In 1966 there were a good many stuffed toys made that were not safe for children. I don’t know when they started making them or when they stopped making them. I only remember the impact this had on my wee life and how one remarkable woman saved the day for me many years later.
My Great Grandmother had come to Wichita from Ottawa to spend Christmas day with us. Like all the women from both sides of our family, she was energetic and chatty no matter her age. She’d come with my Grandfather and his wife, Glenna, from Overland Park. The glorious sight of their car in the drive with all those gifts in the back was second only to the tree come Christmas morning. They had arrived in the dark in the middle of a snow shower. It might have been late at night, or it might have been 6:00 in the evening. For some reason I recall their arrival from the vantage point of the front yard rather than through the front window. I watched as my Grandfather and Father piled presents up and took them into the house. The large colorful bulbs that lined the roof were hazy and wondrous through the veil of snowfall. Our tree could be seen through the window. The tinsel didn’t hang as much as hover over and around the lights and ornaments. My Mother’s approach to decorating the tree was nothing less than artistic. A painter, and later a sculptor, she crafted the tree from the inside out with balance, color, light, and harmony.
The two-bedroom house my parents had rented from my Grandmother was cozy and warm. Our heat came from a floor furnace located in the center of the house between all the rooms. It was easy enough to avoid even though it was large because it was so hot. It was so hot it was scary. And yet, the bedrooms always held a chill. The cracked windowpanes may have had something to do with that.
The air of Christmas morning was heavy with the smell of bacon and coffee. I stumbled sleepily into the living room with my three brothers, one older and two younger than me. Once the tree was within our sight, we were wide-awake. The presents brought from out of town had been placed under the tree right away, but Mom and Dad always waited until the middle of the night to place theirs. Our patience was rewarded every year with a morning vision so breathtaking I can still see it whenever I close my eyes. Mom gave as much care to how the gifts were arranged as she did the decorating of the tree. The gifts were never stacked or piled. They were their own landscape with depth, shape, and texture whether it was a lean year or a time of abundance. While I fidgeted with anticipation, I was also in no hurry to see the earth of gifts supporting the tree get taken apart. We could always tell what was from Santa because the presents from him were different from all the rest. His came in plain colored paper with no ribbon or bow, just a simple tag with a child’s name and signed “Love, Santa.” He dutifully left behind crumbs on the cookie plate, a drop or two of milk in the glass, and a note that reminded us of the good things we’d done that year.
After a seemingly endless morning meal, the big people announced it was time to open gifts. This too would require patience as gifts were opened one at a time. My brothers and I were jumpy, clapping at the opening of each gift, not because what someone else received was so great, but because each gift opened put us that much closer to our own. Finally my turn came. Around the room it went, and it was my turn again. And then again. And then one more time. This last package, from Grandpa and Glenna, was as big as I was. I trembled to think what it could be. I was encouraged to peel the paper away slowly but I couldn’t hold back. Suddenly, there she was! I was 4 years old and the ever so happy recipient of an Eskimo doll every bit as tall as me. She wore a fuzzy hooded parka, fuzzy mukluks, and a plastic face. A hint of jet-black hair was painted across her forehead. She was beautiful. She was exotic. And she was flammable.
Grandpa took Great-Grandma and Glenna back home early the next day. Other relatives had come for another dinner. During dinner, my brother noticed a fire truck in the neighborhood. Its lights were flashing but there was no siren. It moved down the street slowly. Firemen were going door to door. And then they came to our house. There was mumbling and an offer of coffee. I was told to bring my Eskimo doll to the table. One of the firemen plucked a bit of fur from the hood of my doll’s parka. He laid it in an ashtray and put a match to it. The fur became instantly alight and disappeared. I held my doll tightly. There was more mumbling; something about the floor furnace, and then my heart sank. The firemen took my Eskimo doll with them.
My parents didn’t tell my Grandfather and Glenna about this until their Christmas visit in 1980. By then we’d moved across town into a bigger house. Grandpa said he wished he’d have known about the firemen and the doll but thought I was too grown for a replacement. Glenna took me aside later and said she wished she could replace it, that she didn’t think anyone could be too grown for a doll they’d had for such a short time. During that same conversation she asked me about my interests and I told her how much I liked to write. After Christmas day dinner I retreated upstairs to my bedroom with an armful of wonderful things. Glenna came up later with a bag. It held a package of pens and several notebooks. If this were a chicken soup story, I would talk about Glenna encouraging me to write about that fateful Christmas day. But this is my story. Glenna looked into my eyes, cupped my face in her hands, and said nothing. My heart swelled every bit as much as it had ached so many years ago.
My grandfather’s second wife, Glenna was my grandmother’s adversary from day one. While the rest of the family tolerated her, I thought “Glenna” was French for “Grandma” until I was almost a teenager. I only then learned Grandpa had left my Grandmother with two small children in 1950. Grandpa and Glenna married just before I was born in 1962. By the time I found out about all this, it was too late for me not to like her. I loved her.
I knew it was a sappy thing to do but I couldn’t help myself. After my Grandfather died, and knowing Glenna was getting on in years, I sent her a little Eskimo girl figurine with a card telling her how much she meant to me. She died at home shortly thereafter. I lived far from home when both she and Grandpa had died so I wasn’t able to make it back for either funeral. My sister-in-law, who had also held Glenna in high esteem, told me later she couldn’t find the figurine. We both agreed this was odd since Glenna kept tedious records and was an avid collector of all things dealing with family. The figurine came in my mailbox a few weeks after her funeral with no return address, no card, and postmarked from Anchorage. My sister-in-law insisted she hadn’t sent it. I’ll probably never know how I came to get it back, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find out Heaven’s gates are in Alaska.