You know that house where, the night before Christmas, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse? Well, that wasn’t our house. That was a house where mamma in her kerchief and papa in his cap could settle their brains for a long winter’s nap because they knew good and well that St. Nicholas was about to come down the chimney with a bound and do absolutely everything. It may come as a surprise to many people, but the fact is, St. Nicholas doesn’t do one blessed thing for the Heath family.
At our house — and I wouldn’t want this mentioned in front of just anybody — Santa Claus is really Ben and me; and the period during which not a creature is stirring, not even a mouse, lasts roughly from 4:10 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. By six o’clock, actually, you couldn’t call what goes on in our house “stirring.”
You know the family that gathers round the hearth on Christmas Eve while Father rereads the beloved A Christmas Carol? Firelight flickering on absorbed little faces? Baby dropping off to sleep on Mother’s shoulder? Well, that’s not our family, and I bet you guessed.
I hope I’m not giving anyone the impression that Ben and I are not respecters of tradition, because the fact is that we’re simply aslosh with traditions. We always sing Christmas carols after dinner; we always hang our stockings on the mantelpiece; we always set out cookies and milk for Santa Claus, but we just don’t have the time to listen to Ben read A Christmas Carol. We have a substitute tradition: We give Janet and Timothy a half-teaspoon of liquid phenobarbital, Jennifer, Betsey, and Alison a teaspoon, and Buckley, Priscilla, and John two teaspoons each. (We’ve had to keep the two eldest off the stuff these past two years; they have to stay alert.)
Then we send 16-year-old Jim, who has a voice like a bull calf, into the living room with the big children and make him read Dickens’s beloved A Christmas Carol; and 14-year-old Pam, who has such a sharp eye and a quick hand that she can whack a small bottom while its owner is still wondering which trespass to commit, takes the peewees into the nursery to hear Clement C. Moore’s beloved “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”
Ben and I refill the coffee pot and proceed forthwith to the furnace room, which is where we spend Christmas Eve. Not by choice, you understand — if we had a choice, we’d watch Amahl and the Night Visitors or take a walk or something — but because the furnace room is the only one in our house in which you can a) store 167 different items, ranging from aeroplane: gasoline-powered to Zig-Zag Puzzle Map; and also b) lock the door.
Nine out of ten of these items, you understand, have to be organized or set up or assembled, and a good many of them have to be either reconstructed or redesigned from scratch. All of them must be fully understood if Christmas morning is not to shrill with the sad cry of: “What’s all that stuff supposed to be?” and “The box says Astro-Dyno Jet, but it’s just a bunch of iron sticks!” or “I’ll never be able to play with that. The directions have too-long words!” All of which leaves Ben and me with the choice of working in the living room after the last child is asleep — and when you have ten children, that means never — or spending Christmas Eve in the furnace room.
The furnace room is rather peaceful, actually. By the time we’ve opened the boxes and laid out the hammer, saw, screwdrivers, wrenches, pliers, files, glue, rubber cement, safety pins, needles and thread, toothpicks for stiffening tabs that won’t go into slots, crochet hooks and rubber bands for putting dolls’ arms back on, Mercurochrome, Band-Aids, tranquilizers, Benzedrine, phenobarbital, aspirin, and a dictionary, we hardly even notice the furnace, which has a way of breathing like a dinosaur with croup. Jim’s voice, bellowing, “Sit DOWN, Buckley,” or, “I said QUIET,” filters down to us in a soft murmur; and since the nursery is on the third floor and Pam’s energy is limited, she clatters down only every now and then to tell us that Alison is blowing into Jay’s ear and blaming it on Betsey, or that Alison keeps sticking her feet under Timothy and pinching him with her toes, or that Alison keeps muttering “moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow, moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow” and making the others laugh and act silly . . . “Well, she thinks it’s a bad word, Mother, or she wouldn’t bother to say it. You know how absolutely vulgar Alison is.”
“Send her down to Jim’s group,” I roar through the screws in my mouth, which isn’t much help — or much help to Jim, anyway — but my maternal instinct always seems to wane as my mechanical instinct waxes.
