Holiday Issue: The Gift
The Promise of Purple: Ann Hood remembers the purple bike her dad bought her as a Christmas gift
The year that I loved purple, my father finally came home for Christmas. He wore a white Navy uniform with a patch of a fighting Seabee on it and a sailor's hat on his blond hair. It was 1963, and my father had spent two long years stationed in Cuba while my mother, brother and I lived in Rhode Island with my grandmother, Mama Rose.
Just weeks before he returned, my principal, Miss Knight, had burst into my second-grade classroom crying: "Our beloved president has been shot!" We were lined up and dismissed, our spelling tests still in our hands. At home, my mother and Mama Rose sat staring at the black-and-white television watching the events unfold. It seemed to me then that life without my father was fraught with danger and uncertainty. A year earlier, my family had waited out the Cuban Missile Crisis with my father right there in Cuba. When the news finally came that catastrophe had been averted, it was as if the house itself sighed with relief.
Even Christmas had taken on strange and unfamiliar attributes without him. Instead of tramping through the woods in search of the perfect, tallest Christmas tree, my mother got the tree of her dreams: a silver artificial one. "No pine needles to vacuum," she announced, clutching the box close. "No impossible stand to mess with." My mother loved all things modern. She longed for shag carpeting, a dishwasher and electric anything: knife, toothbrush, can opener.
She opened the box and ordered my brother, Skip, to remove the tree. I watched in horror as he pulled out first a long skinny pole dotted with holes, and then, one by one, the pompom-tipped branches. Gleefully, my mother set about building the tree, sticking each branch into the pole. Just as I tried to imagine how our ornaments -- the pine cones topped with tiny elves, the grinning Santa heads -- would look on it, my mother opened another box. She had a color scheme, she explained, holding up a shiny blue ornament. My brother went from window to window placing plastic candles in each one. When he plugged them in, their flames lit up the same shiny blue.
"Now for the best part," my mother said, opening a final box that held a pinwheel with wedges of red, blue, green and yellow on it. She plugged it in, and it began to slowly rotate, each color reflecting off the silver tree, illuminating it ever so briefly.
"I'm going to tell Daddy," I said, starting to cry. Christmas was the smell of pine and strands of tinsel. It was strings of lights that blinked on and off in multicolored glory. It was my father humming Christmas carols and stirring Hawaiian punch and rum into the crystal punch bowl. It was not this.
My mother didn't hear me. She was too pleased with her version of Christmas, a modern one exactly like those she'd seen in magazines and store windows. With a satisfied sigh, she dropped onto the turquoise Danish sofa and watched that light wheel change the tree's color long into the night.
Now, with my father home, I believed the outside world, and my own small inner one, would regain the equilibrium it had lost in his absence. My mother left her artificial tree in its box, and we once again tramped into the woods for the perfect tree. We hung tinsel, strand by strand, on its long branches, while my mother muttered about the needles already dropping onto the rug. Christmas carols blared from the hi-fi, and my father sang along, enthusiastically off-key. Afterward, as we sat in the shadow of the blinking lights, my father asked me what I wanted most for Christmas. Santa would bring me a Chatty Cathy doll and the game of Life. But from my parents all I wanted was a bike. A purple one.
I had never seen a purple bike, but I loved purple. In school, all the girls were crazy for pink, and as the quiet girl who liked to read and wore thick glasses, the one who sat alone in the playground playing jacks during recess, I eschewed pink for purple. Purple pens, a purple notebook, even a stuffed purple dog.
"Well, then," my father said the night I gave him my list, "a purple bike it is."
That night, I went to sleep with the smell of his Old Spice still in my nose and visions of my purple bike in my head.
"I hate to disappoint her," I heard my father whisper the night before Christmas Eve. "But there just are not any purple bikes." "Let's just go to Sears and get her a red one then," my mother said.
By this time, the purple bike had taken on mythical importance to me. Somehow, it represented the promise of a future in which my father stayed home, Christmas trees were always real, and the world was a safe and happy place. If I didn't get it, what did my future hold?
On Christmas morning, I stayed in bed until my mother insisted I get up. I walked slowly into the kitchen, and slower still into the living room. There, gleaming in all its purple glory, sat my bike, with my grinning father beside it. Later I would learn that he had driven all the way to Boston to find it for me. In two short months, the Beatles would appear on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and my father would retire from the Navy and stay home for good. The rest of my Christmases for decades to come would be filled with real trees and off-key Christmas carols.
I got on my new purple bike. My father held the handlebars to steady it, and I rode off into my wonderful future.
Ann Hood is the author of "The Knitting Circle." Her new novel, "The Red Thread," will be published by W.W. Norton next year. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.