Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Disappearing Christmas Gifts of my Childhood

Seeing a post this morning about the dangers of the Ouija board jogged my memory of a particularly Thurber-esque aspect of some of the Christmases of my childhood. I'm thinking of the times when my two sisters and I lived off and on for years at a stretch with my father's sister, Agnes, her husband, Ray, my father's immigrant Irish widowed mother, Grandma Sullivan to us, and my cousin, Marybelle. Sometimes Uncle Ray's mother, Grandma Corder would be on a long-term visit from Arksasas while we were there and live with us all too.  Uncle Ray's Arkansas' roots account for cousin Marybelle's name, which was previously not heard of in Boston, where we all lived. 

My fireman father, Joseph, had died in a firetruck accident when I was two years old, my sister, Martha, was one, and my other sister, Joe-anne, was about to be born the next month. It was part of the gloomy secret-filled atmosphere of my childhood that my mother would be gone away for long stretches of time. I would be shushed up or the subject would be changed if I tried to ask questions about her.

My rakishly "tall, dark, and handsome" uncle was a barber in a rundown part of Boston, on Commonwealth Avenue near the downtown police station. After Uncle Ray would come home from work every evening, my beautful red-headed aunt left for work. Even though her name was Agnes, we called her Peggy, because she had taken care of a nephew when she was a teenager and he was a toddler; he called her Peggy since he couldn't pronounce her name, and the name had stuck. One  of the jobs Aunt Peggy had over the years was sterilizing instruments at Brigham and Woman's Hospital on the night shift. We were fed and clothed sufficiently but were not well off, and my  aunt and fond grandmother used to shop for bargains at Goodwill and at Woolworth's or the five and dime. 

One Christmas we got a Ouija board; I think Aunt Peggy must have found it at Goodwill. I remember Grandma Sullivan saying something disapproving about how the Ouija board was supposed to have something to do with demons, but my modern-thinking aunt and uncle pooh-poohed that. We were halfway hoping that demons might answer us when we played with the board one day, not knowing that we were really in danger. But we didn't get any answers, and we got bored and lost interest. Thank God for that, since exorcists report that many of the exorcisms they perform are from demons that were summoned by Ouija boards. Maybe it was my Grandma's frequent rosary prayings that kept them away.

In any case, I never saw the Ouija board again after that one experiment.

We didn't see it again because my aunt's odd idea of keeping our toys from cluttering up the house was to throw them away! 

Before we went to Mass on Christmas Day, we would race into the parlor around 6 a.m. and tear open the wrappings on a pile of gifts from under the tree. From the emphasis on quantity over quality, I think now that the value of all the paper and ribbon used to wrap them might have been greater than the value of all the presents combined.  For the rest of the day, after we got home from Mass, we'd play with whatever toys we'd gotten--and then we would never see them again. Only sometimes, some of the games would stay. Aunt Peggy would stick them away in a closet.

I only realized my aunt's idea of housekeeping was to toss things away years later. Most of the gifts we got were usually used from Goodwill or cheap from the dime store, so tacky and uninteresting, we didn't even miss them. We were never asked, what do you want for Christmas? -- except for the few years we were living with our mother.

When my mother came back when I was about 6 and and took us to live with her in another kind of gloomy secret-ridden environment, where we were hiding out from the aunt and uncle and grandmother, her Christmas gifts to us were bought new in the department stores and those were keepers. But that's another story.

On one Christmas when we weren't with my mother, in the parlor near the tree was a four foot tall lumpy package that turned out to be a dolly when it was unrapped. Not a doll, a dolly of the kind you move furniture around with. (I found out just now that they usually are called hand trucks.) 

That's right, Aunt Peggy and Grandma had picked up a red dolly from Goodwill. I remember my uncle saying to my aunt that us kids wouldn't like it. She told him, "Ma thought the kids might like to play with it." Uncle Ray was right, we didn't like it.  We just ignored it until it went away.

By the next day, it had disappeared like all of the other ephemeral Christmas gifts we got from them, and so we never saw the dolly again either.

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