|Biff, still with me 40 years later.|
Christmas in my house was a lot different than Christmas in your house, unless you were related to me in which case you were hostage to the madness. Christmas 1968 was memorable for so many reasons, but that was also the year that my grandmother decided to buy everyone artificial Christmas trees.
I remember pulling into the snowy parking lot of a dilapidated warehouse on River Road in Hackensack one cold Saturday morning to pick up the trees. There we were shoved into Auntie Anna’s C&C Ford station wagon—Auntie Anna and mom in the front, Grandma behind them, and me, my brother and cousin Ronald bouncing around the back of the station wagon making faces at all the cars that had the misfortune to follow us. We tried to let our mirth extinguish the thought that on the ride home we’d have to sit with Grandma so the trees could fit in the trunk. There was no fooling around when you sat next to Grandma in the car. If you acted up she’d pile-drive her elbow into your head and make you say “Thank you.”
Dad worked Saturdays, so my brother and I waited excitedly for the Old Man to come home so we could set up the tree. Old Man was our term of endearment for dad and one that he adored. It’s also the only way he referred to himself when he told us stories from the old days. “Did I ever tell you about the time your Old Man ran a craps game in Cuba?…Did your Old Man ever tell you about his stint as a boxer in the army? ”Did your Old Man ever tell you about the time…” All those amazing stories he told about the adventures of his life in the third person would grip our imaginations and hold us captive.
When we heard the screeching wail of our screen door, followed by a turn of the key in the front door’s knob and a comically deep voice announcing, “Your Old Man’s home!” We raced to meet him. Without giving him a chance to get settled we pulled him into the kitchen where we ceremoniously began to remove all the envelopes he had stuffed inside his coat. Envelopes filled with cash from the people he delivered mail to.
Grabbing letter openers my brother and I went to work at the kitchen table slicing open envelope after envelope; shards of torn paper flying like confetti, as my Old Man, merry with joy, interrupted his whistling to raise his hands in the air and caution, “Okay you two, slow down.” But that just made us move faster, ripping fives, tens, twenties from inside the hold of holiday cards to the rhythm of Bing Crosby and the Andrew Sisters singing “Mele Kalikimaka.”
Then it was time for dinner—steak dinner. Saturday’s were always steak night in our house. I can still smell the aroma of butter and Worcestershire sauce floating above us in the kitchen as the broiler spit and bubbled behind us. But this night we rushed through dinner because we wanted to put our new tree together. We couldn’t wait. Even the promise of Jiffy Pop couldn’t slow us down.
As “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” played on our black-and white TV, my brother and I trudged the boxes of ornaments, lights, and gold garland up from the basement. Meanwhile the Old Man methodically removed the pieces of our new tree from the box. There was a green wooden pole with little colored holes. The idea was to match the color on the wire tip of each branch to the color of the hole. Easy to do, but as the years went by and time faded the colors on both the pole and the branches you had to be Houdini and guess where the branches went. And we also had to plug the stretched holes with matchsticks so the branches wouldn’t fall out. For many, many years our tree looked like it was put together by the criminally insane. But tonight it was new; it was perfect.
The following Monday my mother took us to see Santa downstairs at the Bergen Mall. Impatiently I waited on line, craning my neck to send the hairy-eyeball to each kid who sat on Santa’s lap wasting his time and mine with drivel. Finally, when it was my turn I was unexpectedly overcome with the need to use the bathroom. Badly.
“And what do you want for Christmas?” Santa asked. As his breath fell upon me it resonated with the scent of juniper berries and olives.
I was afraid to speak. Not because he intimidated me, but because I thought if I made a move I’d pee all over his leg. That wouldn’t get me Biff.
“How about a Dolly that wets?”
Oh dear God, Man! Please, let’s not talk about water! Let’s stay on dry land, okay?
Finally I held my breath and somehow managed to say, “Biff. I want Biff!”
“A mitt? No. Every little girl is asking for a Dolly that wets this year! Ho, Ho, Ho!”
And that’s when I rained Christmas all over Santa’s knee. Ha! Ha! Ha!
Christmas morning began at 4:30 a.m. I tip-toed to my brother’s bed and woke him up. As we headed toward the stairs I pushed him in front of me to be my beard just in case Santa was still there. He felt the hall wall like he was reading Braille looking for the light switch.
“How the hell long have you been living here?” I whispered to him. “Don’t you know where the switch is?”
Finally, he found it—or more likely, it found him. The hall light illuminated the living room just enough to see that Santa wasn’t there so I ran across the fringed green area rug and turned the lamp on. The living room had been magically transformed into Toy Land. All those toys shiny and new sitting beneath the tree. (Our Santa didn’t wrap.) I ran over my brother like road kill and indiscriminately waded through the G.I. Joes, Creepy Crawlers, Barbie dolls, a View Master Projector, and Colorforms until I found him waiting for me inside his cellophane box—Biff Bear! Finally, he was home.
Four decades later, Biff is still with me. He’s worn, torn, and a little bit ragged, but so am I. Regardless, he’s always, always my Biff Bear; my reminder of the best Christmas ever…Atlas Five and Ten’s windows overflowing with toys, a family gathered around a small kitchen table laughing and opening cards stuffed with cash, a new fake Christmas tree, and a Santa who smelled of juniper.
A Christmas that was undisturbed by the touch of sickness, death, and the great divide of years that gives birth to memory, regret, and longing.