I am seven and tip-toeing through the all-white living room. In a house packed to the brim with five wild heathens this room is my mother’s pursuit of something nice. The big white couch is pristine, the piano perched near the wall hits a note of class, and the potted plants I don’t quite understand. Perhaps only the fanciest of people can pay to bring their trees inside? We take full advantage during her rare distracted moments and tear the white room to shreds because it is our destructive duty as kids, but more simply because that big white couch has the best cushions for bouncing or sledding down the nearby stairs. Tonight is a quieter endeavor, so the couch remains intact. This pure-driven parlor is the scene of our nicest Christmas tree, and there is much checking for gifts to be done.
I come across a horrible sight mingled in the middle branches of the big,tall tree. Gently, I reach worried fingers to the dark ornament toasted by a fiery red bulb. It is Santa, and he is badly burned. I assume the blasted twinkle lights have caused this most awful accident, charring the once snow-skinned Father Christmas to the very deepest brown. “Oh, oh, oh. Sir Clause, ” I try to comfort him as best a child can. I am nearly inconsolable when my desperate eyes wander gold-star-and-heaven-bound. And there (and everywhere) dangle warm-faced characters. I suppose it is the way a little soul seems more capable of accepting change and mystery, but I am all at once relieved. It is as if the black-haired, brown-skinned angel ornament three rows up has proclaimed “Fear not, young child. Behold! We are black”.
In the climatic weeks flowing towards Christmas, those ornaments would become my favorites. There was a small girl sitting on Santa’s lap. I loved her, with her dancing hair, curls bouncing just like my baby sister. And near the bottom rested a glorious Angel of brown-sugar. Her warm, round eyes the same delicious shade of chocolate as my other younger sister. The brown baby Jesus seemed no less precious to my heart as his paler rendition just two twinkle lights and one snowman globe to the left. I wanted to put him in a stroller, feed him the very best milk from my collection of small plastic bottles. I would call him Jay or Jessie because every kid needs a proper nickname.
There followed much chaos Christmas morning. Amid the tornado strewn bows and bits of paper we’d sit adoring our newest dolls. I would tirelessly try to hoard the black baby girls as they had the most beautiful hair. Later, joy would turn to sorrow as our mother dressed us in coordinating outfits, and we’d wriggle and scratch at miserable, itchy tights in the backseat of the minivan. To grandmother’s house we’d go. And this was what Christmas was. And this was what a family looked like. And it would take some time before I knew anything different and concluded that different wasn’t better at all.
At a playmate’s house I’d peer suspiciously at her piles of blonde-haired dolls. Their white skin and straight locks all lined up in a row, I’d look into their creepy, duplicate eyes and feel both boredom and a distinct sense of the spooks. Why do they all look the same? A little Children of The Corn-ish, don’t you think?
I grew boobs and a broader scope of the world around junior high when school kids grew more brazenly dumb. “Where did your sisters come from?,” they mostly wanted to know. “Nashville,” I’d state plainly because where else could they have been born? Crueler idiots would want to know if my mom “got with” a black man. I didn’t know what they were implying, but by all means I did not find this comment offensive. Surely my mom has black friends. Maybe they all got together for coffee. This blend of white kids and brown ones baffled a few peers. Adoption seemed too boring a response for them, so the interrogations continued. I grew defensive on my little sisters’ behalf, and with time I’d figured out a surefire way to shut up the meddling meanies: get a little wild-eyed on ’em. “What do you mean?,” I’d ask instead of answering. “I’m black, too. Oh, I am so black. I am the blackest!“. If I insisted I was, indeed, the fairest of all brown people in all the land, they dropped it. The new topic of discussion became the crazy-pants 8th grader who doesn’t know she’s white. My little sisters became old news.
There would be the teenage summers of vanity and stupidity in which I’d try to baby oil bake my pasty skin to match the perfect honey hue of my littlest sister. This was perhaps the only time I cared about the difference in color, namely because I was furious at how pasty and freckled I’d been born. She’d roll her eyes and I’d pout with mine. I achieved said shade by summer’s end. Holding her arm up to my belly to compare, my sister still seemed unimpressed. She was that tan in the winter and without even trying. The inside of my belly button stung with sun burn and my whole back peeled off. This put a small damper on an otherwise monumental victory.
In early adulthood I’d have a few acquaintances who seemed fascinated with the idea of such a childhood. The black baby dolls, the mixed-race family, I suppose the interest stemmed from such things being foreign to them. I would grow fascinated with their fascination because I couldn’t imagine any aspects of this little life of ours as fascinating. They were typically the ones who refer to my sisters as adopted, my family as different. I would remind them that they have parents and siblings, too. “But, you know, but…,” they’d start to get tongue-tied, but the words seemed pretty simple to me: “No buts.” Your family isn’t your family because you match.
Older now, I watch my fair-skinned son dancing and punching, cuddling and arguing with his cousins. White or peach, brown or black, they don’t seem the least bit concerned with skin. They circle and hover around our Christmas tree pointing out ornaments and discussing much-anticipated presents. They spot a Robot Santa and this strikes them as ludicrous. That’s what $2.99 at a craft store will get you, I explain as they pause to stare blankly at me before returning to their games. And I see clearly now just how purposefully my parents placed brown baby Jesus and jolly black Santa on our tree. Kids will accept what you repeatedly show them, and I’m grateful to have been shown exactly this way: We are a whole host of things before we are a hint of a shade of a color. We are sisters and family. We are loving and accepting. We are good or bad completely independent of how we look or where we came from. Because what about Santa’s white hands makes him any more magical to a kid? Is a blue-eyed Angel any closer to God? Does the texture of baby Jesus’s hair matter so much as the fact that an entire world rejoiced when he got here? And perhaps the most pressing question of all:
Who puts a white couch and 5 kids in the same house?
a favorite holiday ornament