“Can I open one of my presents before my birthday? I don’t want to have to wait a whole five days.”
First, we have to talk about who gets to select the present. If it’s Mama, it’s going to be the pajamas that are wrapped in last-years saved birthday paper with the teddy bears on it, that are sitting on her sewing table, that I know are pajamas ‘cause I heard Mama tell Gramma she just finished them last night. If it’s me, well, there’s a box with shiny hot-pink paper on it in the closet that I just found. Bigger box than the one with the pajamas, and heavier. And when I shook it, I heard something rattle around and something else go whirr. That’s the present I want to open. But when I think about it now, I know Mama’s going to say something about not opening my best-est present before the 19th.
Opening up pajamas is not much, but it’s better than opening up nothing. “Mama, if you say yes, you can say what present,” I say, so we don’t have to talk about what I open.
But we do have to talk about when. Mama thinks about stuff I don’t have to. Daddy’s off on some lots-of-days-long business thing and will be home tomorrow. That might be a good time, after meat loaf and scalloped potatoes, but Mama reminds me that Gramma’s got a cold and probably won’t be up for anything that soon except tea and quiet. And Nan has to be taken to the dentist soon, too, to see about dentures. “And work is a whirlwind,” she says.
I don’t remember exactly what Mama said, of course, since I was 5-almost-6. But that might have been when I learned what a “whirlwind” is.
Years later, Mama told me that was the week that the famous MacKinlay Kantor dropped in to the employment agency where she worked. He was looking for a personal secretary to travel the world with him and help him write his next book, and he was refusing to talk to anyone about it other than “that red-haired girl”–my mother. It was an honor to be able to help this man find a secretary, she said, but that didn’t mean I could just forget all my other clients. Well, actually I could have. He really wanted me to go with him.
“I’d been thinking about it for a week or so, ever since he’d come in, that year you turned 6,” she said. But I had to say no. I had two kids and a husband, not to mention his mother and his mother’s mother. It just wouldn’t have been the thing to do.” She sounded wistful.
Back to the not-yet-birthday present: I didn’t care whether Daddy, Gramma and Nan were there when I tore wrapping paper off delight, but they all cared. In our house, opening presents was a ceremony. Family needed to be there to exclaim about the warmth of flannel. Somebody had to say that the teddy bears must have gotten themselves off the wrapping paper, crawled inside the box and stuck themselves to the pajamas. “Imagine that,” Gramma would be sure to say, and Mama would wink at me. Meanwhile, Nan would be busy picking up and smoothing out the wrapping paper and ribbon so it could be used again in a month for my brother’s birthday.
Nan saved wrapping paper, rubber bands, lots of stuff. Mama said Nan was real poor when she was my age, and even when she was Mama’s age, and that’s what happens if you’re real poor and don’t have things. When you get things, you think you might lose them or something. I think Nan has enough wrapping paper for 10 birthdays and Christmases and enough rubber bands for the rest of my life.
“The only day you could open a present before your birthday would be the 18th,” Mama says. “So, the answer is, ‘Yes, you can open a present one day before your birthday, but I do get to choose which present.” So we did the ceremony, and it was nice, and it was even nicer later when Gramma tucked me into bed and I snuggled up in all that warmth.
I heard a lot of yeses, often with buts, when I was growing up.
- “Yes, you can leave your tomato tonight, but you must eat your cucumber—and here’s the sugar you can dip the cucumber pieces in.”
- “Yes, you can play with matches, but only here at the kitchen table, with an ashtray, when I’m in the kitchen with you. Here, let’s sit down now, and I’ll show you how to light that paper so you don’t burn yourself.”
- “Yes, you can jump in the deep end, but only after you show me you can swim in the shallow end all the way from here to the other side without touching the bottom.”
- “Yes, you can leave the door open so I can hear you better if you scream. But, really, I can tell you for sure that you did not see a horse jumping through your window.”
And so forth. Whenever it was possible for my Mama to say yes, she did. If there were conditions, we discussed them. When she said no, it was never just “no.” There was always an explanation, or the no might be phrased as a question, leaving it up to me to use the “good judgment” that she would later praise me for.
I’m trying to remember now an occasion on which permission was not granted,
Oh, yes, I remember: I was 14, or maybe 15. I was on the phone with my new boyfriend, who seemed more experienced with girls than I could imagine. I’d had one date with him before the call, the equivalent of driving in his friend’s Chevy to the drugstore with the soda fountain and sipping one coke through two straws. He was calling now to ask me out on a second date, and what he had in mind was definitely more experienced. I didn’t want to disappoint him, however, so I said, “Let me ask my mother.”
“You don’t have to ask your mother,” he said. “Just tell her you’re spending the night with somebody.” I always did ask my mother, though; why wouldn’t I? So I covered up the mouthpiece with one hand and turned to her—she was by then hovering in the background. I related the details of the second date.
“Hmm,” she said. “Do you really think it’s a good idea to get in a car with a boy, in the back seat, and drive to another town where both these boys can buy beer? And then come back after they’ve been drinking the beer? And who is this other girl? She’s older, right?”
Then I knew that I didn’t think it was a good idea. I just didn’t know how to tell the boy. “Tell him your mother won’t let you,” she said. “Blame me.”
The boy and I had another a bit of an argument. Why had I even asked? And who cares what she said? Just come with us anyway. We’ll have a good time.
I think the boy really didn’t understand. Undoubtedly, he didn’t have a mother who always said yes unless there was a good reason not to. I never met his mother, and it didn’t matter anyway since I never saw him again. I’m sure he went on to getting a 15- or 16-year-old girl pregnant, having to marry her, oh dear.
Back to now being 5 and the now-it-is-my-birthday present: It was skates!
Skates in 1948 were metal platforms you attached to the bottom of your hard-soled shoes—nobody had soft-soled sports shoes then. You cinched them onto your shoes by turning a key. The key was what was rattling around in the box when I shook it, and the whirr was the wheels.
Beginning with my sixth birthday, I skated almost every day on the sidewalks around my home. I skated for years and quit only when my feet had grown so much that my shoes were way longer than my skates. By then, I was practically having to stand on my heels to scrape over the bumps in the concrete, and I still loved skating. It felt like … “yes!”