When I tell people my favorite memory of childhood holidays is the carpeted ceiling of a ’89 Caravan they get all uncomfortable: Was she kidnapped? Raised by gypsy drug dealers? Sold into a life of forced blogging, writing skills exploited by a cold-hearted pimp? Oh, the adventure! But no. It was a lot simpler than that. Acceptable under the eyes of the law even.
It all started at Sunnyside.
Packed shoulder-to-shoulder and attitude-to-angst, my siblings and I fought as my mother swung blind shots from the driver’s seat of her shoddy old minivan. With her eyes trained straight ahead towards the night road her swats stung the knees of innocents (me) while she pushed threats of cancelling Christmas and kicking one or all of us out of the family picture through clenched teeth. My brother would lick and slap two fingers across my arm, some hellish trick he called an Indian Rug Burn. My anger strapped by shoulders with a seat belt, I’d then settle with kicking a little sister’s shin. So she’d wail or punch another sister to keep this chain of chaos running smoothly. But then, through all the fussing and physical brutality in the backseat, we’d feel the slowing of tires, hear the click-clicking of a right turn signal, and all would go calm.
Our yellow school bus clunked and churned into the Sunnyside subdivision twice daily. Fully engaged in Back vs. Front spit ball warfare, I hardly paid mind to the modest homes, the rolling hills, the feet shuffling down the aisle, the creak of a bus door unfolding to let them go home. It was just another stop, another opportunity for the opposing team to lose a few good spit’n'straw warriors. In the afternoon haze Sunnyside seemed like all other sides of this Tennessee town. There would be grass, some dufus with a bright orange GO VOLS! mailbox, and kids that lived in houses.
But the sun goes down and the wind gets cold. And in December this moon lit Sunnyside was a spectacle. We suddenly silent hoodlums watched headlights shine on that same, old white-lettered neighborhood sign. Only at night, I learned, approaching it meant certain admittance to a glorious Heaven. Suddenly shining, the yards swooped and rose above hills on fire with Christmas lights. Blinking and swirling up trees and down driveways, I was hypnotized. There was a glowing Jesus and stars fallen from the sky and onto rooftops. There were fancy letters glittering green cursive greetings. Icicles glowed purple then blue from gutters and door frames. All the twinkle in the world stacked high and deep to infinity. I gasped and pressed my small hand against a window. I just needed to grab and hold all these beautiful things.
I would ache, wanting so desperately to dance in that sparkle. I’d lean back in my seat and imagine as homes blurred by that I lived in those lights. I decided I could become one of those Sunnyside sweet hearts. I’d be blonde and go by Clara and my parents would have subtle British voices and we would randomly burst into perfectly pointed scenes from The Nutcracker. I’d be the girl who didn’t pick her nose just to see what was up there and the warm of these lights would melt away my tomboy scrapes and I would trade climbing trees for dainty tea parties and okay so maybe I’d still like to climb trees but I would scale them like a lady in a ruffle dress with a head of precious curls that never came unwound.
The unfortunate sibling sandwiched in the middle seat would shove to get a better view, and there I’d be again. As we looped around, waved goodbye to the brightness until next year, my child’s heart would (as they are wont to do) grow resilient. I’d glance up to find reflections, tiny pieces of those brilliant lights dancing above my head inside my very own minivan. Red and gold and gold and green, our ceiling, our ceiling glittered, too. I’d know that I was plenty close to the shine.
I am hollering about eternal time outs to my son and niece and nephew as we drive home. Before I can start swatting, the three go quiet. Our neighbors have filled their yard with a circus of Christmas decor. Humming, giant fans bring inflatable Santa and a snow man playing a mechanical Whack-A-Penguin to life. They tower 15 feet in the air and plastic trees of twirling lights are scattered among them. I see mostly piles of plugs and snaking cords, electrical hazard, and obnoxious displays of consumerism. Awful f-filled thoughts commingle with dreams of jogging…. at night… with some scissors… through their flamboyant lawn. It’s all too bright and -dare I say it?- merry.
I glance back to see three necks straining for a better view. My niece presses her face between two palms flat against the freezing window. My son points and exclaims that they’ve got “Christmas times in they’s yard”. And I go quiet, too. All I can think is “Oh”.
Because it occurs to me that we are born completely mesmerized.
We get old.
We change our minds.
While I was cursing wattage their little eyes were blessing all the wonder. While I was seeing cords and circuits, they saw all the twinkle in the world, stacked high and deep to infinity. It’s clear that my sight ain’t what it used to be. So, this holiday season I’ll try my hardest to get back to Sunnyside of things. See the sparkle. Change my mind… again.
What is your favorite holiday memory from childhood?
favorite holiday memory