Robert was squirming to get out of bed long before anyone else was awake on Christmas Day that year. His wish to see what Santa had brought bordered on anxiety. When he heard his mother gathering dishes in the kitchen, he threw back the heavy covers and raced to the living room to be sure that Santa had left presents. Robert’s eyes grew round as saucers when he confirmed that Santa had paid a visit during the mysterious night of nights. Next, he sprinted to the kitchen.
“Shhh!” his mother said with her forefinger to her lips. “You’ll wake Grandpa!” The way the rooms of the house were arranged, Robert had run through his parents’ bedroom to get to the kitchen. He had dashed past Grandpa Rhode, who looked so much like Joe that Robert had assumed it was his father asleep in the bed.
“Santa came!” Robert exclaimed in a spluttering whisper.
“He did?” Ida responded, while she prepared fresh side meat for frying. Even though Robert preferred side meat to bacon, he could not be bothered to notice that side meat was on the morning’s menu. He was too excited to find out what Santa had brought him.
“Go back and put on your slippers!” his mother said quietly but emphatically. “You’ll catch your death of cold.”
Robert was prone to head colds with ear aches, so he took his mother’s command with extra seriousness. He tiptoed back to the room that he shared with Charles and put on his slippers before tiptoeing to the kitchen and resuming his conversation.
“I wonder what Santa brought me!” Robert said to his mother.
“Shouldn’t you be wondering what Santa brought everyone,” Ida prompted.
Robert understood that he was being selfish. “I do wonder what Santa brought everyone,” he acknowledged. “When can we open the presents?”
“You’ll have to wait ‘til after breakfast,” his mother said.
Robert was uncertain he could delay so long as that. For a moment, his face registered his dismay. Then he took joy in watching his mother creating biscuits from a mound of flour. Soon, the fragrances of baking and frying filled the kitchen. When Robert heard his grandfather roll over, he considered whether he might have awakened the family’s guest, but, when Grandpa Rhode suddenly snored loudly, Robert felt less guilty.
Robert wondered how Charles could be so calm as to remain in bed when there were presents to unwrap and fun to experience. Almost as if he were talking to himself, Robert shook his head. All at once, he realized that his father was sleeping on the sofa that squeezed between the heating stove and the kitchen table. Say, rather, trying to sleep amid the commotion! Joe sat up, yawned, and gradually pulled on his trademark blue overalls—right over his pajamas. Carrying his socks and other garments, he stepped inside the bathroom and closed the door.
The house was one of the first in town to have a bathroom with indoor plumbing. By now, the fixtures were antiquated, and the room was impossibly small. A person almost had to suck in the breath to shut the door. Robert heard his father bumping the walls of the bathroom while he dressed. Eventually, Joe struggled to open the door and slipped past it. He was wearing his customary farming clothes and was carrying his pajamas neatly folded over one arm.
“Robert, go get dressed,” his mother said. “Get Charles up and tell him to get dressed, too. We’re about ready to eat.”
“Had I better wake Grandpa?” Joe asked Ida.
“We’re going to eat soon, so I suppose you might,” Ida replied.
Robert walked quickly past his sleeping grandfather, returned to his room, and shook his brother. “Get up!” he ordered.
Robert wriggled out of his pajamas and into his flannel shirt and jeans. He was so excited that he had extra trouble tying his shoes.
By the time Robert came back to the kitchen, his parents had moved the sofa perilously close to the heating stove so that everyone could sit around the kitchen table. Wearing a white shirt, a green tie, and gray slacks, Grandpa Rhode took the chair Ida offered him. With a yawn and a big smile, Charles sat down next. Soon, everyone was ready for Joe to say grace.
“As we gather together this Christmas Day,” Joe began, “we remember the Christ child, the greatest gift of all. Lord, we ask thy blessing on this food and the hands that prepared it. We promise to keep the spirit of Christmas alive in our hearts throughout the year.”
Then there came platters of steaming biscuits, glistening side meat, and scrambled eggs. At each place setting was a half an orange—a real treat at Christmas! The biscuits were slathered in homemade butter and piled high with Ida’s jellies and jams. It was a feast fit for a king—with the promise of more only a few hours later!
Robert waited politely until the adults were finished eating breakfast—so slowly, it seemed to him!
“Well, should we open our presents?” Joe asked, finally!
Robert jumped down from his chair and practically ran into the living room. His parents and Grandpa Rhode came, eventually!
Robert sat near the Christmas tree, which scented the room with the lovely fragrance of pine. He took mental snapshots of the bubble lights and the ice bulbs. The ornaments were often doubled: one that was designated his and one that was designated his brother’s. The largest globes hung from the bottom branches. A large one with bands of magenta was Charles’ ornament, and a similar one with stripes of blue was Robert’s. At the top of the tree were tiny ornaments that had been on Joe’s first trees in the late teens and early 1920s. There were tiny bells and clusters of grapes made of glass. The oldest, Joe always said, was a delicate ornament with slender white and blue and cranberry-colored beads strung in a diamond shape.
Joe began to hand out presents. Suddenly, the room filled with the sounds of rustling paper and exclamations of surprise. Robert and Charles’ grandfather and father received new ties and monogrammed handkerchiefs. The boys’ mother modeled her new robe and pocketbook. Robert and Charles had a variety of toys, but the two that really caught their eye were relatively large, heavy police cars to which flexible tubes could be attached. Their hands held battery packs that were at the ends of the tubes. By pushing buttons on the battery packs, they could make the cars roll along the carpet. A light in the center of the roof of each car flashed red, and a siren whirred. The police cars were Grandpa Rhode’s gift to the boys. He always gave the best presents!
No one could have been happier that Christmas!
Later that morning, Grandma Rhode and Great Aunt Margaret brought gifts and received theirs in turn before joining the family for “dinner,” as the noon meal was called. And what a magnificent dinner it was! The table was laden with soft yeast rolls made of flour that had been rising all night, ham, peas, carrots, corn, and every good thing that Ida had canned from her garden! Despite having eaten a huge breakfast, the family dug into the dinner with a will. Grandma Rhode and Grandpa Rhode spoke politely to one another but said relatively little directly to each other. They had been divorced for many years. Robert had not been told that fact, but he might not have understood it anyway. All he knew was that Grandma Rhode lived in a small house in town while Grandpa Rhode lived eighty miles away in Indianapolis. Later, Robert learned that his mother had told his father to make amends with his father so that the boys’ grandfather could take an active role in their lives. From Robert’s point of view, everything was exactly as it should be!
With his capacity for memorization, Robert took a long look around the table. It was as if he were a camera recording every detail in photographs that he would cherish many years from now. He wanted to be able to recall the happy faces, the laughter, the sunlight glinting from the glassware, the pattern of the china, the way the freshly ironed tablecloth fell in pleats across his knees.
In the window near Ida’s rocking chair hung a crinkly red cellophane wreath with a silver socket resembling a candle and a single orange bulb glowing. In his thoughts and feelings, Robert compared the wreath with the circle of his family around the dinner table and the orange light with the joy they shared. He wished he could express his analogy to everyone, but he lacked the words. He remained content to notice the correspondence on such an important day.