Page 22 - WTP Vol. IX #7
P. 22

 When Ada was nine years old, the big people for- got to give her a present at Christmas.
The big people were accidental parents, not in the sense of surprise pregnancy, but as surprised owners of relentlessly demanding pets. As a matter of prin- ciple, they didn’t give much thought to presents, and each year they purchased them hastily, close to the deadline, when merchandise in the stores was sparse. They were artists and didn’t have much money, so they preferred cheap, and the commercial extrava- ganza of the holidays only hardened their resistance.
Ada and her sister believed in Christmas. The car- toons they watched on TV, the songs and pageants they performed in their respective grades at public school, grades 4 and 2, involved Jesus and Santa Claus and the hysterical happiness of gifts given and received in the oblivious days of the nineteen sixties.
On the Christmas morning that would change every- thing, the daughters woke early. Ada and Leonora crept down the stairs while the big people were still sleeping. It had snowed the night before and their street was transformed by nature’s visit, the pave- ment hidden under a blanket of pure white, the shapes of the trees in stark outline, the city hushed and gentle. Through the banisters, they could see their own piece of nature, the evergreen tree they’d picked out from hundreds of others that had leaned against the chain link fence in the empty lot next
to the supermarket. It was dark and lifeless, but as fragrant as an entire forest, or what they imagined
an entire forest might smell like. Ada, being the older, plugged in the lights, and the bulbs snapped into bril- liant colors, revealing the ornaments nestled in the boughs. In the early morning quiet, it felt to Ada as though the actual baby Jesus, a person never referred to in their household, was floating above the moun- tain of gifts rising beneath the tree, blessing them with a special secular beneficence.
On some years they had received things it was impos- sible to wrap. A bicycle or a scooter would be parked close to the tree, shiny and perfect, but this year the presents were small enough to wrap and pile. The daughters knew they were not allowed to open any- thing until the grownups woke up, but Ada suggested they separate them into piles, one for each family member. Each package had a card with a picture of a reindeer and underneath it, a name written in their mother’s hand. There were only two for the parents,
the one for their mother Noreen was written by their father, Ralph. Many had Leonora’s name and those went into her pile. Many had Ada’s name, but they didn’t go into Ada’s pile because Leonora had been added in different colored ink like an afterthought. Those required another pile, the shared pile, which was a new concept.
When they were done, there were two piles of equal size, the gifts for Leonora, and the gifts for the girls
to own jointly. Somehow, there wasn’t a single item for Ada alone. Leonora, busy trying to guess what her packages contained, didn’t notice, and Ada, expe- riencing the same desolation she sometimes felt at school, said nothing. At school, when the gym teach- er appointed two captains to choose their teams, Ada was inevitably the last player chosen. It hurt, but she was expert at hiding her feelings. Jesus had left and maybe He had never been there in the first place.
The day rolled out in the usual way, presents, break- fast, and the steady destruction of the peace and beauty of the early morning. Once everything had been ripped open and exclaimed over, ribbon and wrapping paper littered the carpet. Some of Leonora’s presents were already broken. Her toy toaster didn’t pop the rubber bread up anymore, the doll’s eyes were stuck closed. Of course, the parents were happy with the one gift each had given the other: a beautiful blue sweater their father had chosen for their mother, a braided leather belt with a silver buckle that their mother had chosen for their father. Ada waited for one of the big people to notice that she hadn’t received a gift for herself alone, but they were content and happy, traitors to their own righteous views.
“When I was a little girl,” their mother said, thumbing through a book that was one of their shared pres- ents, “I used to love Tales of King Arthur and I can’t wait to read them out loud to you. These are the same illustrations that my book had. Oh, it gives me chills. I wonder what happened to it? When they sold the house, maybe, oh, I would give anything to have it again. Ralphie,” she asked dreamily, “didn’t you read King Arthur?”
“Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn. You forget, I grew up in Texas. People in Texas didn’t know about King Arthur, they didn’t care about England.”
Ada didn’t care about England either, but then it was breakfast, and even in her desperate state, she was
In the Conditional Mood
MEGan StaffEL

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