Thursday, April 14, 2011
A DISTURBING CHRISTMAS PRESENT
My family did Christmas on Christmas Eve. The grandparents came over to my family's house mid-afternoon, we opened presents, ate something light, and then my father tried to assemble toys as quickly as my brother and I could play with them, passing from one to another in a frenzy of acquisition. A wooden train -- a very early gift although I think they still make them for high-end toy stores. A motorized race track with a flimsy plastic track that made a figure eight and that was really only fun when you could make the cars fly off the elevated turn. A chemistry set that could create the smell of rotten eggs (big hit). On the higher end, a telescope one year, a go-cart another. Then we got older and it was mostly clothes we had picked out for ourselves.
Later in the evening, a second tier of relatives would arrive. Aunt Ivy was my paternal grandmother's sister. She lived in Akron, Ohio with her husband, Uncle Dee. I was always told that I had not been named after Uncle Dee, despite the eerie similarity of our names. They were in town to celebrate Christmas with their daughter's family, Jerry, her two sons, considerably younger than my brother and I, and, if she had one at the time, her husband. They brought us boring gifts. Some years the soap-on-a-rope went in the cabinet next the previous year's soap-on-a-rope. The bottle of English Leather sat unused next to the British Sterling I doused myself in for special occasions. These were gifts that proved most valuable when school friends insisted on having birthday parties for themselves well into their high school years.
I was in tenth grade when this disturbing event occurred. The doorbell rang and Aunt Ivy and company arrived. We convened to the living room, which in itself marked the ritualized formality of the event. The tree and actual family event took place in the den. But the seldom-used living room was closest to the front door and that's where we sat. There was conversation, I suppose, and cookies and complaints of being too full to eat another bite. Then came the desultory passing out of gifts, with all the lowered expectations we had come to expect.
Until my brother married some years later, my family traditionally distributed all the gifts and then everyone tore into them at once, holding up whatever they found in the box and shouting "Thank you" across the room before moving on to the next package. My brother's wife, however, introduced the time-consuming tradition of opening one present at a time. But this was not yet the case, and so the room full of relatives started in all at once on their packages.
My box from Aunt Ivy and Uncle Dee had an unusual shape. It was a cube, weighed almost nothing, and was flimsy to the touch. Both soap-on-a-rope and cologne were out as possibilities, and I was preparing myself for the wrong kind of socks. I didn't know exactly how they would be wrong, but I knew that wrong they would be.
While everyone else in the room was busy with their own gifts, I opened mine and saw what I at first took to be some sort of packing material. It was fabric, light-weight fabric, some patterned and some solid. Where were the bad socks? Once I fished my way deeper into the box and touched what could only be an amply sized brassiere did I know for certain that I held in my lap a box of Aunt Ivy's soiled underclothes.
"What have you got there?" someone asked, but I was speechless. I think I had a pair of panties in my hand at that time because the next thing I remember was Aunt Ivy, a woman of a certain age and considerable girth, leaping across the room, grabbing the box from hand and saying something. I wish I could be more specific here, but Aunt Ivy was never well-spoken and was understandably as flustered as myself. It was all something about packing for the trip, knowing that she needed to do laundry when she arrived, and somehow making the terrible mistake.
This should have been a moment a general hilarity and a treasured Christmas memory for the Mitchell family, but I do not believe it was ever spoken of again. I retold it this past year to my niece's and nephew's families. It was the afternoon after my mother's funeral, many photo albums were being passed around, and the younger people were curious about who was who in some of the pictures. A picture of Aunt Ivy--incidentally not the picture of total strangers I have used with this post -- prompted me to tell the story of her unusual Christmas offering. But memory is selective. Of those who witnessed the event, only myself, my brother, and father are still alive. As my niece and nephew and their spouses screamed and laughed and rolled on the floor, both my father and brother claimed to have no memory of the event. Of course, neither of them had dug into that box and touched that well-worn Playtex living bra.