We’re living in a new apartment. A month after we join my step father (Ba) in the US, the apartment building next to ours burns down. One night...curlers in hair, mom carries me out. Half asleep. I watch the building next to ours melt away into the fire. Electrical problems. It takes several months before new walls are put in, a complete restoration. With several hundred dollar bills slipped into the monthly rent envelop, our names are on the list to occupy the new apartment. I don’t know how my parents manage to bribe the property people, even on welfare...mom going to school with a side job at the fleamarket, and my father driving an ice-cream truck, I don’t know how they manage. But they do, using the power of greed to advance.
It is a new beginning for us as a family.
We don’t have any furniture of our own. I remember the hand me down mattress given to us by my father's sister who worked at IBM. She sponsored Ba along with other siblings and their families over from Vietnam. Vuot bien...the escape. A dumpster green leather couch. A couple pots and pans, delicate porcelain plates, wedding presents; these are the only material things mom packs into two suitcases from France.
The space is new and empty like a clean sheet of paper, no trace of the past.
Our first Christmas as a family is celebrated in this new space.
We have a large fern. All the places that we would later occupy, it comes with us; part of the family. Flourishing and growing along with us. Decades later, it's still alive...at my parents house.
Humming and whispering in my new language, with my own medley of Christmas beats I have just learned in second grade, I wrap the base of the fern in Christmas paper. I find cards of all sorts, one has the Virgin Mary, head tilted, hands in prayer. A card with a star....whatever I can excavate from mom’s drawer. I cut out circles from cards then poke holes, thread string at the top to transform them into decorations. I make several and hang them on the fern.
Several school craft projects are on the white walls in the apartment. Beans and pasta glued inside the outlines of a Christmas tree on blue construction paper. A Christmas poem that starts with… C is for Christmas. H is for Holly. Each capital letter drawn by my hand sparkles with imperfect glitter work, miniature Rorschach sunbursts. My penmanship doesn't measure up to mom’s...orderly, divine; while mine, uneven, sharp. Chicken scratchings....one teacher says many years later.
I think about past Christmases, back in France. Arques, a tiny foggy factory town in Normandy. My mom, a secretary at a glass plant. We are invited to celebrate Christmas with the family who sponsors her. They have a huge tree that smells of ancient forests. Abundant decorations, miniature toys and silvery strands. angels swimming in branches. There is a nativity barn next to the tree with the baby Jesus. During Christmas Eve, the children, Claire, Pierre and Martin who is my buddy (although we don't go to the same school), stays up late around the tree...the Santa Claus vigil...while hot chocolate bubbles and perfumes the kitchen. The next morning, all the children, run to the tree where gifts overflow from roots. I watch them attack the presents...a race to rip and tear.
And me. Does Santa remember me? The night before, I've begged my mother to sleep over. We are uninvited guests, yet welcome. A pink umbrella. A paint set. The barbie makeup table I've been eyeing every time we pass the village toy store on the way to school. Madame Aline points to a wrapped box and lets me open it. I am excited to open it, but it doesn't feel right. Betrayed. It is a puzzle. The present doesn't belong to me. I hadn’t wished for it. But I smile and play along.
Why have a day where you just open presents? And the older kids and grownups...they know that that old trickster St. Nick isn't real. Mom didn't grow up celebrating Christmas or believing in Santa Claus...so I guess I don’t either.
Now in the US, there is no way that Santa can find me and an even smaller chance that he will bring me presents. You need money. Everything costs money mom says. So I guess presents cost money too. And we don't have any. At least not much. And she is always thinking about it. That’s why she is always working. Always away.
One time I ask mom if we have a bank account and if we have any money in it. She says we do but we have nothing left…it is a joke as it turns out. But for a week, I am sad and I do everything I can to help my parents, the dishes, homework, saving coins for them.
But it is only a joke. Like Christmas.
At six, I don’t want to believe in Christmas and yet, I secretly do.
The fern looks silly with my homemade decorations. The branches are so small that the decorations keep falling off which makes me mad. It doesn't look right. I start to feel angry that I am alone decorating a stupid plant. It was going to be a surprise. I spend all afternoon working on it. But it looks stupid. And why? Why does it matter? Why does it take so long for my parents to come home every night when it's already dark. I hate them for making me wait.
I fall asleep in front of the Christmas fern.
“Con oi, wake up sweetie.” Mom touches my head. She looks happy which is rare because she is always tired lately. I open my eyes and see both my parents.
“Come on, we’re going to celebrate Christmaaaas!” She sounds unusually cheery.
I don’t understand what she is saying but I am excited.
It is cold inside our beat up Datsun. Even in my puffy pink jacket, I shiver. I make clouds as I blow hot breath on glass. We come to a parking lot. People are walking into a gym. The echos of music bounce off of the basketball court as we enter. There is a Mexican band singing, Feliz Navidad. My mom sings along. It is embarrassing. My only ally, I lean against my father, burying my melon into his jacket that smells of tobacco...I watch the band through my outgrown bangs.
The place is crowded; kids running around. There is a table with punch and cookies. My father goes to get us some. I eat a gigantic star sugar cookie and wash it down with red fruit punch.
There is a lot of adults talking into microphones...clapping...singing.
Finally, some one with a Santa hat says that they were going to pass out gifts for all the kids who have been good.
My face lights up. I look up at my parents.
“Ok, con, sweetie stay here. Wait for us to come back.”
I wait, seated at the bleachers. There are several tables. Several lines where people have queued up alphabetically. My eyes follow my mom’s black hair as she stands behind a line. I can't seem to find my father’s shape...separated.
There is another group of singers on stage and I hum along.
It feels too long again. Have they forgotten me? Finally mom comes back and takes my hand into her pocket. She always does this when her hands are cold and she wants me to warm them up, always holding my hand too tight. My father is already on his way to the car she says to me.
The air outside is crisp and cold. The coldest I've experienced yet since moving to sunny San Jose, California. I don't miss wearing my heavy winter coat that kept me warm in France. Releasing another puff from my mouth, I watch it dissolve into the black sky.
We get back to the car. Mom wants me to sit in the back. But I get mad because I want to be with them up in the front seat (this was the eighties after all)...in between them. I'm annoyed.
And that’s when I see a brown box full of gifts in the backseat. I can’t hide the smile that beams from me.
“Chi oi, little lady, look at all the presents you have!!!” My father chuckles.
“So how many children did you say you have, hun?” He asks mom.
“Four!” She answers.
“Five!! They just looked at me and I didn’t say a word.” He laughs with a boom.
“We need to get out of here in case they find out,” He winks at me.
Bouncing on the seats, I wrap my hands around his neck as he drives us home.
This weekend, my six year old son and five year old daughter decorate our Christmas tree with miniature nut crackers, stars, bears, glass blown ornaments, tinsel, silver baubles, and decorations they have made at school. They've moved chairs at arms length from the tree, so they can each sit, strategizing and inventing imaginary lives of the nutcrackers or just gaze at the convivial lights.
Later one evening, I'm brushing my daughter's teeth before bedtime.
"Is Feliz Navidad your favorite Christmas song?" I ask her, as she often hums the tune at home.
She nods her head.
"From the bottom of my heart..." She sings without skipping a beat.
By Mai Brehaut