1966: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
On Christmas morning I sit with my brother and sister on the top step of a long staircase leading down to the living room. Cloaked in fuzzy red pajamas, we squash our little rinkies together on a narrow swath of Williamsburg blue shag carpeting, agonizing over whether or not Santa has shown up. We have been sitting here for an hour, waiting for the house to wake up around us.
“I know Santa came. I heard sleigh bells.”
“I heard reindeer.”
“I heard Mr. Wilson coming home from church, or somewhere.” Mr. Wilson is our neighbor. We are intrigued by him, because he works during the day, unlike our father the drummer, who works at night.
Holding hands, we wait for Dad to announce that Santa has indeed found his way to Mt. Washington and, despite our lack of a working fireplace, has somehow managed to squeeze through the vent over the stove and grace our living room with a smattering of toys, stiff new clothes, and yule cheer. The vent over the stove is good for two things—it lets bats fly into our house during the summer months and it allows Santa Claus to show up every year with a big bag of toys.
The suspense is almost unbearable. My mother makes coffee in the kitchen—we can hear the pop-gurgle-pop of the percolator. Dad prances around downstairs and pretends to trip over an empty plate of cookies.
“Santa ate the cookies,” he yells. “He was here! Come on down!”
We shriek and tumble down the stairs. I knock my sister and brother against the wall. We bounce off the pine-trimmed banister, and land like a three-headed elf in a heap by the nativity scene.
“Pick up Joseph and Mary,” says my mother. “And get the cat out of the tree!”
It’s perfect, like every year.
Our grandmothers, Della and Laura, having spent the night in the family room, have already settled into one of the Ethan Allen sofas, their hair cranked for Christmas, their make-up in place. They’re sporting velour robes with matching plush slippers in festive colors, and both of them are recovering from copious amounts of Irish coffee consumed the night before. With delicate plates balanced on their grandmotherly laps, they laugh and beam at us. Everyone says Christmas is for kids, but today the grandmothers in attendance are having more fun than any of us. Aunt Pinky is also here. She wears sequined reindeer antlers and a little red plastic nose.
“Rudolph!” we shout.
The twinkle lights dance, the perfume of cinnamon rolls wafts through the house, holiday music (Bing! Sammy! Frank!) plays on the Hi-Fi. Decades before Martha Stewart teaches us how to French-braid holly branches and make wreathes out of miniature peanut-butter cups, my mother pounds out holiday-themed parties with the expertise of a Santaland Express caterer. A working woman with three kids, she decks the halls and calls the shots, if not effortlessly, then with a huge dose of conviction. Last night, for Christmas Eve dinner, she made a tabletop Christmas tree out of six dozen boiled jumbo-shrimp, stuck into a Styrofoam tree-shaped form with tinsel-covered toothpicks. She decorated it with green and red vegetable garlands. It was a huge success. Stripey the cat made several attempts, one of them successful, at attacking the shrimp tree. Holidays are hard on cats. Last year he walked across the pumpkin pie, leaving paw prints in the filling. My mother covered it with Cool Whip and no one knew the difference.
But none of this matters. Today it’s all about presents. Two weeks ago, we made our wish lists and traveled downtown to visit a bloated and ruddy-faced Santa at the Joseph Horne department store. Santa repeated our wishes loudly, a style that might have been the result of too much bourbon, but had the benefit of letting our parents hear exactly what we wanted.
On Christmas morning, despite our better instincts and under the watchful eye of the Good Manners Police, we open our presents like civilized human beings. We go around the room and take turns unpacking our gifts. Our grandmothers spend ages unwrapping their presents—carefully folding the metallic paper and coiling the ribbons and placing them in a neat pile for recycling. One grandma gets a blue scarf, the other a green scarf. Great. When is my turn? Daddy gets some Old Spice. Mom gets a cheese cutter from my sister and a Chia Pet from Aunt Pinky.
Finally. I dive into the little pile of gifts at my feet.
I get a Spirograph. Just what I wanted! Not nearly as dangerous as the Twister game I received last year. I also receive a Dippity Glass craft kit for making “glass” flowers by dipping wire forms into vats of neon-colored toxic chemicals. I will make dozens of these ghastly plastic creations—quite possibly destroying half of my brain cells in the process—and peddle them door to door in my neighborhood. Dippity Glass might be a health hazard, but I prefer it to last year’s Rock Tumbler.
I am nine years old, but I still believe in Santa. I receive, direct from the North Pole fashion workshop—most certainly under the supervision of an elf named Mr. Larry and his team of very short assistants—a pair of orange crushed-velvet pants. Wow! In the coming months I will make glass flowers and psychedelic Spirograph designs while dressed like a prepubescent Ann-Margret.
I carefully stash away my new loot and eat a cinnamon roll, then wonder whether these particular gifts are something I really want. Perhaps I would have preferred Chemistry Lab, Jr.? Or the Barbie Hair Coloring Station? But every girl needs a Spirograph and a pair of crushed velvet pants, right? I’m just not sure about the color of the pants. Maybe red would be better than orange. Or purple. But now I’m stuck with the orange. For the first time I’m starting to question the things I wish for. I am growing up and I don’t even know it.
2014, Cologne, Germany
The Western Pennsylvania holiday tableau seared in my memory seems like a distant fantasy. As a parent I’ve tried over the years to make our holidays at home memorable. But we are an American expatriate family living in Germany, and there’s no possible way to recreate the half-silly half-wonderful traditions I knew as a child. This is a country that, for better or worse, does not sell Libby’s canned pumpkin. Santa, more often than not, is played by a skinny Turkish guy at a furniture warehouse. And if you do run into Santa at a kids’ party, he is likely to be accompanied by a very scary guy named Knecht Ruprecht who wears a black hood, carries a bag of ashes, and threatens to beat children with a big stick if they haven’t behaved. Plus Santa isn’t even called Santa. He is Sankt Niklaus, and he shows up on the night of December 5th and fills the scrubbed and polished boots of children with candy and gifts. Where’s Rudolph when you need him? Probably hiding from the guy with the stick.
