Thank you for reading along and sharing this memory with me. Part I is found here.
After presents, the three older of us kids were shooed outside into a world of crunchy snow and cool breezes. “Blow the stink out of your pants while I finish up with the ham”, Mom pushed us toward the door. Grandma asked if she could now tidy the room and clean the dishes which were crusting over with half-eaten oatmeal. Grandpa wanted to see Dad break in that new pipe and join him with a well-worn one of his own.
Thus occupied, the adults ignored us as we scrambled for our rubber boots and layers of wool socks. A stack of used bread wrappers sat by the door. These were to go over our socks before wrestling our feet into boots that were slightly too snug to begin with. The wrappers made “swish-swash, swish-swash” sounds as we stomped through the snow, but they did serve well enough. Our “poor-man-snow-boots” (as my brother called them) … they would suffice. Never mind that it was so cold that snot froze inside our noses almost as soon as we stepped off the porch or that we would get scolded for spreading soggy breadcrumbs throughout the house later.
Just as I don’t remember how we finally got to the tree and presents in the living room, I don’t remember how Marla came to join us in the front yard, but there she was. The sun, which decided it wanted to be a part of the day, sang in falsetto as it did nothing to warm up the morning, yet in its brightness, created a stunning world of crystal and dancing light as we broke into the ice-layered snow and tried to form snowballs.
“Let’s make a snowman,” Marla suggested.
We didn’t see our neighbor from down the block much in the winter time. She went to a tiny, church school on the other end of town, so our playtimes were usually restricted to the summer months. The fact that she joined us now was unusual but welcome, and I wanted to please her so that she would stay. My brother had a different mindset.
“Snow’s too hard for that,” he snapped. “Don’t you know anything?”
Marla stay stooped over her pile of snow, patient with her attempts. Her mittens were worn through and soggy, so she stripped them off and worked bare-handed. Once he saw that he wasn’t going to get a reaction from the girl, he huffed and marched to the garage in search of our sleds.
Marla had gotten used to ignoring him. They were about the same age and had for some mysterious reason slid into the role of enemies.
There were a lot of things my brother didn’t seem to like about Marla. First of all, her parents were “as old as Methusela”. (He ignored the truth that our own father wasn’t any younger than Marla’s parents and was, in fact, almost two whole decades older than Mom.) He often taunted how poor they were. We were poor too, but they did appear more in need than us.
The war between these two had escalated the summer before over a bag of bananas. The helpless bananas had been snatched out of Marla’s hands as my brother and his friends raced by her on their bikes.
Later that day, Marla’s mother trudged meekly up the sidewalk to our house and asked to see my mother. She talked in quiet, yet firm tones which resulted in Brother having his bike locked in the garage for a week. Worse, he wasn’t allowed to play with his friends for twice that long. It wasn’t just the stealing of the bananas, which were squished and thrown into the yard, it was the taunting. “Marla is a baby! Marla is a baby!” they had called out, making fun of the fact that they had caught the girl, who was their age, singing and playing make-believe with her dolls in her back yard, as if those toys were her real friends.
Marla had not cried in front of them, but wasn’t seen outside of her house for most of the rest of the summer. “See, she is a baby,” my brother’s friends chanted when they road by on their bikes.
She might not have come around our house at all except that there were other no kids in the neighborhood. All those who went to her school lived far out in the countryside … too far to walk or even ride a bike. As an only child, she got lonely, I’m sure.
“What did you get for Christmas, Marla?”
She didn’t seem to hear as she swept more snow toward her mound and tried once more to get the pile to form a ball. Her hands were red and shiny, the way mine got when I grew so cold that the pain left me in tears. Marla seemed to know no such pain; she worked on un-phased.
“I got a doll,” my little sister rambled, “And candy. And so many, many toys. Santa brought us a whole sleigh full!”
“I got a China doll,” Marla suddenly stood up.
“The doll was just part of it,” her words started in a slow cadence but gained speed as her eyes widened with excitement. “She will sit on a shelf in our front room. She came with three of the most beautiful outfits a person ever saw. And … “
She paused as if trying to find the perfect, magical words for something so magnificent that natural words might not do justice.
“And … I got three dresses in my size to match. Such beautiful dresses … too beautiful for our town. When I wear them, people are sure to mistake me for a princess.”
I sighed. I couldn’t imagine owning something beautiful enough to be be mistaken for a princess, not that I liked dresses much or ever considered being a princess before this.
Marla wasn’t finished. Her gray eyes, much too big for such a thin face, sparkled like the crystalized snow around us. Her yellow hair stuck out in a number of spots on her hatless head like the straw of a scarecrow. With a long neck and red cheeks, she reminded me of one of my picture books of Alice in Wonderland, minus pretty ribbons and a flowing gown.
“We got the hugest fruit basket with the sweetest, most tasty fruits. Tropical fruits. And then! Then, there was a brand new chess set … boxes and boxes of chocolates … new stationary … a wooden yo-yo … a shiny pair of Mary Janes with an ever-so-slight heel … bubble bath and perfume … and brand new sheet music for Mama. A new felt hat for Father and … lace curtains for our front windows, and so much food for our pantry that I couldn’t name it all … and a goose. We’re eating goose for dinner.”