If you could call it an instinct.
If you could call it mechanical.
I do know some of my limitations, though, so I always start with a simple thing, like “ROLLING TENNIS: A new game for home fun,” for instance. ROLLING TENNIS has only about six pieces, which is practically boring to a woman who was on Dean’s List the entire first semester of her sophomore year at college. The instructions are nice and short, too. The elastic steel needle, they begin . . . (there’s no elastic steel needle in the box, but the nearest thing to it is a kind of hard, spiky thing that bends, so that must be what) must be kept in a way that it sits up on the edge of the table. The trouble is, it won’t stay in a way that it sits up on the edge of the table unless I hold it there, and surely the ROLLING TENNIS people couldn’t mean that, could they? They don’t really mean for me to spend the declining years of my life holding up that spiky thing! Do they realize that I have ten children? That I’m 43 years old? Well, of course they do. There’s some perfectly simple thing that I’ve overlooked.
“Ben, it says here . . . ,” I begin.
“First things first,” mumbles Ben, who is engaged in his annual reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the electric train, which he always can’t understand something in the transformer of. I don’t tell him that if he’d leave the train up all year round he and the transformer wouldn’t have to go through this every Christmas Eve. I don’t tell him because it’s too early. This is what I tell him around 2:00 a.m., and I’m a stickler for tradition.
Anyway, it’s time to check everybody’s teeth (and to tell Alison for the last time that sticking her toothbrush under the faucet doesn’t fool me for one minute) and to hear everybody’s prayers (and to tell Alison for the last time that beating everybody else to the “Amen” is not praying) and to kiss everybody goodnight (and to kiss Alison twice and tell her I love her anyway, which is the simple truth). On my way down I hear the baby calling “H-e-ere, Mudda! Here, boy! Come on!” and since I train her in obedience — you can never begin too young, I always think — I obey, and we have a little chat and a little rock and a little back rub until she falls asleep again. By the time I get back to the furnace room Ben has had time to accomplish a great deal, and I feel much better about everything, even ROLLING TENNIS.
So, all right, I will hold the spiky thing in a way that it sits up on the edge of the table. It’s not as if the children were going to play ROLLING TENNIS eight hours a day! Now: By a slight pressure of this needle upon the axis of the runner fitted with a rubber tie the latter one begins to move, the other player swiftly catches up, stops it to run, and jerks back with the same movement.
Only there’s no runner. There is a rod with a little rubber tire at each end, but if that’s the runner, how would I press its axis? Anyhow, an axis is what things turn on, isn’t it? I know it is; I won’t even look it up; and it’s nine o’clock and Ben has started to fiddle with that idiotic transformer again. ROLLING TENNIS will simply have to wait till he finishes. At least I know the rules. He who has won a point plays last, but in a new game it is the last loser who plays first.
I pull out Your Friendly Corner Store. This is more my type, and besides it has a diagram which illustrates and labels not only Parts A to X of the Corner Store, but also its accessories. “Telephone,” it tells you, under a picture of a telephone. “Cord.” “Cash register.” “Your Friendly Corner Store sign.”
“Check off each step as you complete it,” they warn you (and show you how — like this [x]), and “Follow all directions step by step.” I never was a leader, anyhow, so I start right in. Step 1. [ ] From the white side of the board press out all excess fireboard from all slots, notches and edges so that all the parts look like those in the kit drawings. Punch out holes for screws with a sharp pencil point. [ ] Place parts in alphabetic order. My Friendly Corner Store and I are not so friendly as we used to be, by the time I finish Step 1. I feel they have not been quite straight with me. They clearly implied that there was only one [ ] to a step, but, I now note, there are seven [ ]s in Step 10, alone.
“Ben, look at this. It says here . . .”
“There’s no point in getting mad about it,” says Ben, who has made up with the transformer, solved ROLLING TENNIS (they meant “axle,” not “axis,” if that means anything to you), and is happily assembling some Thermo-Turbo thing without so much as a glance at the directions.
