That Christmas We Got Three Curling Irons From The Salvation Army
This story is part of The Establishment’s Sadlarious Holiday Series. In lieu of sentimental platitudes and Hallmark-approved happy endings, these short essays focus on the messy, tragicomic spirit of the season.
Turn up your Pandora holiday playlist, spike some eggnog, and enjoy.
Every year as Christmas approached, our mom would tell us, “It’s not gonna be big or fancy, okay?” This became a ritual. I preferred smaller gifts anyway. One year, there was a specific teddy bear I wanted — her name was Holly and she wore a red dress. Our Mom bought my twin and I a larger version of the same bear, perhaps as a surprise, perhaps to compensate or overcompensate for the other things she couldn’t give us. But I was disappointed because I wanted the smaller bear.
Another year, we were given a make-your-own-paper kit. I wanted to make stationery, fliers, and magazines, and the commercial made it look so easy. But when we got the kit, we discovered that to make one sheet of paper, we had to shred 10 sheets of paper, soak them overnight, and then let each new single sheet dry for a full day before making another one. So we put the kit back in the box and never made anything.
But one year, the It’s-Not-Gonna-Be-Big-or-Fancy ritual changed. Instead, we were told our mom wouldn’t be buying us presents at all. Our gifts would be donated from the Salvation Army. I don’t remember feeling surprised at this turn of events, but I do remember not trusting the Salvation Army to give us anything we actually wanted.
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There were forms to fill out. (How many minutes and hours and days of my life have I lost filling out forms?) The Salvation Army needed to know our age and gender. I don’t remember if they asked if we had any specific interests or desires, but it won’t surprise you to learn that we were shy, quiet, book-ish types. We wanted books, notebooks, pens. We’d been fetishizing office supplies since before we knew how to write letters, words, paragraphs. I had once been gifted a membership to the Babysitter’s Club Fan Club through the Scholastic catalogues delivered to our classrooms after promising I would never ask for anything else ever again.
We suggested to our mom that she lie about our age. We considered ourselves mature for 11, and didn’t want to be given children’s toys. We wanted something useful. So our mom told them we were 13.
On Christmas, we opened our gifts. We were each given a puzzle, a stuffed animal, and a curling iron. We were indeed disappointed.
I had just cut my hair down to two spiky inches with an almost rat-tail. My twin didn’t like styling her long hair, and we were known to cry on special occasions, like Picture Day, when we were expected to dress up. Our mom already had a curling iron.
Like most people, we had no need for three curling irons in one household.
“We should have told them we’re 16,” one of us said.
“We shouldn’t have told them we’re twins,” said the other.
“We shouldn’t have told them we’re both girls.”
Society is often quick to judge and blame mothers. Mothers are never enough: not attentive enough, not wealthy enough, not healthy enough, not present enough. And while there were many disappointments in my childhood, they were rooted in systems designed to harm and punish poor people, harm and punish women, harm and punish children — and then blame us for how we respond, how we continue to survive.
The more I’ve thought about this story, the more it’s become less a story of growing up in poverty and feeling disappointed, and more a story of the failures of society, the wasteful destruction of psyches and bodies and dreams under capitalism, and the need for compassion and support. I often imagine what it would be like to grow up in a culture that supports single mothers physically, financially, and emotionally, a culture that embraces the complexity of the struggle of staying alive and hopeful when everything seems to be falling apart.
Either the people working and volunteering at the Salvation Army in my small hometown didn’t have the capacity to imagine that twin girls might not want matching objects, and might care about something other than styling our hair, or the people who donated gifts to the Salvation Army simply hadn’t considered that adolescents and teenagers might need something, too. It’s possible, too, that they had forgotten their own childhoods and their own adolescent desires.
I don’t celebrate Christmas anymore, but my mom does. She moves often, and brings Rubbermaid containers filled with decorations to each new home. I laugh at her every time, and I used to encourage her to just throw it all in the trash, but truthfully, it would be odd if it were all gone. She decorates the front entrance and living room with garlands of fake holly, fir, and pinecones, the stumps of birch and oak trees, and her collection of vintage ceramic Christmas trees with little lights blinking on the branches. Like me, she also has clusters of crystals atop each surface, quartzes, tourmaline, and amethyst.
The decorations remain on display for an inordinate amount of time, and then eventually they are packed away again. Whether they’ll be unpacked in the same place again or not, we don’t know, but I don’t tell her to trash them anymore.