(A nativity scene my girls and I got in Cozumel, Mexico, years ago. We hand-carried it home. It’s now a colorful and cherished part of our tradition.)
In the glass display case running along the corridor at Rhode Island Hospital, are gift boxes of Mr. Potato Head, a Rhode Island-designed toy, made right here at Hasbro Toys, in Pawtucket. Those boxed gifts transport me to the era when I spent hours, as a child, redesigning the head of a potato with the stick-’em-in parts.
I loved Mr. Potato Head. As a child, I inserted his changeable parts of eyebrows, nose, mustache, lips, teeth, ears, into a raw potato, creating a multitude of different characters.
I liked him so much, I bought a Mr. Potato Head (now they supply a brown plastic head instead of child using a potato) recently as Christmas gift for my grandchildren, knowing full well it won’t “do the trick” in the excitement category. Why? Mr. Potato Head doesn’t perform in any grandiose fashion. He doesn’t sing, talk, or transform into a menacing moveable character.
But I hope they love him, anyway.
If Mr. Potato Head brings back warm, fuzzy feelings, it’s because he represents a throwback to a simpler time. In short, he reminds me of my childhood. But he’s just one of the memories I have of Christmas in my youth.
For instance, I remember shopping for family gifts. On the Saturday before Christmas, Dad gave each of us kids $25.00 for our Christmas shopping. He’d drop us off on Main Street in the merchant district of Arctic where we’d do our gift-buying in a few hours. I spent most of my time stressing over Mom’s gift, only to end up getting her another milk glass candy dish (to add to her collection) or the small, cobalt-colored glass bottle of Evening in Paris cologne. I bought my brothers and Dad socks (let’s face it–I didn’t have much left after Mom’s); bought a stuffed animal for my sister (4 years my junior) and candy for Nana. When I got home, I tucked my treasures into the far corner of the dormer of my bedroom.
Anticipation for the big day built over weeks. At church, I eagerly awaited the birth of baby Jesus who’d finally lay in the cradle of straw in the manger, following midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. I loved the candles that bathed the manger scene in amber light, made more festive, still, with votives twinkling nearby. When the choir sang, I joined them in thrilling tribute to the “Newborn King.”
But, few gifts left serious imprint in my memory. When I was 8, I got the crystal rosary beads I asked for in my “I want to be a nun” phase. They were housed in a grey-blue taffeta-covered box almost as interesting (to a child) as the beads, themselves. I’d hold the strand up to the light to watch the reflection of the crystal’s prisms dance on the wall. But I wouldn’t have them long…
That Christmas night, when Mom and Dad took us kids downtown to see Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music,” I brought them along, because I couldn’t bear to leave them behind. But, at some point during “The hills are alive with the sound of music,” I lost them and that loss broke my heart.
One year Santa brought me the white transistor radio I’d asked for. The little Emerson was housed in a tan leather jacket, with a perforated patch where the sound came out. But oddly enough, as a child, I wasn’t as impressed with its capacity to deliver music as I was in awe of its gold-tone buttons and leather casing that buttoned on its side. When I see older transistor radios in antique shops, today, they bring me back to that time and I relish the memory.
I got a bird in a cage, when I was 10. Apparently, the hours after my going to bed were close to murderous as my father (never good at fixing things) nearly strangled the parakeet in the door apparatus, when he sought to connect its feeder. They kept the frenzied critter quiet after his near-death experience by putting its coverlet over the cage.
I hadn’t asked for it but got it, probably because my grandmother had birds (as pets), and Mom doubtless wanted to pass along that family tradition, in the same way I want to share Mr. Potato Head with my grandsons.
That same year I became “Official Wrapper of Family Gifts,” and Christmas lost its mystique. A few days before the big day, Mom sequestered me in an upstairs bedroom, closed the door, and shouted encouragement to me whenever I showed signs of flagging energy. From that point on, I knew what everyone was getting ahead of time. She even had me wrap my own gifts (not the bird), with her caveat “You mustn’t look in the boxes,” ringing in my ears.
So, there you have it: a Mexican creche, a pint-sized radio, rosary beads, Midnight Mass, Mr. Potato Head, a paranoid parakeet, gift-buying and gift-wrapping for the family…–an eclectic batch of memories of “the most wondrous time of the year.” But I find it noteworthy that in that cluster, there’s nothing spectacular of a material order (the spiritual’s another matter).
That tells me: Like Mr. Potato Head, the things that impressed me most, as gifts, were really quite simple.…Even more telling: Those memories grow more meaningful with the years.
I wish you all “Merry Christmas” and wonder: “What’s your positive memory?”
(Click on above link to read some fascinating data about Mr. Potato Head, one of Rhode Island’s more famous exports. Did you know, for instance, he was the first toy to be advertised on TV?)