“Who’s mad?” I snarl. Setting up the Corner Store involves pushing 78 stupid little slots, and I know from experience that at the slightest sign of irritation on my part the tabs will turn into 78 sulky little bits of tissue paper. I grit my teeth and plod on. By the time I finish Step 12 (49 [ ]s later) Ben has put together the bicycle, the tricycle, the tractor, both doll carriages, the doll’s house, and the Walker Wagon. He is about to begin the electric hockey game when he discovers the instructions are in French. He hands me the instructions.
I can read French all right, but who knows what a filet des buts is, for heaven’s sake, or a casier pour pile sèche, or a vis à métal, except maybe a French electrician. I go upstairs for the Larousse. (I know; but I don’t think a French dictionary should necessarily be an integral part of Christmas Eve, not even at our house.) When I let myself back into the furnace room Ben looks at me for the first time this evening and blanches.
“Are you going to church like that?”
“Like what?” I answer huffily. And rhetorically.
Ben holds the Dreamy Dressing Table mirror up to my face. “It’s 11:30,” he says, and I tear up the stairs again.
Midnight Mass clears the crossness out of me. Priscilla goes with us this year, along with John and Pam and Jim; and as I watch them come back from Communion they look so solemn and young and tired and beautiful that my heart almost bursts. My heart almost bursts until I kiss them “Merry Christmas” in the cold starlight outside the church, and they refuse, with cries of revulsion, to kiss each other. Then my heart shrivels right back to normal.
Still, the furnace room is an anti-climax. By 1:30, Ben and I are getting ruthless. When we find that the assembly instructions for John’s cuckoo clock take up a 16-page booklet and begin: “Look what we have here!! What fun!! It’s all the parts that go to make a real-as-life BLACK FOREST CUCKOO CLOCK!!” we clap the cover right back on the box and agree to pretend we thought he wanted a do-it-yourself cuckoo clock. We give up on the Corner Store after we notice that, besides the 19 Steps on the front of the instruction sheet, there are an additional 33 on the back. Anyhow, Betsey hasn’t mentioned that Corner Store in weeks.
By 2:15 the B-52 Turret Gun, the Helicopter-Bomber, the Kookie Kitchen, the weight-lifting set, and the puppet theater are assembled and upstairs; by 3:00 we’ve finished the musical rocking chair, the robot lady, the Sonar set, the fire engine, the weather station, the Yakkity-Yob, and we’ve even found out how to make the Kissy dolls kiss. By 3:45 every last item is complete and in the living room; the Christmas list has been recovered from the rubble on the furnace-room floor, and we’re ready to distribute. That is, Ben arranges artistic exhibits and I sit on the floor stuffing Christmas stockings and tell him where artistically to arrange them.
“No, not there, honey: The Winchester rifle is Alison’s. Put it on the desk with the Hedda-Get-Bedda doll . . . That Chubby Checker album goes with Pam’s stuff, Ben. Right over there — by the lounging pyjamas. The Mass in B Minor is John’s — in the corner, sweetie! With the lie detector and the mineralogy set.” Or: “. . . Ben, he’s not even four years old! And anyhow, couldn’t we thrash this out some other time? . . . All right, all right, but just for now would you please put that Kissy doll under the piano with Timothy’s dump truck?”
And finally we’re through. We thumbtack a sheet across the entrance to the living room and tiptoe upstairs to hang stockings on children’s bedposts. Ben takes those for the children who don’t believe in Santa Claus, because if they wake up they’ll know it’s only Daddy with the stockings; and I take those for the children who do, because if they wake up, they’ll know it’s only Mother.
At 4:10, in the black dark of the upstairs hall, I tiptoe round a corner into Ben, tiptoeing from the opposite direction. I gasp and clutch him.
“It’s only Santa Claus.”
“Oh, Ben,” I sigh, too tired even to move away from his cheek, which feels like a cactus patch. “What will we ever do when the children are grown up?”
– A Christmas story by the late Aloïse Buckley Heath is an NR tradition.