In 1959, wintertime in Mendota Illinois seemed much colder, and the snow much deeper than in recent years. This may be partly true due to global warming, but more than likely it’s just how I remember it. When you are five years old and only three foot tall, the late December wind seems to bite at your ears, and a snowdrift looks like a mountain of ice cream.
Every year at Christmas, it seemed my Grandfather turned into a wheezing lunatic, and it was due to a holiday grab-bag fiasco that he devised sometime during the Stone Age. I’m sure he planned the entire year in order to get the ultimate reaction (usually one of dismay) out of his grandbabies. The presents were hidden in the dark confines of a cardboard box the size of the state of Illinois, and were untouchable as creatures that lurk on the ocean’s floor.
Over the sides of the box were a bazillion strings dangling like white snakes that writhed and waggled in an obvious attempt to bite any stupid kid that came close enough. I remained vigilant in order to stay alive, but the time inevitably came when I heard those feared words.
“Kevy, it’s your turn. Go ahead and pick one!” came from somewhere in the throng of adults watching me. They all possessed large, bugged-out eyes as if I were Wile E. Coyote preparing to jump off a mile-high cliff.
I replied, “Ungh,” and felt large hands push me towards the snake pit.
“Go ahead Kevy, just reach out and grab one,” said The Hands.
As I stood there petrified of snake teeth, The Hands guided mine towards the box, so I closed my eyes and awaited certain doom. They popped open when a newspaper-wrapped monstrosity was thrust at me, and the chanting cries demanded that I take immediate action.
“Open it Kevy, open it!”
So open it I did. The big thing about Grandpa’s presents was that they were 99% newspaper and 1% present. After I tore off 3000 layers, the room looked like a giant wastepaper basket, and my present was reduced to the size of what I hoped was a nice pair of ice skates. I was confused when I found it contained a four roll package of toilet paper, thought someone would rush up and say it was a mistake, and give me the real present. Nobody gave me anything, and I that’s when I knew that it was just one of those weird things adults do. The next unsuspecting kid spent twenty minutes of hard labor for a can of sardines.
At five years of age I can only hope I was adept with the use of toilet paper, and I most certainly did not like sardines. All of my cousins suffered a similar fate and this was of no small consequence. If we all joined hands, we would have spanned the full length of Illinois. But instead, those hands held cans of beans, corn, and the occasional can of tuna. One lucky hand clutched a six pack of snickers, and even though I got a new bike that morning, I wanted those candy bars.
I made a genuine effort to trade and I channeled all of my five-year-old powers into the task at hand. Of course, my bartering capability was limited due to the substance of my gift, but I was resourceful. I told Cousin Timmy that my toilet paper possessed magical powers that would enable him to fly. The package had a super-duper picture of clouds on it, and I used that image to prove my claim, but Timmy only stuck his tongue out at me and tightened his grip on the package of chocolate delights.
Childhood memories can be like fleeting ghosts or a magician’s sleight of hand, and some also seem indelible and impossible to ignore. Whether it can be attributed to some weird type of time distortion, or an irrational desire brought on by grab-bag frenzy, I think I wanted those candy bars more than the bike I got that Christmas. Today I’m sure of it.
BIO: Kevin Atherton is a 56 y/o author that will write for beer or food. He lives in Mahomet Illinois with his wife and three mangy mutts. His stories have appeared online magazines such as Alien skin, Short Story Me, and Wild Child Publishing.
Motivation: Vivid childhood memories of a family tradition.
Photo by: Mario Alberto Magallanes Trejo