When you are small, you learn to listen on Christmas Eve. There was usually snow, which mutes the street noise, and the sound of old radiators clanking keeping you at the edge of sleep when you were already excited about stockings and presents. I always swore I heard sleigh bells in the near distance, and sneaked out of bed to check the windows and make sure our Glasswax Santa-stencils looked perfect enough for the Man himself.
These years I am grateful for the bells of the Brick Church which chime out Christmas carols, and the muffled train whistles from the Metro North. The rain on Christmas eve was calm and quiet. Two weeks ago a woman I'd known briefly-- a gorgeous, former Ford model who seemed to have everything-- had hung herself in her country house. I tried not to miss things, and sat up through the night listening to Handel by the blinking lights of the tree feeling grateful for the simple gift of groceries.
Christmas night, I went down to the laundry room. My building, during holidays, is quite deserted. I have the job of taking in everyone's newspaper. Someone, like a gift, had left a toy piano on the folding table-- a real antique one, made of wood. All the keys worked and I plunked out a few simple carols in the dark and had one of those Proustian moments remembering the one my older sister had been given so many years ago. For some reason hers reminded me of Cinderella. Maybe everything that year reminded me of Cinderella-- but I craved it and she wouldn't let me touch it until years later when she discarded it altogether and hid it in the basement where I secretly banged out songs to my heart's content. It was magical.
That same year Santa brought me a set of those colored bells which was absolutely my best present ever. It was tedious, but you could essentially manage most songs if you didn't care about octave accuracy. The two blue ones were my favorites. I polished them and covered them at night with a doll blanket. I'm sure they have tons of these on ebay. They were called Freedom bells, or that's what I called them.
My sister and I have been estranged for years. For a brief minute in the laundry room, I thought of her and her Cinderella piano, ribbons in her ponytail matching her red plaid Christmas dress. That was the Freedomland year, the fantasy amusement park they built somewhere in the Bronx which our parents boycotted for some reason. It had been plagued by financial woes, freak accidents and bad luck. But we children were desperate to see it. My sister was 10 or 11- in 6th grade, and I was only 7. All the kids on our block, including our cousins, decided we were going to cut school one day and go. We had bus maps and timetables. We knew exactly how we would do it. So we began-- bake sales, hot chocolate, lemonade stands, hoarding unicef pennies… until we had a small pile of savings which would get us onto all the rides, hot dogs and roundtrip tickets. We planned it out to the last detail… and one night---who knows why-- my sister told our parents. She did stuff like that-- unplanned, non-sequitur weird behavioral about-faces. They got on the phone, alerted all the others, and we were not just punished but forced to turn over our earnings. I was utterly miserable.
The next morning, my cousins came over and started screaming at me. Apparently my sister told everyone I was the traitor. I was too young to have any credibility, and of course it made sense that the 'baby', as they all taunted me, had tattled. It was unbearable. My sister wouldn't look at me, and took her punishment like a martyr. But I was tormented, I was hated. It was not just the devastating disappointment of my trip and the fact that I had donated my little Winnie the Poohs to the purse--- but it was maybe my first real betrayal.
I guess the neighborhood kids eventually forgave me; one of the nicer mothers tried to console us with the news that some child had been paralyzed by another accident, and it could have been us. But my sister never apologized. Not only that--- someone bent the clapper of my favorite bell so it didn't ring anymore. My sister hated me. Maybe just because she had to share our Mom, a closet, whatever. But years later, there were similar betrayals-- boys I loved, money she stole, things I traded her so she wouldn't say malicious things about me. I had to do damage control.
Among the things I miss at Christmas-- the people, the places-- my sister is not. I occasionally think I should call her-- it is adult closure, isn't it? But I don't; I don't even know her phone number. Every time someone in my life does something mean-spirited or manipulative, I think of her, of how maybe these things warped me and taught me not to trust people. But I do trust people. Even when they do totally unexpected and unkind things.
My friend's dog bit him the other day-- not just a nick, but a deep, penetrating wound. He didn't really mean it-- he was riled by another dog and got sort of confused. Dogs don't really apologize, and I accepted my sister's behavior. It was a lesson. Years later I used to take my son down to Coney Island and we would watch the Cyclone for hours while we ate grilled corn and pretzels. Neither of us will ever take the ride, but we liked to watch, from a distance. I will never betray my son, and he knows it. I can't say that for anyone else, but that's the way it is.
I went back down to the laundry room at 5 AM; I decided I'd adopt the piano-- maybe give it to my guitar player friend who would undoubtedly appreciate the nostalgia of its imperfect tuning…. but it was gone. Like those Christmas-story ghost visitors, like my own Christmas vision-- it was there, I know it was there.. .and then it wasn't.
My cousin called to wish me a happy holiday. We talked about the girl who hung herself and our kids, about Freedomland and my damaged bells. She said she still has nightmares about my sister. We had a great laugh and it felt good. My son slept over and went to have a beer and watch basketball at our local bar. We walked home in the clearing late afternoon light and listened to the train whistle and the church bells chiming out Joy to the World. I didn't tell him about the bells, or the toy piano; he doesn't have that 'gene', as he says, but he stopped for a minute and took a shot of the train as it went into the Park Ave. tunnel. We used to stand there for hours-- even in the rain, when he was small. And right at that instant, as he pressed the camera button, the mall trees lit up, and it was Christmas, and for the moment, all was calm and all was bright.