma was very secretive about Christmas. In Finland, where she grew up, I believe the Holiday Celebration was confined to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We girls started dragging out Christmas items the day after Thanksgiving.
It was a good thing we had school in the daytime. Aunt Ruthie worked nights , sorting mail at the Post Office, and she had to sleep in the day.
Wendy and I walked past an old dime store, Woolworth’s, on our way, to and from school. It was a fun place for Christmas shopping. There were all kinds of goodies for a quarter or so: foil-wrapped chocolate bells for tying to packages, little pots of lip gloss, small bottles of cologne. There were rows of small toys I could buy for my younger brothers and sisters, who lived across town with their mom.
Downtown used to have several stores we liked. Shim’s Army Surplus Store had Levi’s for $7.12, including tax. There was The Import Trading Post, which was way cool. We could buy incense, scented candles and cute candle and incense holders. They had blacklight posters and all sorts of fun imported stuff.
I don’t remember what we bought. I do remember the joy of wrapping the presents and the smiles on everyone’s faces when they got one. That smile was like a present too.
During Christmas vacation, I waited for mom’s day off so I could go to the grocery store with her. I bought some of those new mint chocolate chips, to make cookies for my friends. At home I warned the little girls to stay out of them, because when you’re a big teenager, you have to make sure the younger kids behave.
On a snowy Saturday morning, Grandma, Wendy and I got together and baked cookies. Wendy’s favorite was shortbread that could be colored and formed into cute elves, bears, stars and trees, sprinkled with sparkling colored sugar. Grandma made her yummy gingerbread cookies and I made my mint chocolate chip cookies.
I had Chinese take-out boxes with Christmas designs on them, to put my cookies in. I gave them away that night when a group of my school friends and I went Christmas Caroling around the area our favorite teachers lived. We were invited inside one of the dearest English teachers homes, where we had hot cocoa and a small chat.
For what reason, which has never been clear to me, my mom decided to move to Las Vegas, 450 miles away. She took Christy with her, but I refused to go. I didn’t want to change my whole life and leave Grandma, my cousins and my friends.
The rest of Christmas was still fun. I suppose because I had Grandma, Wendy and my school friends. It was not the first time my mom had left me. That had happened quite a few times, since I was seven years old. I am sure Christy wanted to go so she could be with mom, no matter what.
I liked sitting near the Christmas tree and to look at the lights and smell the scent of the tree. Near the tree, time didn’t hurry and I felt like everything was o.k. Of all the uncertain events in the world, these lights were constant, cheerful and warm. As was the kind and loving smile of my Grandma, who understood and she always made me feel loved and wanted.
On Christmas morning, we all sat in the family room in our robes and slippers. Since Peggy was the youngest, she passed out the presents, which were opened in turns, one at a time.
Grandma made us a beautiful Christmas dinner. The table had a lovely red cloth and all the pretty dishes reflected light from candles and the Christmas tree.
The time line for then is blurry. I remember moments. A little after that Christmas, I had to move away. I was asked to take care of my younger brothers and sisters while my step-mom, their mom, was at work.
I often wondered how things could have turned out differently. The memory of that Christmas has cheered me many times. Perhaps that is what it was for. A time to remember, when cheer is needed. I can still see the lights, and remember the scents and my gigling cousins and sister. And especially, I remember my Grandma’s sweet loving face.