I have a very distinct Christmas memory that floats in and out of my conscious thought every year. It’s 1988-ish. My oldest sister Khristi had just married and moved to Germany. It had to be near 1988, because my sister Belinda was at home. She was a senior in high school. She had feathered hair and wore a lot of stonewashed denim. Yes, there was a lot of denim, and an American flag on her bedroom wall, the kind you saw in Bruce Springsteen music videos, which seemed to be playing on repeat on our small, color television. It was Christmas Eve 1988-ish and all I wanted was a Popples. Maybe a Strawberry Shortcake doll, or maybe one of those big mats that you could neatly fold out onto the carpet and color. It was like a giant coloring book. I just knew Santa would bring me all of these things. I had been very good all year, albeit very sad at the loss of one sister, and the imminent loss of another.
It was Christmas Eve 1988-ish and my mother had been crying all day. She’d actually been crying for weeks now, I’d just lost track. Maybe I was trying not to see it. Maybe I’d been crying too. Crying when my mother cried. Crying when my sister cried. Crying when Khristi called from Germany. Crying when she didn’t. Time smushes together in moments of crying, when the weight of grief presses down on you.
It was Christmas Eve 1988-ish and I sat in front of the colored television with my hot cocoa, while my mother cried on the couch behind me. Belinda went out, maybe with her boyfriend. I sat in front of our small color television and watched Frosty the Snowman, the old Rankin/Bass version from 1969. You know the one I mean, “I suppose it all started with the snow. It was a very special kind of snow, you see. The kind that made the happy, happier. The giddy, giddier.” I occasionally looked toward my stocking hanging on the wall and willed it to be filled with all the things I wanted. I occasionally looked out the window for the first snow. For the package that was to arrive from Germany. For my sister who should be at home.
The package came late, later than I imagined it should have on Christmas Eve. It was a large box. Postmarked to my mother, from a place called Kitzingen. I didn’t know then that it was a town in Bavaria. That it was part of the Franconia geographical region. That it was the largest producer of wine in that region. I didn’t know anything about Germany back then, except that there was a wall, and a lot of angry people, and Bruce Springsteen was mad about the wall like a lot of other people. I didn’t know if my sister was mad too.
My mother had stopped crying. My sister Belinda came home, as if willed by the Bavarian package. They sat me down in front of the tree, and my mother opened the big box with a pair of scissors. She slowly reached inside and began to hand gift-wrapped boxes to my sister, who gave them to me, and I carefully placed them under the tree. Slowly our Christmas tree filled with gifts. More than I could ever remember before. And certainly more than there would ever be again.
That night I would go to sleep between my mother and sister, in my mother’s double bed, in the back of the house. The next morning, I would walk back down the long hallway, my sister on one side of me, and my mother on the other, all three holding hands. I would shake at the thought of what Santa had brought me. What presents were wrapped in German paper. What happiness, what giddiness awaited me. And for a moment I was happy. And for a moment I was safe, between my mother and my remaining sister. And for a moment it was the best Christmas ever.