They come in all shapes and sizes. The ones closest to Christmas, are they the best? Good question. Are the later ones any better? Who knows? In my case, January born, all I remember are the broken promises.
“I’m not buying you a Christmas present this year. I’m saving up to buy you something special for your birthday. What do you say to that?”
“Thank you, Auntie Gladys. You are so kind. I’ll look forward to my birthday.”
I next meet Auntie Gladys two weeks after my birthday. “Oh,” she says. “Was that your birthday just went by? I forgot all about it. Sorry.”
That’s just one example, but I remember many broken promises. I had to be older, sadder, and very much wiser before I realized that perhaps my Auntie Gladys didn’t have enough money to buy me one present, let alone two.
Then there was my mother’s mother’s birthday. It took place on December 23rd every year. During November, my mother never mentioned it. At the beginning of December, silence reigned. When my father’s office parties for Christmas drew closer, around the 15th or 16th of December, my mother’s mother’s birthday grew in stature and importance.
“Where’s your father?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s late. He should be home. Did he tell you what he’d be doing tonight?”
9 pm, 10 pm, 11 pm … then a key in the lock, I’d run to the door and heave at it with enthusiasm, and my father, pushing against a door I was now pulling open, would fall face first onto the mat, writhing and giggling.
Two or three nights like this and, on the evening of the 22nd or the morning of the 23rd, my mother would announce to me in a loud voice and in my father’s absence: “It’s my mother’s birthday. Pack your bag. We’re going to see her.”
“Aren’t you going to wait for dad?”
“Aren’t we going to tell him where we’re going?”
She’d call a taxi that would drive us to the train station or the bus station. She’d buy us tickets to her mother’s hometown, 40 miles down the road, and off we’d go.
I was often too tired to note the anxious tones of my grandparents’ questions. The mumbled conversations behind my back. The little errands that I was asked to run while the ‘grown-us’ discussed the nature of the current situational crisis.
“What do you want for Christmas?” my mother’s family would ask.
“I want my dad,” I’d reply.
Then, On Christmas Eve, still fatherless, but full of hope and the promises of presents and joy, I would go to bed and fall asleep, too tired to wait up and spy on dear old Santa.
Next morning, my father, hung over, rather smelly having slept in his shirt, unshaven, and looking sleepily sheepish, would appear and offer me whatever special gift he had been looking for during the past three days.
“Just for you,” my father would say, handing me his wrist watch (one year) or his fountain pen (another). “I went up to the North Pole specially to get it,” his smile lit up the room.
“Liar,” my mother would say and her family would roll their own sheep eyes and look at the ceiling or at their shoes.
“Well, maybe not the North Pole,” my father, now a little moth or butterfly, would wriggle on the pin my mother was sticking into him. “I went to London, actually.”
“But it was the office club’s official party trip. We saved a shilling a week to hire a coach and drive up to London to see Swansea playing Tottenham Hotspur.”
“Liar, liar, liar.”
“Well,” my mother’s father would mediate, “Swansea were playing Tottenham yesterday.”
“Told you so,” said my dad.
It was Christmas. Mistletoe would appear, kisses would be exchanged, peace would be bought, my watch wouldn’t work, and next time my father saw me he was wearing a brand new wrist watch that actually went tick-tock.
23 December … it’s my mother’s mother’s birthday again. I welcome the day with open arms, yet I always fear what might happen, and I always wait for the worst to come when the first of those Christmas birthday ghosts arrives to sit on the end of my bed and taunt me as I lie there, eyes wide open, haunted, sleepless remembering …