Coal for Christmas

It's time for another excerpt from No Beauty Queen!  

Unfortunately, this one may end up on the cutting room floor.  I'm worried it doesn't quite fit and I don't want to force it.  However, it's a Christmas story, and since it's December, I want to share it here.

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It's been twenty six years and I still can't tell if it's funny, or sad, or a little bit of both.  

Maybe you can tell me.

This is the Year I got Coal for Christmas...

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My stepmother always made a big deal out of Christmas, and never missed a chance to tell us about her efforts. She would go on an on about how many stores she went to and how many hours she spent searching each year for the one gift we really wanted. Even when money was so tight we got notebooks and lifesavers wrapped as presents under the tree, she still made sure our One Big Gift was there. Since my brother and I spent Christmas Eve with our mother, we sometimes came back disappointed we hadn’t received that Barbie doll or Transformer—only to find it the next morning, hidden away by our stepmother.

“You know who really loves you,” both she and my father would say while we ripped open cardboard boxes and cut through the death grips of rock-solid zip ties.

Even my stepmother’s favoritism rarely showed Christmas Day.

I say rarely because the first Christmas after Jessica was born, when I was six years old, my brother and I raced to get our stockings. We approached the mantle of our artificial fireplace, burning with excitement for what would surely be a morning spent buzzing on a sugar high from stockings loaded with all kinds of chocolate and peppermint candies. I briefly noted how Jessica's stocking hung in the middle, and was filled to the brim.  I could even see the face of a small baby doll poking out of the top, while mine and my brother's appeared to be nearly empty. I let the thought pass and undeterred, we both grabbed our stockings from their hooks, turned them upside down, squeezing red synthetic fur between our little fingers, and shook them violently.

Two huge lumps of coal rolled out.

I immediately burst into tears. The disappointment of seeing a black rock thumping the carpet where oranges and hershey's kisses should've been, was too much. While we'd been taught since birth there was no such thing as Santa, I still understood exactly what getting coal for Christmas meant. But I had no what I'd done to deserve it.

My seven year old brother on the other hand, laughed and asked our father and stepmother for his real stocking.  I couldn't even look at them as I sniffled and tried to wipe my eyes.

"Why are you crying?" My stepmother asked laughing.  "We would've sworn it would've been your brother to get all upset, but you're the one sitting here squalling!"

I felt the first pang of fatherly betrayal as my dad joined in the mockery, laughing with my stepmother.  

When I still kept crying he finally said, "Come on Heather, it was just a joke.  You know we have real stockings for you."

No.  I didn't know.  I was six.

My stepmother got up and grabbed the two real stockings they'd kept hidden in their room.

Even once my mouth was full of milk chocolate, I couldn't find the joke funny.  It played too close to my fears Jessica's arrival was marking the end of my stepmother needing me, much less wanting me.  She had her own child now and I was feeling the slow, but steady pressure of being pushed out.  Little by little.  Inch by inch.  

Jessica would never get coal in her stocking.

In fact, nearly ten years later, and a few years after Michelle's arrival, my stepmother decided to get all four of us bikes for Christmas.  One problem, she said she didn’t have the money to. So my brother and I woke Christmas morning to find Jessica’s and Michelle’s bikes lined up next to the tree, and no bike in site for either one of us.

“You guys can wait to get bikes until January, when I have more money,” my stepmother explained. “They’re too young to understand.”

To this day I’ve never owned a bike.

Yet, even with coal and missing bicycles Christmas really was a really, really good day for many years of my life. There's something special about it.  Something crisp, clean, and peaceful.  And my stepmother helped make it that way.