One of the fondest memories I have of Christmas isn’t even my memory. It’s my mother’s. She told it to me when I was old enough to know. It was of a Christmas long ago. And Emma.
Emma was my doll. I loved Emma. That much I remember. I named her Emma, although nobody (including me) could figure out why, or where I’d heard the name.
Emma was never out of my sight, never out of my arms. Emma was loved so fiercely that she began to wear out. She was one of those old fashioned dolls with a wooden head and neck tucked into a soft, stuffed torso with little wooden arms and little wooden legs that could move. You could bend her legs to sit her down. I know she sounds like one of those dolls you see on horror shows nowadays, but when I was young (a long time ago), dolls like Emma were de rigueur, meaning they were all pretty much like that. Emma had bright glassy eyes with eyelashes in her little wooden head that would shut when you laid her down, and her little mouth was painted red. If you looked closely enough, you could see two little white teeth showing between her lips. I remember painting Emma’s fingernails with my mother’s nail polish. Her hair was also painted on (light brown with curls in front), but I didn’t notice it much, since Emma always wore a bonnet.
This isn’t a story about Emma so much as it is about how much my mother loved me. She loved me so much she stole Emma.
That Christmas Eve, when I finally went to sleep (the only time Emma wasn’t in my clutches), my mother stole Emma, took her downstairs and proceeded to make her over. We weren’t exactly poor, but we didn’t have much money. My father supported us on a cop’s salary, but we lived in our own house and always had what we needed. My mother’s plan was to disguise Emma as a new doll, since she couldn’t afford to buy one. Unbeknownst to me, she had bought a pretty new dress for Emma, a coat, and underwear (!), socks, and little paper shoes at Woolworth’s Five and Ten Cent Store on Columbia Avenue. (You young people look it up.) She even made Emma hair out of yarn (my mother was clever), and tied a brand new bonnet under her chin. She renewed Emma’s cracked lips with paint and placed her under the Christmas tree. The next morning, as she told it, she couldn’t wait for me to come down and see the “new” doll Santa had brought me.
I do remember the excitement of those Christmas mornings, smelling my mother’s coffee, waiting impatiently for my parents to tell me it was okay to come down. I’d wait at the top of the stairs while they turned on the tree lights and position themselves so that they could see my reaction to the magic of the tree and the gifts.
“You can come down now,” my mother called. She was excited, expectant. She’d done a grand job. I ran into the living room and stopped in my tracks. There she was, sitting under the tree, beautiful and new. My eyes grew wide, and I looked at my mother, a big, open smile on my face. “Don’t Emma look SWEET,” I screamed joyfully. I don’t know how long my mother and father laughed, but that moment, that wonderful, precious moment, was talked about for years and years. I never wanted a new doll. I just wanted Emma. And I would have known my Emma anywhere. And somehow, my mother had made it all happen.
All those years ago, and still I remember my mother telling that story, and how I felt when she told it. I felt loved. I always felt loved. Our family wasn’t perfect, by any means. But my mother and father were stalwart and kind. They opened their hearts and home to family and strangers alike. Always, there was an aunt or an uncle living with us until they could “get on their feet.” At any moment, my mother’s table would be set with an extra place for a neighbor down on his luck, a cousin who just “happened” to ring the doorbell at dinnertime, or a couple of tired cops just off duty and still in their uniforms. And, as generous people everywhere know, there was always enough.
And so I remember them this Christmas. Merry Christmas, Mama and Daddy. Thanks for the love. And the memories. And Emma.
Full disclosure: This is not Emma, but this is how she looked.
Read The Messenger: The Improbable Story of a Grieving Mother and a Spirit Guide by Helen Delaney. You may find it on http://www.Amazon.com.