A goose to my rear end, and I might have decapitated myself and risen headless there in the early morning hours of Christmas. I was on my hands and knees, thrust through the broken pane of a French door that divided the living room from the kitchen. Beyond that door lay our Christmas toys set in separate piles, the wrapping paper catching the light from the tree and glinting like a small, unique galaxy. I was peeping at our coveted toys without waking my mother, who slept lightly in the next room.
"What you see?" Bruce whispered loudly, nudging me with his foot. "Let me look."
What I saw was a wonderful scene of packages wrapped quickly in Christmas paper, a fir tree cut from the woods behind our house and dressed in tinsel, glass balls, strings of holly berries, and popcorn, a sock from each of our feet nailed to the mantel and stuffed with fruit and candy. The air smelled of greenery and citrus fruit. I withdrew my head reluctantly, tucking in my chin to clear the edge of the broken pane.
My brothers and sister and I all went insane each year in late November. The first holiday catalog, usually either from Kmart or Sears or JC Penney, infected us. We'd rip through the pages, eyes bugging at the collection of trucks, bikes, games, cap pistols, and other cheap toys. Within the first week we wanted a hundred different things but then would have to narrow the list to fit the number of gifts my mother decided we could budget. The number usually ran around five presents of our choice, plus a surprise. Our Christmas gifts were supposed to supply our year except for something on our birthday, maybe a toy boat or airplane purchased in midsummer. Each selection was made with careful thought and agony, hours spent poring over slick pages. Our choices reflected much of our individual ages and personalities.
My sister, Karen, two years my senior, was the firstborn. She inherited my mother's brown eyes and hair and gentle, nurturing character. Her choices for Christmas were the same as most other girls', baby dolls and tea sets when little, later on LPs of the Beatles and Tommy James and the Shondells, clothes and dime-store makeup as she grew into adolescent and teenage years. As a female and big sister to four younger brothers, she suffered most in the hard financial years of our youth. She was acutely aware of the appearance of our house, the lack of an indoor toilet, her often outdated fashion in clothes. I remember her tears of frustration and shame when my brothers and I would burst laughing from behind a tree or fence where we had spied on her attempts to learn the steps to the Twist or Mashed Potato. She endured, usually behind a forced smile. When I was thirteen, and my parents built the small brick house that stands as the homeplace today, she was rewarded with her own room, while the brothers continued to sleep two to a bed. Today, she has been married for twenty years, her warm eyes and smile untainted. Her oldest son will soon graduate from the state university, the vanguard of what I hope is a new tradition for his brothers and cousins.
Bruce was born eighteen months following me. He has always been a meat-and-potato man, quiet in his thoughts and quick to anger. When eating dinner, he devours each item on his plate in turn before changing to another food. As a child, his toys were things with wheels -- trucks as a kid, a bicycle when his legs were long enough. Today, he drives a semi for Yellow Freight, will give you the shirt off his back if he thinks you need it, but is still as guarded in revealing feelings and thoughts as the tousle-haired child I slept with.
Keith, the knee baby of our family, as child and man is a curious mixture of Bruce and myself. As a kid, he also loved toy trucks and dirt, but was also the only one of my siblings who shared my interest in looking through my telescope. As a kid, he was a bit of a crybaby, a tendency that Bruce exaggerated almost daily for having bumped him from Mama's knee. Once when we were kids and piling brush my father had cut to clear a pasture, he announced with wide eyes and extreme seriousness, "We are really here on earth. We are really alive."