When I hear Bing Crosby sing “White Christmas,” I give a tiny shudder. We had white Christmases growing up in the late 1960’s in Everett, Washington. Decidedly not as romantic as Mr. Crosby’s songs. Our house was old and uninsulated, with a small oil heater in the living room huffing out a halo of heat that rarely would find its way around the corner and up the staircase to the unfinished attic my four older brothers and I slept in.
Dad tried every trick he knew: hanging storm windows in the fall and placing a fan at the foot of the stairs to coax warm air to our room, all to no avail. On the bitterest night, we would sleep on the tile floor of the main room, the heater filling the downstairs with heat as our warmth was leached away by the frozen floor.
December 1967 was no harsher than any other winter I could remember. The real cold didn’t come until January, so bedtime meant wearing two pair of jammies (including underpants) socks on my hands and feet and pulling the covers over my head to try and stay warm, a habit that has carried over to my adulthood.
I had started first grade and was learning to read from the old “John, Judy and Jean” primary readers. Jean, the youngest, had a teddy bear she drug through all her adventures; Timmy the Bear taught me more about reading than any of Judy’s siblings. Because of Judy’s bear, I learned to read my first book, “The Teddy Bear’s Pancake Breakfast.” I was so thrilled when I found I could read and reread the words, just like my older brothers and sisters.
The words didn’t flow as easily as they did for my mother or father, but I could read! The more I learned in school, the greater grew my desire for a Timmy Bear, just like Judy’s.
Money was tight in our household in those years. Dad had returned to school to learn to be a draftsman for the Boeing company that was building a great new factory at the edge of town. Christmas gifts rarely meant any more than a book, an article of clothing and a toy, if you had been especially good.
Our living room was full of books, so a new book wasn’t special, and we wore uniforms for school. I was growing into my brothers’ hand-me-downs. The only thing I wanted was a Teddy Bear, one I could name Timmy and go on all our own adventures. I wrote my list that winter, searching the pages of the old Sears wish-catalog for a stuffed bear like Timmy. I couldn’t find one, but by then I had learned to scrawl “Teddy Bear.” Half the letters were backwards and at six, my penmanship was awfully bad. Dad held the list at arm’s length, twisting it side to side to make out the words. Mom asked me to read the list. “Isn’t there anything more?” she asked. At the local K-Mart, she could afford a package of toy cars and give one to each of my brothers and I, the sensible thing for a depression-era parent.
But I was as adamant as a six-year old could be. “No, Mom,” I explained. “A teddy bear, that’s all I really want.”
Christmas Eve arrived. Before I snuggled into the burrow of tangled sheets and blankets that was my bed, I stared out through the frozen panes of my bedroom window, thinking, “Well, if there REALLY is a Santa Claus, he’ll know I don’t want matchbox cars or a new shirt. What I really want is that teddy bear.”
My older brothers had told me there was no Santa, not really. So tonight would be the big test. If there was no teddy bear under the tree for me the next morning, then Randy, Danny and Stevie were right. Santa would be another disappointment in my short life of disappointment.
Christmas morning! I snuck my nose outside my warm cocoon to the magic, frosty morning. With ten children, my parents maintained strict rules for Christmas morning. We could go no further than the staircase, my eldest sister would bring my half-asleep younger siblings to wait on the stairs until Dad and Mom were ready to face the dervish of excitement, especially from us younger kids.
If we had to go to the bathroom, Ellen, the eldest, would cover our eyes to escort us to the bathroom. Anticipation and excitement would grow to the bursting, eighteen feet would stamp on the steps, alerting my parents it was time to get up. Dad would rumble and roar, telling us to go back to bed. I would stamp my feet harder. I had suffered enough in my toasty bed roll. It was Christmas morning!
Finally, my parents would relent. Squeals of glee as we ten fell over each other, dashing to see the bounty of gifts under the tree and stockings laid out so carefully on the couch. We had our spots picked out, grabbing the socks by the toe and shaking the goodies on the floor. Foil wrapped chocolate Santas and snowmen, cellophane wrapped hard candies and peppermints. Small cars and perhaps a parachutist, his arms up thrust holding the lanyards to his plastic parachute. You threw him as high as you could outside, hoping his parachute would open as he fell to the ground. Or not. There was great fun to make falling screams and splats as the luckless plastic soldier plummeted to his make-believe death.
