My childhood pictures are around 50 years old now, including crumbling movies filmed on an 8mm camera with hazardously hot bulbs. These artifacts won’t last forever, so I’m recounting memories here, saving my story.
I’m a child of the 1960s and 70s, and like many white American kids, I arrived into the burgeoning middle class, Baby Boomer wealthy, to parents who survived the Great Depression determined that their kids would “have it better than we did” i.e., never go hungry, have a few comforts and enjoy occasional simple entertainment. That was my wealth.
Our house was small but new and pristine, built with a GI loan during the space-age, Cold War era, the time when our culture seemed to have one foot on the moon and one foot on a Schwinn bicycle pedal. Powerful personal technology was just a gleam in a developer’s eye.
Before the age of seven or so, Christmas was personally devoid of any significant reason for the season except for what I learned while memorizing short poems for our church program. So at that age, it was all about the toys.
Oh, how I loved making wish lists from Christmas catalogs, a practice I learned from my brother, Donnie. Even before one can create a list, one can definitely mark a toy on a page with a giant “X.”
One special Christmas, I received a favorite gift: a blue, quilted double stroller with white pom pom fringe on the canopy, seen below. JOY! I could stroll TWO babies at once! My entire life, I’ve been enamored with strollers and their features, which I believe was birthed that Christmas morning.
Another beloved childhood gift was a Baby First Step doll, just like this one. Battery operated, she toggled from one foot to the other like a mini-Frankenstein monster. I loved her. She survived many a trip over the edge of the coffee table. Later came Baby First Skate, which was simply the same doll with plastic “skates” attached. My next-door neighbor and first friend had matching dolls. Heaven!
As did many American families in the 1960s, we decorated a perfectly shaped, shiny aluminum tree instead of a real one. The trunk was nothing more than a painted wooden rod with holes drilled at a slant into which we pushed silver branches whose ends flared like the bells on trumpets. The stems were scratchy, but the “needles” of the bells were smooth. I distinctly remember gently pushing my nose into the bells and looking at my fractured reflection. My mother said one reason we purchased the artificial tree was that I was allergic to pine. (I had all kinds of allergies as a child, from air-borne to eczema.) But I also believe that
the stark trees mirrored the mid-20th Century influence on our culture: manufactured, marketed, mainstreamed–and did I mention, they were shiny like rockets and stars?! Of course they were the trees of the future! (Until Charlie Brown set us straight in 1965.)
We hung plain glass ornaments, red, green, gold. I enjoyed making faces and seeing my fish-eyed reflection in the bulbs.
We also owned some of the glass ornaments inspired by German craftsmanship, although I doubt my dad, a WWII veteran, knew their origin back then! Maybe he wouldn’t have minded; I don’t know.
We didn’t hang garland or tinsel on the tree because it was showy enough, and we didn’t use lights because they would melt the aluminum.
I couldn’t wait for the sun to set so that we could turn on the color wheel. Ours had four colors: red, blue, green and amber yellow. I waited each revolution for the vibrant blue to come around and secondly, red. I didn’t care for the green or yellow.
I remember lying on the beige sculpted berber carpeting (that looked like lumpy oatmeal) watching the colors climb one wall, travel the ceiling, cross the reflective tree and down the opposite wall. It was hypnotizing. The bright bulb behind the colors sometimes got so hot we smelled burning plastic, a signal to turn it off. The wheel was always too hot to touch, one of the first dangers I can remember.
In both of the following photos, I am with my second of three brothers, Jack, at Christmas. He is 12 years older than I; Larry is 16 years older. I loved Jack dearly, although I can’t remember living in the same house with him very well and Larry not at all.
Note the cherry pink sofa with metallic silver thread running throughout the fabric (more space age influence). It was a bit scratchy. In the photo on the right, notice the contemporary “blonde” furniture. On the left, there is a shift to natural wood color. It was on the underside of that coffee table that I wrote a terrible message to my youngest brother (the one eight years older than I): “I hate Donnie.” I forget what instigated that sentiment. He probably looked at me or snapped his fingers at me, more than enough effort to make me mad, which of course, was his goal.
Those first Christmases are resting in peace, the way my head is resting on Jack’s shoulder in this picture. Childhood Christmases lie in nostalgic warmth, free of anxiety and responsibility. And although I can’t claim a Norman Rockwell or Little House on the Prairie Christmas with cozy fireplaces and one-horse open sleighs, I did have the icy reflection of that tree, the glow of the color wheel, the crackle of wrapping paper being stepped on, the warmth of the camera lights, the laughter of my brothers, the whirring and ringing of toys, the couplets memorized for the Christmas programs, the Elvis, Bing Crosby and Beach Boys carols, the Indiana snows, the deliciousness of many Christmas Eve ham dinners– I had it all.
The memories are fading like the home movies and photos. But I like to think that someday, I’ll be able to see them again, clearly–maybe even be in the middle of them again, experiencing them and not just remembering them, with an even deeper appreciation for the blessed life I was given: temporal joy in the midst of eternal joy, the same way the Baby Jesus was nested in finite time for us to enjoy forever.
Thank you, Mom and Dad.