My sister doesn't keep Christmas, she pampers it. Her Christmas tree is a work of art, heavy with decorations, some she has made herself, others brought to her from distant countries. There is a Christmas breakfast and a Christmas dinner and stacks of presents under the tree. Every visitor has a stocking stuffed with tiny gifts, each individually wrapped. Every available surface is covered with candles, cre`ches and Christmas angels, and strings of lights wink around the outside porch.
Christmas at her house is an adventure and a comfort, and every year I looked forward to immersion in the bath of festivities in which she swims. Yet, on Christmas morning, as I sit up to my elbows in wrapping paper and torn ribbon, savoring my take, I find myself recalling a long-ago Christmas that I will always think of as hers. I doubt that she even remembers it.
She was 2 years old. The rest of us were too old for Santa Claus and, although we were properly inquisitive about what the day might bring us, we were all waiting to see how she reacted to Santa's replacement for Sweet Thing.
Sweet Thing was a doll -- her love, her treasure, her constant companion. Sweet Thing was also the most decrepit doll I have ever seen. I no longer remember where she came from, but I can see that doll in decline as clearly as though she were sitting here on my typewriter table. Not sitting actually -- slumping. She had a cloth body grown gray with handling -- whatever clothes she had owned had long since disappeared -- and arms, legs and a head of plastic, with painted eyes, lips and hair and a lifetime's worth of scars, dents and scratches. The arms and legs were only half limbs, solid material to just above the elbow and knee, cloth beyond that, which meant that when my sister carried Sweet Thing her appendages dangled ludicrously. Most of the time, the doll looked more like a corpse or a comic drunk than like a baby, but when my sister gathered it in her arms, it was baby enough for anyone with imagination.
The new doll, the replacement for Sweet Thing, was probably not an expensive one (this was still the Depression), but she was splendid: solid all through, with jointed legs and arms that could be moved to simulate human motion, and a head that turned in its socket. She had eyes that opened and closed, something that passed for hair and a painted mouth that pouted realistically. She was a little girl doll, properly dressed in a blue party frock, white socks and Mary Janes. She was almost as big as my sister.
Santa had somehow managed to stand the doll up beside the tree, arms extended as though waiting to embrace a new friend. When my sister came sleepily into the room, that is what she saw. Her eyes popped open, and her face was filled with joy. She moved to the doll and stood in front of it, just looking. It seemed as if the two little girls were measuring one another on a first meeting. Then my sister reached out and lightly touched the face, the dress -- very lightly, for the doll remained standing. Finally, she took the doll's hands. Then, crowing with delight, she began to dance around, turning in a circle, she and the doll flying faster and faster. At the height of her excitement, as we all stood beaming at her pleasure, the doll's head suddenly broke loose from its body and bounced across the room.
Momentum kept my sister spinning, slower and slower, until she ran down like a record on a wind-up victrola. She stood, still holding the doll's hands, and looked at the headless creature in the pressed party dress. Disbelief. Horror. Loss. She let go of the doll, which fell stiffly to the floor, turned and ran from the room.
While the rest of us pretended to be preoccupied with our gifts, my father hid the head and body of the doll and my mother went in search of my sister. There were assurances, promises that the doll could be fixed, and my sister finally returned, warily, to see what else might be under the tree and to pick at the goodies Santa had left in her candy dish.
I suppose the doll was fixed and found a place in our home, but I have no memory of her after that Christmas. No name comes to mind. What I have is the image of my sister as I found her later in the day. I had gone into the kitchen, probably to pick at a leftover or two, when I heard a murmuring voice. There on the kitchen steps sat my sister, whispering a shared confidence to Sweet Thing, which she held tightly in her arms.
Gerald Weales is a writer who lives in Philadelphia.