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December 7, 2010

Katherine Howe on Presents and Self-Presentation

Posted by Anonymous
KatherineHowe.jpgKatherine Howe is an expert on all things New England and the bestselling author of THE PHYSICK BOOK OF DELIVERANCE DANE. Below, she recollects a favorite Christmas memory from her childhood home in Houston…and offers a few tips on how to avoid caving under the pressure of being a lady.  
I knew that this was a situation that called for bravery and stoicism. I was prepared. I knew, without question, that the only appropriate response under the circumstances was an expression of glee, gratitude and abject pleasure at the miraculous bounty that Santa, in concert with my loving parents, had rained down upon me. I was a well-bred little girl, or at least, I was heavily trained to be one. A lady. And a lady behaves like a lady on Christmas morning.
A smile plastered itself onto my face. No one was fooled.
Frankly, things had looked so promising when I rounded the corner into the living room. One of the major challenges that met my imagination in those years concerned the scientific principles of how Santa gained access to our house. Unlike all those classic houses on television --- the Platonic form of “house,” with a staircase, shutters, a nice banister for sliding and, most importantly, a fireplace with chimney –-- ours was a sweet, little Houston bungalow, about the size of a pocket, with one floor. So, no banister, for starters. It had shutters, which was a plus, but around Christmastime, our galling lack of a fireplace with a chimney was always cause for consternation. How was Santa going to get in? After some serious thinking, I had decided that Santa, like his distant cousin the Tooth Fairy, was made of colored air. He could creep in through the gaps around the front door and materialize by our tree, consume the cookies that I had selected with great care, and leave presents behind. Presents that children would like! Even miniature ladies, like me.
My logic was foolproof. The previous Christmas had featured my first bicycle --- a gigantic, shiny, red Schwinn with coaster brakes --- which I was still too cautious to ride without training wheels, but which I felt certain would be splendid to ride on two wheels…someday. Maybe when I went to college. But still! Christmas morning with a gigantic, shiny, red Schwinn was a gauntlet, thrown by Santa himself, and so my hopes were high this particular morning. What wonder might Santa have wrought for this, my seventh Christmas?
When all boxes had been opened --- wrapping paper gathered like a drifting cloud around my knees, orange juice drunk, thank-you note list annotated --- and my father was flapping open a garbage bag to clear away the wreckage, the answer was clear: books. And only books. Okay, also a pair of stilts, which were sort of intimidating. But besides the stilts, books. Just. Books.
“Oh, these look wonderful!” my mother exclaimed, with the forceful cheer of mothers everywhere who wish to convey the appropriate response to their offspring.
“YES,” I agreed, fake smile in place. Having reached the age of reason, and being a lady, I knew that my feelings on this matter must remain hidden. I must not appear ungrateful. So what if there wasn't even one toy? I was getting big, wasn't I? I already had a Paddington Bear. And several dolls, which my mother referred to collectively as “Barbie Trollop.” I didn't know what a trollop was, but it didn't matter, did it? And I loved books. I loved to read. I would regularly be caught --- my covers glowing, flashlight lit from within --- up well after nine, reading.
“THEY DO LOOK WONDERFUL,” I affirmed, collecting my bounty with gritted teeth, but determined to solider on.
Later that day, before being bundled into the station wagon for dinner at my grandparents' house, I cracked open my new books. Who knew? Maybe Santa had better taste than I thought.
And I forgave Santa immediately.
Tomorrow, Kelly Simmons shares her thoughts on what it REALLY means to spoil one’s children.