Christmas Eve finally arrives. Tony is seven, and I am five. We beg my father and stepmother Vickie to let us open just one gift before going to bed, but they won’t relent. My father sits on the couch with his arm around Vickie. “The quicker you get to bed,” he says, “the quicker Santa will get here.” So we shuffle to our bedroom, my stomach tight.
I have just barely closed my eyes when Tony shakes me awake. For a moment I forget where I am, searching the blue walls for clues. I rub my eyes.
“Come on,” Tony says. “Let’s see what Santa brought.”
It’s still dark outside. I ask Tony again whether it’s really time to get up. “Yes,” he says, “Let’s go.” I hold tight to his hand as he drags me down the hall, tiptoeing past the room where my father and Vickie sleep.
When we step inside the living room, presents—rectangles, squares, lumpy spheres—form a pile around the tree. I have never seen so many gifts in my life. Tony clicks on the light and for a few moments, I stand there, ogling the shiny foil bows, white and crimson wrapping paper, the overfilled stockings hanging from the cardboard fireplace. This is Christmas!
Tony kneels in front of the tree and starts to pick through the gifts. “This is for me!” he says, shaking the box.
“I want one!” I say, snatching the first present I see. I tear open the wrapping to find a pair of women’s bedroom slippers. I slide my small foot inside the giant slipper. “These don’t fit.” I toss the pair behind me. I open a box with a sweater that’s way too big.
“No way,” Tony says. His light brown hair sticks up in front like devil’s horns. “It’s the Evel Knievel stunt cycle!” He squeezes the box. “I got it!”
“Where’s my presents?” I huff, crossing my arms over my chest.
“Right here, dummy,” Tony says, dropping a rectangular box in my lap.
I open it to find a Tiffany Taylor doll, which looks even more beautiful than on the TV commercial. Tiffany is two feet tall and wears a glittery gold bodysuit beneath a lime green skirt that attaches at her abdomen with Velcro. Her slip-on mules match the skirt. Tiffany has blond hair parted down the middle, but when you grab the top of her head and rotate, she has brown hair and bangs.
The next gift I open is a personal grooming kit with a white plastic hairbrush, comb, and mirror made of pearly plastic. I hold the mirror in front of my face. “Yes, dah-ling,” I say. “I vill be right wid you.”
There’s a really big gift. It’s the Sunshine Family Dolls. It comes with a camper and a surrey cycle. The baby is so cute.
“What the hell are you doing?” My father booms, standing above us in nothing but tighty-whities. His hair sticks up like the bride of Frankenstein. “Get your asses back in bed.”
Tony and I sprint past our father, guarding our hind-ends from spankings. My father slips into his bedroom with Vickie and slams the door. I throw myself on the bed and bury my head in the pillow. Tony sits on his bed.
“We ruined Christmas,” I wail.
Tony lays back on the bed and folds his hands behind his head. I pull the covers over me and hide. We both fall asleep.
We are lying still when Vickie walks into our bedroom. She is wearing her ever-present light blue bathrobe. Her hair is messy and she wears no makeup. “Your father and I are disappointed because we wanted to watch you open your presents,” she says. “And some of those weren’t even for you.”
I start crying again. Tony sits up.
“Now, go wash up,” she says, “Your dad and I will meet you in the kitchen.”
Usually, Vickie flew off the handle over something as small as spilled milk. But, neither she nor my father scolded us that day. We played with our new toys, had dinner. Even today, I’m surprised they were so kind about the whole thing. My kids never tried anything so subversive with me, and I wonder how I would have handled it. . . I know I would have made them re-wrap the presents not for them.