My brother had returned from the garage with our banged up metal sled … the Flying Saucer … in time to hear this extravagant list. He “Hmmm-huffffffed” past, marching to the small hill at the end of the driveway. Once there, he suddenly spun around, gritted his teeth, and opened his mouth like he was about to shout something, but instead shut it, and chewed on his bottom lip..
“Are you going sledding with me or not?” he glared as he gripped the rope handles our dad had fastened to the round and dented metal disc that served as our favorite sled for the way it spun us round and round as we whooshed down hills.
I was not. I wanted to hear more of such gifts, so did my sister. Brother stomped off on his own.
I was both entranced and dismayed, a cloud I did not understand covering me. It would take looking back to understand the weight of jealousy that had found its way to my heart. My six-year-old brain wrestled with the thought that it somehow seemed unfair that my family had finally experienced great riches at Christmas, and yet plain, ol’ Marla should have gotten so much more.
Marla lived in a broken down house … more broken than ours … with broken down things. My Dad patched our things, while Marla’s parents seemed unable or just too tired with age. They were rarely seen except at their church or when coaxing a severely complaining truck to the mountains to gather wood … their source of income and of heat. Their unpainted, wooden house was paper thin. No insulation padded the walls. Newspapers covered the windows in the winter; both to add warmth and to keep out the stares of the nosey boys who tormented them.
We all thought her parents odd and Marla odder. Not only did she still play with dolls, she built forts and playhouses outside as if she were a member of the Swiss Family Robinson, banished to a life on a deserted island. Once, before the feud with my brother, she invited the two of us to roast potatoes in “my jungle” as she called it. She had smuggled three mid-sized bakers out of the house and kept us in hushed tones as we tried to coax a flame out of leftover logs. Without enough kindling to encourage a fire, we burned up all the matches. She crept into the house in search of more, but her mother heard and discovered what we were up to. We were sent home. I always wondered if Marla got her roasted potato that day; she seemed so hungry.
Music. The one truly normal thing about this family was music. Morning, afternoon, early evening, piano music escaped through those thin window pains, drifting as far as our house sometimes. Often I snuck to the trees next to their lot and sat underneath, listening to the hymns and classical pieces played by someone who seemed to have magic fingers the way they made elegant sounds come out of that dingy house.
It was Marla’s mother who mostly played, but sometimes I heard the banging of keys and halting measures repeated again and again and again until there was less halting and fewer sour notes. I assumed it was Marla practicing, eventually growing in skill so that I had to listen very carefully to know which of them was playing.
Just as I was about to ask Marla how they were going to cook that goose for their dinner, we were called in to ours. All thoughts of Marla and my jealousy faded as we sat under the beam of Grandpa’s smiling face, stuffing our stomachs with ham, cheesy potatoes, and orange jello salad, trying to leave room for the cherry – pudding cheesecake with a graham cracker crust and Grandma’s once a year traditional, licorice-flavored, Springerle cookies. BUT not enough room for her mincemeat pie.
The rose colored glasses that viewed that wondrous Christmas didn’t crack until college. It made no sense that while laboring over some all important paper about layers of deceit in King Lear or something like that, it hit me.
That. Big. Fat. Liar!
It took me a moment to know what I was even thinking about … the memory so random and so long tucked away.
Marla …. Marla lied.
No china doll.
No fancy gowns.
No piles of books and puzzles or boxes of chocolate and stationery.
No goose dinner.
No lace curtains to replace the yellowed newspapers. (Why had I never noticed that they never appeared in those windows?)
I realize now that my brother had been about to call her out on that Christmas day. There had been no tree in the window or decorations outside. There was likely a box of oranges and some baked goods from church members. Maybe even a gift-wrapped classical book or sturdy, practical shoes, but that would have been it.
My brother … yes, he could have ratted on her that morning … put his enemy on the spot. And why wouldn’t he, given the chance to get even for squealing about the bananas. But he didn’t.
He gave her her imaginary Christmas.
And … then it occurred to me … my Dad was complicit too. He could have spoken up that day as well. He could have said no to my Grandfather’s whims … but he didn’t. He carried the burden of letting Grandpa pay for our house and a car big enough to carry all of us about. And then, to jab the knife a bit deeper, he paid for Christmas while Dad struggled to keep basic bills covered all year long.
Dad also knew the stories of Grandpa’s neglect when my mom was our age and that not all of the drinking binges led to funny endings like the night he had been locked out of the house. Now, there he was … taking the spotlight on that Christmas … a spotlight Dad might have felt was undeserved.
But Dad let Grandpa be the star. And that was a good thing because Grandpa left us the next spring … illness swooping in and snatching him away with no warning.
Those are supposed to some of my most glorious Christmas memories because they were our last with Grandpa. But now they’re invaded by a liar, leaving a residue of guilt. We had our wonderful Christmas … Marla’s was dismal. And I had been jealous of her bragging only to discover that it was my bragging that likely heaped more misery on her.
I have no idea what became of Marla, but a new thought occurs to me today. Somewhere out there is a 60-something-year-old woman preparing for another Christmas. It is a dark world for all of us right now (2020) but I pray for her today … and I wish I could say …
You may have never gotten those fancy dresses or eaten goose for dinner (trust me, it’s not that great) … you may have never found your way to a mansion and may still have newspapers for curtains …
but I hope that wherever you are, that you have a piano to tap out songs of joy and peace … and I hope that the light of Love has found its way to you … you dear little Christmas Liar.