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A thrill of hope, the worried kid rejoices 

Christmas was out of joint when I was eight years old. The December weather was unusually warm, making the decorations and carols seem out of place, and the day itself appeared to take forever to arrive. The disorienting thing, though, was my mother's change of attitude that fall and winter. Things hadn't worked out for her, and she had finally figured out that they wouldn't get any better.

In our home, tension had become the very air we breathed. For Mom, the young woman's hope she'd brought with her to South Carolina as a Belgian war bride, her nearly naïve cheerfulness, had been eroded by 10 years of cultural dislocation, accusations and fights with my father. Or maybe it was simply the wearing quality of lost time that replaced her open gaze and frequent smile with a new, piercing look and a sardonic, sideways grin.

In a way, her new attitude was a victory; rather than turn into an embittered grouch, Mom simply changed her type of humor. The guileless jokes and silliness she cultivated during much of my childhood had gradually been swapped for a drier, darker humor. Now, she walked around with a kind of odd, amused acceptance of the fact that her handsome American husband, so exotic and even thrilling when they met in Europe, was a stingy simpleton who would never better himself and never understand her. She overlaid this slow revelation with a film of irony, allowing her to go on until she could figure out what to do about it.

The battles between my parents had ceased to be individual arguments, so that living with them now was like being in one long, ongoing fight, interrupted here and there by The Lone Ranger, comic books, or sleep. For a kid, though, the approach of Christmas promised something better. My mother, who felt guilty about the brawls as well as my growing nervousness, assured me several times that this would be "a good Christmas."

Naturally, to me, "a good Christmas" meant a lot of toys. So one night I sat at the kitchen table with the Sears Roebuck catalog and marked everything I wanted, including a sleeping bag, the new "Have Gun Will Travel" toy six-gun set, and a quarter-lifesize imitation cannon I was going to use to annihilate the pretend army I fought in the backyard. I wrote out my list, including prices, on both sides of a sheet of lined school paper, then totaled it up. Two hundred and sixty dollars -- in 1950s money. I showed it to Mom. She smiled that new smile of hers, looked over at Dad and said, "Here. Here's Johnny's Christmas list -- you see any reason why we can't get all this?"

Christmas season ­­­-- in the midst of the Eisenhower recession, during which Dad rarely worked full weeks at the mill -- ratcheted up the tension in the house even more. Shouting matches over money, blaring from the kitchen, drowned out the likes of Perry Como's TV Christmas Special. On Christmas Eve that year, Dad straggled home from a round of anxious, last-minute shopping and started barking orders at Mom and me. Stunned, I retreated to my room, as usual, and read sci-fi comics.

Three weeks later, my mother would feverishly pack our clothes while Dad was at work, and would take me back with her to the country of her early hopes, away from my father and cotton mills and ends that didn't meet.

For a few years, I thought something that happened the week after Christmas had been the last straw for my mother. As I got older, I realized that her escape back to Belgium had to have been planned for months, but the supposed triggering incident nonetheless stuck in my memory while a thousand others faded.

I don't know exactly what sparked the explosion, but it had to have had something to do with money spent at Christmas. Dad was in what now seemed a permanently dark mood, and my parents' arguments had become, to me, a continuous, all-encompassing ache; facial tics I had first developed the year before now returned. Before Christmas, Mom had wanted to buy more tree ornaments to replace a few that had broken over the years; Dad had refused, saying it was a silly waste of money.

During the day of New Year's Eve, I was in the kitchen reading comic books when the ongoing bickering in the living room turned into a maniacal yelling match. I walked carefully down the hall to see what was going on and got there in time to see my father pick up our entire Christmas tree -- lights, ornaments, tinsel and all -- open the front door, and sling the whole thing over the front steps and into the front yard in a clamor of broken glass. Horrified, I started bawling; Mom came over and put her arm around me. I looked up just as she gazed down at me with that new, sardonic smile and said, "Don't cry, it's going to be all right. Now it looks like we'll have those new Christmas balls next year."

A longer version of this story ran in 2002, and is anthologized in Tis The Season, a book from Novello Festival Press.

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