At the bottom of the sock, a sweet, tangy tangerine. Sometimes, I tore the skin off to enjoy bright flavor of the rare and precious treat right away.
By now, Mom had brewed coffee and started breakfast. Reinforced by his first cup of joe, Dad would supervise the opening of one gift each. Only one. Mom would have breakfast ready and it was time to eat. Scrambled eggs with a little cheese, rafts of bacon and toast with orange juice. Then into our Sunday clothes for mass.
It was hardly fair, having to sit through Father Larsen’s homily on Christmas morning when an abundance of gifts waited for us under the tree. Maybe it seemed like a bounty with presents for twelve people piled under the tree. To a six-year-old, it was more wrapping and ribbon than I had ever seen. There HAD to be a teddy bear under there, if for no other reason than only Santa could bring so many gifts.
We settled around the living room, nearly breathless in anticipation. The older children, those who could read, would select a gift and read the tag: To Joe from Sharon, To Danny from Kathryn Mary, To Steve from Dad…The gift would be passed over eagerly. No delicate unwrapping. Paper was shredded, ribbons sundered with teeth until scissors could be found. The great pile under the tree would grow smaller and smaller as our pile of booty grew larger and larger.
I received a book and a new shirt, one my brothers had never worn. A metal tractor with a scoop on the back and a bucket on the front and real rubber tires. Generous, indeed wonderful generosity from Santa, my siblings and my Dad. But no teddy bear.
There was no Santa. The entire pile of gifts was opened and all of us kids were squealing and laughing in glee. Not me. I searched under the tree for one last gift, but nothing remained. I held my disappointment inside, as my parents encouraged us to do, but my tiny heart was broken with the shattering of my belief in Saint Nicholas.
My mom called me over, my eyes red. “What’s the matter, David?” she asked.
“Momma, I know we are supposed to be grateful for all our presents from the family and Santa Claus,” I struggled to keep my lower lip from quivering. “But I asked Santa for a teddy bear. That’s all I wanted, but I didn’t get one. Maybe I wasn’t good enough this year and Santa took it back to the North Pole?”
“No David, you were very good this year,” Mom answered. “But there was a little accident last night. From between the arm of her chair, she pulled a bear with brown fur and a cream belly. Orange jeweled eyes sparkled, a black nose protruded over his pink tongue. “I was wrapping presents last night and I spilled perfume on your new teddy. I didn’t want to put him next to the other gifts in case the perfume rubbed off on them. Merry Christmas, David!”
I grabbed my teddy bear, declaring softly, “Hello, Timmy. We’re going to be best friends!” He reeked of the perfume, doubtlessly something dad had bought for mom.
Over the years, Timmy and I were indispensable at night. Happily, the smell of the perfume faded. Finally, the day came where I misplaced my oldest friend. I missed him, though not terribly. Little boys grow into men and lay aside the toys of their childhood to be forgotten. I wondered for years what happened to my little friend. Soon, more pressing issues became more important and my thoughts of the smelly little teddy bear faded.
Christmas, 1995. Dad had died ten years before and Mom was selling the old house for something smaller and more modern. We held one last Christmas in the old home. Mom was surprising us with gifts, toys and objects long lost. I received a series of old books and gee-gaws Mom had saved over the years. As the gift exchange wore down, Mom wiggled a finger at me with a smile.
“I got you again,” she chuckled. “You never were terribly observant, were you?” Next to her on her lamp stand was a brightly wrapped box with the tag “From Christmas long past…” I had grown to be opening gifts slowly now, trying to preserve the wrappings and allow my anticipation to grow just that much more.
The box opened. I gasped.
He was old now, patches of his blonde and brown fur were missing. The fluff that filled him had hardened to pebbles, so he had become limp and floppy. His nose and tongue were long gone. But brilliant, sparkling orange eyes twinkled, as to say,” Well, hello. I’ve been waiting to see you for so long…”
still sits on my headboard today.