This post was originally done in January of this year, and is being republished for your viewing pleasure.
It's funny how people in the same family remember the same events differently. Or in my case, how my sister, J, just doesn't remember them at all. It's really hard to enjoying reminiscing when 90% of our conversations go something like this:
M: "Oh my gosh, J, you'll never guess who I ran into yesterday! So-and-so! Remember her? We both had a crush on you-know-who! Wasn't that hysterical? That time we took you to such-and-such a place was so much fun. We were so dorky! "
J: Pauses. "Um, no, I don't remember going there."
M: "Oh. Well, you remember her, though, right? The one with the really long blonde, curly hair and huge bangs?"
J: "That pretty much describes every one of the girls at school."
M: True. "Yeah, but so-and-so was tall and had that jean jacket?" Wait that doesn't really help. "She had a sister who was in cheerleading with you... what was her name...."
J: "You know I don't remember anything from our childhood."
J: Sigh. "I know."
So on Christmas Eve when we were filling the stockings and eating Santa's cookies, we started talking about one Christmas in particular that stuck with both of us. I was excited to relive those memories with her. It's rare for that kind of thing to happen, and I was shocked at the details she could conjure up. But I also understood why. That Christmas was different. It was the one year we peeked.
Our mom is from Manitoba, so we never took vacation per se; any traveling we did was to visit family. The trip to Mom's hometown is a 14-hour car ride, and we usually went in the summer to escape the sticky midwest heat, but occasionally made the trek twice a year and braved the bitter cold around Christmastime as well. Since dad was a mailman, he didn't get time off at Christmas, so when we started talking about this specific trip, he insisted we were mistaken. I imagine there were years we went before or after the holiday, but one year, my sister and I both agreed, we were definitely there on Christmas Eve.
We stayed at Grandma's house like we did with every visit until her stroke when I was in high school. The aunt and uncle who had cousins closest to our age were there, too. All nine of us kids slept in the basement. We, of course, stayed up as long as we could to try to catch Santa. I think I was 10 or so, and J would have been about 8, so we were of an age to be in on the secret that he wasn't real, but we played along knowing he wouldn't bring presents to those who thought he didn't exist. And we were sensitive to the presence of our younger cousins.
Inevitably, we all fell asleep. My sister remembered that one of our cousins set the alarm clock for 2 or 3am. Everyone got up and stealthily crept up the old stairs that had chips in the brown paint. We leaned against the worn railing and paneled walls to avoid the creaky spots. I remember it feeling like it took forever for all nine of us to get to the top. Whenever someone made a noise, we all froze and held our breath, afraid we'd get caught.
Finally, our anticipation having reached a fervor, we arrived at the kitchen and silently made our way across the linoleum floor, past the counter laden with Grandma's delicious baked goods and the curio containing tchotchkes. Our feet found the soft carpet of the living room that had yet to obtain updated furniture so it was like a time warp to the late '60's, early 70's. There were so many of us that the presents almost filled the room. Though it was dark, there was reflection from the snow to send enough moonlight through the big front window that we could see which presents belonged to each of us.
Oddly enough, though I'm the one with the better memory in general, I don't remember what presents we got that year. I think our cousins got Cabbage Patch kids, but maybe that was the year we got them. (That would have made it 1984 since '83 was the year of the craze, and our parents refused to succumb to the insanity.) Anyway, the specifics of that part of the night are lost on me. I had thought we just checked the stockings and big, unwrapped presents. J, though, distinctly remembers carefully unwrapping her gifts, a locket in particular.
We were all giddy with the adrenaline of doing something forbidden and the joy of discovering which of our wishes had come true. Shushing each other and prodding everyone to finish re-wrapping gifts, we snuck back to the basement. It was tough to settle down and get back to sleep, but we eventually did.
Christmas morning we got up and joined our parents. I don't know how our cousins felt, but J and I were incredibly disappointed. It was such a let down to already know what we'd gotten. We all put on a fake smile and tried to be excited, but J remembers being unable to convince our parents that she was as thrilled with the locket as she should have been and giving us away. I don't think we were in trouble really, but even if we had been punished, it wouldn't have mattered. That disappointment was the best instrument in teaching us not to peek. We never did it again.
Merry Christmas, 2011!!