Monday, December 26, 2011

Memories of Christmas Stockings and Cherry Chapstick


I can still remember my most spectacular Christmas as a child, back when Santa was as real and ephemeral as newly fallen snow. It was the only time I ever dared to sneak downstairs before everyone was awake, to see what presents had been magically delivered the night before. My heart was pounding in my throat with excitement as I carefully slid down the stairs. I turned left at the bottom of the stairs and stood in awe. It was all I could do to restrain myself.

The living room was overflowing with presents!

With five kids in our family, just the family presents alone would become quite a collection over the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Adding Santa’s offerings to the mix on Christmas morning pretty well filled the corner of the room where the Christmas tree was. But this Christmas, Santa had clearly dipped deeply into the budget and overloaded his sleigh. To my eyes, the room had been filled to overflowing with presents.
One thing that stood out was the pogo stick leaning against the fireplace. It wasn’t some cheap little toy. It was the real thing. A large, red, very solidly built pogo stick.  I didn’t dare let myself guess who it might be for, lest I be disappointed later.
I quietly crept back upstairs and climbed back into bed, waiting for the dim glow in the sky to turn into actual dawn. Too excited to fall back to sleep. Yet, somehow I did.
Eventually, consciousness crept its way into the family along with the rising sun. For some reason I could never deduce, my parents were always last to rise on Christmas morning. At their rising, the stampede down the stairs could finally ensue.
Into the fray we entered.
Exited the fray much wrapping paper in shreds.
At this point, the memories of many Christmases blur together where the ripping into presents is concerned. Excitement of not quite knowing what was next going to be unveiled when wrapping paper was removed.
Of these blurred memories, there were some constants.
My mother has always been an avid knitter. She knitted the Christmas stockings for my brothers and and myself. Christmas red and white, with our names on each. Even our eye colors were reflected in each stocking. We always hung our stockings by the fireplace before Christmas and there they would dangle flaccidly until the holiday.
Christmas day, the stockings would be stuffed with small presents from Santa and be too heavy to be hung up. So they laid on the floor waiting to be handed out. One thing about knitted goods is that they stretch and stretch. So the stockings could really be packed beyond their natural volume full of goodies, much like Gurgi’s magic wallet.
The presents to be found in the stockings always took second place to the larger and more glamorous items to be found underneath the Christmas tree. However, the items in the stockings usually ended up being the more exotic and interesting presents, as well as the longest lasting. Silver dollars and pens and pencils were common in the mix. There were also super balls. My favorite was one that was clear and had glitter inside it, though, when bounced over the house, it wasn’t as easy to find as were the fluorescent ones. Another favorite of mine were those brainteaser puzzles. Sometimes it would take days. Sometimes months to figure those out. There were magic trick toys. Toy cars. Pocket-sized toys and their like. Many of these toys lasted so long, they found their way into the next generation of children in our family.
One stocking stuffer that stood out in my memory was cherry-flavored ChapStick. As a little boy, I didn’t have much use for lip balms. One use that I did have for it was when I discovered that it could be used as a protectant to keep your lips from being frozen to the sled should you hit a bump on the way down the hill. It wouldn’t be until I got into middle school that I would learn to appreciate the need for lip balms. What struck me most about the cherry ChapStick was the scent. That stuck with me over all the years and I always associated it with Christmas, almost as much as the smell of balsam fir.
Each of these memories eventually would become elements in a story for me. The Christmas tree would become a glittering metropolis, whether a space age city or a primitive culture living in a giant tree. Either makes an interesting setting for a story. Toys could represent space ships or aliens. Chocolate coins would become treasure to be found before the pirates caught me. Something could happen and each of the toys represented some element of a story.
If you ever wonder where the seeds of a story come from, that’s it. Those little bits and pieces of childhood memories. They meant something for some reason, and conveyed a feeling. With that feeling, comes a story.
Watch your children as they begin to play with their new toys after the holidays. Watch carefully. At first, they play with the toy because it is new. But then that play begins to change. It isn’t enough that they are making the toy move or whatever. You will begin to notice that they start making something happen with that toy. They start playing out an event, a scene from a story.
They aren’t just making noises and making the toy move. They are making something happen with the toy. They are making something happen to the toy. Maybe the toy is coming in for a landing, and the people inside the toy are going to explore something, only to get attacked by a tyrannosaur!
That’s a story!
A puzzle becomes a fantastic key that opens a door to another world. A letter opener becomes a sword that can cut through anything. A gyroscope becomes a space station drifting in space where unsuspecting inhabitants are about to have first contact with another race. A box of Legos can and will become anything!
Watch your children as they play with their new toys. Don’t just ask them what they are doing. They’ll tell you they are playing with their toy. Instead, ask your children what is happening to the toy. The answer you get might be entirely different than what you expected. One with surprising detail.
You may just be seeing the seeds being sown for the next great American novel to be written twenty years from now.

And the pogo stick? Turned out it had my name on it!