Caption: Christmas with my first foster mother, 1 year old.
Twenty years ago this Christmas, I had recently moved to live with my grandparents in Florida. I left my foster home with Pearl in Boston with just the clothes I had on. I arrived at a house on the water with gardenia bushes out back with no toys and nothing to wear. I was starting over in the Sunshine State. I turned eight the month before Christmas.
My grandma and grampa, in their 50s and 60s respectively, had already raised 13 children between them during their first marriages. Can you imagine what it must have been like for them to suddenly have this 48-pound, wild-haired, brown-eyed banshee all of a sudden looking up at them, wondering who I was supposed to play with and why we had so many rooms in our house?
They got married the year I was born and had long-settled into a quiet life together with careers as a nurse and architectural drafting teacher. In fact, they were nearing retirement. What were they going to do with me?
There weren’t many other kids to play with on our street. If you walked through the grass at the end of the cul-de-sac, you could cut over to an orange grove. I’d inhale the scent of orange blossoms and pet the noses of the horses owned by the man in charge of the grove. I kept myself occupied by making mud pies and watching for cormorants in the water.
Then it was Christmastime. Mom always had a few toys under the tree for me, but our budget was tight. It didn’t matter much because the projects were full of little friends to play with. Maybe grandma and grampa would get me a couple toys like Mom did.
On Christmas morning, I was fit to be tied. I wanted to go pee, but I couldn’t leave my room because grandma said to wait for her to come get me. She and grampa were puttering around out there in the living room. I could hear them.
She finally appeared at my door. “Good MORning,” she said, with her usual heavy emphasis on the “MOR” part of the word. She would do with me what she did every Christmas before me with my six aunts. She stood behind me, wrapped her hands over my eyes, and directed me through the hallways, the kitchen, the living room and then my feet felt the Astro Turf-like floor covering on the lanai.
I heard grampa shuffle into position and fiddle with the camera, getting ready to catch my reaction to my first Florida Christmas. What was under that tree? Did Santa eat the cookies? Grandma took her hands away from my eyes. I blinked, and the dream of every little child who had ever seen the Sear’s Big Book Christmas Catalog appeared . . .
Yeah. My grandparents went a little buck wild with the Christmas shopping. That there’s the picture of “an embarrassment of riches,” for a kid coming from the projects. (The first picture was taken after I had opened almost everything. When I first saw all that stuff, it was wrapped and under the tree next to the Barbie house.) My grampa and grandma still tell me how much fun they had shopping that first year and setting up the Barbie house and everything else.
Look at the Barbie mansion. They had even arranged all the little furniture and put one of the Barbies in there, with her remote-control Corvette parked right outside (it was joined by a pink Corvette the following year because Barbie made lots of friends and they needed to drive to hang out with her). Speaking of pink (and purple), you can see where my obsession started here. Pink slippers, purple Popple roller skates . . . even the My Little Pony had hot pink hair.
I also received classics like the Hungry, Hungry Hippo game (LOVED that), a Cabbage Patch doll, a little boom box and a whole mess of Play-Doh. I didn’t even know how to roller skate yet, but my grandparents took care of that too.
I’ll never forget that first Christmas with them. That they would go and figure out what a little girl would want decades after they should have been done with child-rearing is still so touching to me. And what I really love is that they continued traditions like leading me to the tree and making me wait to open my eyes.
The true joy of life resides in these moments of unexpected bliss. Isn’t anticipation the best part of any surprise?