Timmy … Tim … lived in Vegas. She never figured out what Tim did exactly, but she sent cookies each year to Vegas, too. Tim’s kids, a couple of girls that he’d “inherited” from his second marriage after his wife ran off, liked her cookies. She’d met the girls a few times when she’d gone on the bus down to Vegas to play the machines. Tim’s girls were her only grandchildren. Along with the cookies, she mailed them each a $50 check. Tim was doing a good job with the girls. She knew she’d receive a nice thank-you note in a couple of weeks.
She looked out at the street and thought it was a good thing the mail didn’t come on Christmas because there was no way the mailman would get through. Even walking to her mailbox would be a chore. The snow already reached a couple of feet up the mailbox’s post.
Her eyes brimmed with tears as she remembered the year Christmas stopped at her house. Don’t be so silly, she thought as she wiped her eyes. So many years ago. Still it was all there … in the remembering, raw as ever.
She thought about the doll she’d made that Christmas for Johnny. It was just a rag doll. She’d tried to make it look like him. She’d sewed a pair of bib overalls from John’s old pants, and a plaid shirt with real buttons and cuffs on the sleeves. For hair, she wound the yarn into tight knots and anchored them to the doll’s head. She found wide straps of leather and had wrapped them around the doll’s feet for boots. She even stitched a red handkerchief into the back pocket of the pants. It was a wonderful doll, even if she did say so herself.
At age 7, Johnny was different than other boys—softer, gentler. For Christmas he hadn’t asked for a Tonka truck or a Red Ryder BB gun, he’d asked for a doll. She knew that John wouldn’t understand Johnny’s need to have a friend that was like him. John wanted to buy Johnny cowboy garb … a sheriff’s badge, holster, and guns. They’d been purchased, wrapped, and put under the tree.
Mae worked on the doll in secret, when John was at work. She hoped the doll was just what Johnny pictured for himself. What that was, she didn’t know. All she knew was she wanted Johnny to know he was just fine the way he was. In her mind’s eye she saw her neighbors exclaiming when they saw the doll, “Why that’s Johnny!” She was pleased with the gift she was giving her older boy. Her beautiful boy.
That year, Christmas Eve had gone well. They’d unwrapped the gifts under the tree; then the boys had gone willingly to bed in anticipation of Santa’s arrival. She remembered how she filled Johnny’s and Timmy’s stockings with tangerines, candy canes, nuts, and chocolates. She laid a set of new pajamas she’d sewn for the boys beneath each stocking. Under Timmy’s stocking, she put a set of plastic cowboys and Indians. Each figure was in a different pose and the set came with wagons and teepees. Also on the floor, between the two stockings, she put a small train set for the boys to share. Last she brought out the Johnny doll from a shoebox that she’d hidden in the bedroom closet. She placed the doll in a sitting position on top of the pajamas under Johnny’s stocking.
John was sitting by the lamp reading the newspaper and watching as she placed the gifts under the stockings. Everything was fine until she brought out the Johnny doll and put it under Johnny’s stocking.
“What the hell?” John said quietly. “What the hell is that?”
Mae kept her eyes lowered and replied calmly that she’d made a boy-doll for Johnny.
“What are you doin’ givin’ our kid a doll?” John had demanded. “Don’t you think you’ve made enough of a sissy of him already? I watch how you pamper that boy. By God, I won’t have it.”
John got up, went to the mantel, swung his arm, and swept the stockings to the floor. The tangerines rolled across the room. In one motion he lifted the Christmas tree, opened the door, and threw it into the front yard. The glass balls shattered as they hit the floor, doorframe, and ground outside. Water splashed around the room, the stand caught Mae’s arm, tearing her sleeve as she shielded her face.
John went to bed while she carefully packed the salvageable decorations and the Johnny doll into a box and tucked it away into the cubbyhole under the staircase. She hung the boys’ stockings on their bedposts and placed their presents from Santa between their beds. On Christmas the boys played with their gifts, and John sat on the floor with Johnny to lay train tracks, and the two pretended Indians were attacking cowboys on the train. She was glad John directed his anger at her and not their boys.
Mae gazed out the window at the snow. She scratched absentmindedly at the ice crystals that had formed around the window’s edge—just as she’d done when she was a child. She remembered that Christmas Eve so long ago and smiled at the thought of John playing on the floor with their sons. He had a knack with the boys. The year Johnny won the seventh grade science fair with his Petri dishes and bacteria, John beamed with pride. He was quick to anger in those early days. Part of her understood. He felt stuck. She was the one who refused to move from her street. And she never shared with John the financial statements for the trusts left by her parents, which wasn’t fair, she knew. At 86, she was worth more than $3 million.
She always felt it was her parents’ money. What right did she have to spend it? She didn’t earn it. It provoked John to see her canning vegetables and fruits, sewing covers for their furniture, and to hear her insisting they continue to drive cars that were long past their better days. What would John have done if he’d gotten hold of her parents’ money? She’d feared he’d drink or gamble the money away like most of the men on her street. For sure he’d have insisted they move to a more uptown neighborhood.
She’d dipped into her trusts to send the boys to college, when John and she traveled to Washington, D.C., to visit Johnny for their 50th anniversary. What a wonderful trip that was. Johnny’s friend, Craig, was attentive to John, pushing his wheelchair up and down the mall as they visited museums.
John considered her rigid, and in their later years he’d taken to affectionately calling her “Plank.” A name that stuck. Sometimes she wondered if she’d done the right thing not spending more of the trust money. She just could never bear the thought of moving. She loved her street.
Each Christmas after that year, she placed a few gifts for the boys by their bedsides as they slept. But she’d be damned if she’d condone John’s behavior by decorating. When Johnny and Timmy asked if they could put up a Christmas tree, she’d look John in the eye and say, “Not this year.” And that was that.
Mae curled her hand and pressed its side into the ice on the window and with the tip of her index finger melted five little toes above the handprint, forming a footprint. She did it again with the other hand so it looked like two baby footprints melted into her window.