Some of the German traditions—most of them involving marzipan—are lovely, but they make me feel unbalanced, out of sync, a little lonely. Our two children, now adults, have celebrated each Christmas with us in a quiet way. In an attempt to shield our kids from the evil Knecht, we told them that American Santa was in charge of their Christmas. We made sure American Santa called our house each year. Played by various English-speaking male friends and family members, Santa spoke through a paper towel tube in a big booming voice. Ho-ho-ho. We’ve invented our own traditions. Without grandmothers or aunts to help with the cooking and good cheer quotient, we’ve had to improvise a lot, even for a family of musicians. We’ve never attended a midnight Christmas Eve candlelight service, although once on Christmas Eve we went to the circus. One year I made spaghetti for Christmas dinner, another time we had vegetarian schnitzel. We’ve never had a shrimp tree, a pie, or a Chia Pet. But we have managed to have surprise bunny rabbits, wooden train sets, adventures with icing, and fun with gingerbread. With limited resources we managed to grant a few of the wishes on the kids’ lists. I hope that’s what they remember—that for a short time in their crazy expat lives, a few of their wishes came true. Mainly, I hope they remember they have been lucky. They grew up safe and warm and happy. And loved.
I stopped making wish lists decades ago, for obvious reasons. When you enter the parenting profession, you start granting wishes instead of making them. Besides, desires can be devious. I have what I need, I have what I want, I want what I have. But his year I’ve decided to give the list another try. If Santa has a mental health workshop, he might be tempted to send me directly to the multiple personality department, so diverse are the things I long for. Some of them are shameful, some are idealistic, some are simple, most of them are, well, complicated. Here goes:
The American in Europe Wish List
- A huge box of Arm & Hammer baking soda. I will clean everything with it—my teeth, the sink, the inside of my Nikes.
- A Target store in Germany.
- Pre-made pie crusts. I don’t eat pie, but I would enjoy knowing I could bake a pie quickly if I had a ready made crust. I have an aversion to rolling pins.
- Speed Stick, by Mennen (it smells really nice when my husband wears it).
- A visit from my sister on Christmas. We are still thin. Our rinkies will fit nicely onto one of the steps leading to the living room. If my brother joins us, all bets are off. He can have his own step.
The Healthy Woman Wish List
- Energy. Ready, GO, GO, GO.
- Balanced hormones. Really, I do not want to throw myself off a bridge just because the diesel-Frau cashier at a German supermarket is rude.
- A fit body that would look good in orange crushed-velvet hiphuggers if the hormonal balance thing doesn’t work out and I decide to find my inner (and outer) Ann-Marget.
- A few nights of uninterrupted sleep. The experts say this is impossible once you have had children, but I am out to prove them wrong.
- Peace of mind. A friend of mine, who is dying, recently gave me the best advice ever. Speaking of life in general, he said: “Don’t worry too much.”
The World Citizen Wish List
- A safe return for those kidnapped Nigerian girls.
- Adequate funding for Médicins Sans Frontieres as they continue to battle chaos and tragedy everywhere. The same for medica mondiale liberia.
- An end to human trafficking. Here’s a place to start: Free the Girls—the FAWCO Target Project.
- Clean water for everyone.
- Equal opportunities for women and girls (yes, USA, this means you, too).
- More energy (see above) to try and do my part to help.
- Gun control. Finally. No more murdered school children.
The Material Girl Wish List
- A black VW Eos convertible. After a lifetime of being the drummer’s daughter and the bassist’s wife, I long to scoot around the countryside in a little (!) car that’s not meant for transporting large musical instruments.
- A trip to South Africa, before I’m too old to recover from the long flight.
- A small apartment in Manhattan, while I’m still young enough to run away from trouble.
- A cottage somewhere, anywhere, right on the beach (occasional sunshine would be welcome, which doesn’t entirely rule out the North Sea).
- Any fashion item that comes from Hermes (yes, scarves count).
The Realistic Working Mom Wish List
- Two new pairs of black cashmere socks.
- A black cashmere turtleneck sweater.
- A new electric toothbrush.
- Homemade cards from my kids.
- Some gluten free cookies.
- A really loose cotton nightgown. White. No Schnick-schnack.
The Confused Mom Wish List
- Continued opportunities for my kids to get out there and see the world.
- More opportunities for them to stay at home.
The Working Musician Wish List
- An iPad preloaded with large-print lead sheets to every song ever written in the history of music.
- The chance to write music for a meaningful film. Documentary would be just fine.
- The opportunity to write the lyric to a hit tune (one I could live with) that would pay for my kids’ college years. I can do ooh, baby baby as well as the next guy, but I can also do better. And my rhymes are clean. None of this lady-baby stuff.
- A separate music studio (within walking distance of my home) with a Macbook, a Steinway, and a couch so I could take naps now and then. A mattress under the piano would also work.
- One perfect song played perfectly one time for one perfect audience.
Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, and a joyful December to you and your loved ones. May a few of your wishes come true. Fly away home. If you’re with people who love you, you’re more than halfway there.
Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl, Rhythm, and Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl. Sign up for Robin’s newsletter and you’ll receive a brand new essay every month, delivered directly to your inbox.