Christmas in 1981: Showdown on the Sledding Hill
Merry Christmas Eve to all!
I hope everyone is enjoying a safe and warm celebration, wherever you’ve ended up this holiday season.
We’ve decided to stay in town and wait out the storm instead of braving the winter roadways to get to my parent’s cabin in the mountains of Washington. While I was sitting here missing them something fierce, I decided to go back through my archives to pull out a Christmas story that I wrote about them in 2003.
Enjoy and best wishes,
I am four years old.
My entire family is packed into a tiny, yellow 1969 super-beetle. My parents bought it way back in the long, long ago… brand new off the lot. It is our family car.
Besides my sister and I in the back seat, there are also our two full-sized dobermans, Greta and Soldier. They go with us everywhere. As far as we are concerned kennels are for assholes and dogs are family.
It is December 23rd and we are headed to a small Bavarian-style town in the mountains. It is a 3 hour journey and we are 1.5 hours in. We have just hit the snow-line and I am going bananas.
We have to stop to put chains on so I am allowed to play in the bank next to the highway. My sister is 12 and pelts me with a snowball square in the noggin. I am wearing a yellow, quilted jacket and my hockey patch is sewn onto the left shoulder. The figure skating patch is on the right shoulder but right now I am really into hockey.
Ok. I am really into anything that my sister is doing. And she plays hockey. And she is a lot better than the boys. But I’m used to that by now. She beats them at everything, even football.
Boys are dumb. Even my Dad says that (and he should know).
The dogs are looking bewildered. They are brother and sister, both about 8 years old. Soldier is impressed by the snow for about .479 seconds and then climbs back in the bug. Greta is trying to catch snowflakes with her tongue. After a while she gets distracted and walks a few steps away to make yellow snow.
Later that night we are all bundled in winter gear and headed to the Christmas tree lot. The great thing about buying a tree on December 23 is that you get to cut a deal with the guy at the lot. Mom and Dad chat him up while my sister and I hem and haw about which side of the tree is the best. We have spent the afternoon making chains out of construction paper and popcorn and cranberries. I like the way the cranberries bleed when you poke them with the needles. I always do it nice and slow.
Dad says I have always been a little bit morbid. Since I was strong enough to clasp my hand in a fist I have had this thing for pulling his chest hairs. He used to lay me against him and I would tug and tug and tug.
We are a rough family and that is mostly because of my dad. He grew up having pitch-fork fights with his siblings. He was one of the middle boys out of a 5 (there were also 4 girls) and so he got it the worst. He is good at wrassling and he will let me bop him right in the belly with all my might. It never even phases him.
I am infinitely impressed by this.
He carries the skinny tree home and sets it up while my sister and I bounce up and down holding our popcorn chains and screaming for him to hurry! hurry! hurry! mom has brought a box of our ornaments and when she opens it we begin to vibrate. I squeel when I find the ones that I made for her. My sister’s are better but that’s ok because she’s older. I know how it works.
Heather. Heather is my sister and she is tough. She takes care of me a lot because mom sometimes has to cover the police beat. Or sometimes she covers the schoolboard meetings and they can go all night if you get the parents angry enough. She has lots of stories about angry parents.
On late nights Heather makes me macaroni and cheese and she usually hides broccoli under cheese so that I’ll think it’s good. I fall for that trick more times than you’d wager.
The last thing to go on the tree is the star. My parents brought the star back from Mexico way back when they were first married. It’s made out of tin and painted bright colors. It’s constructed so you can lace the lights all through the inside. They reflect off the angles of the tin and cast light onto the wall. It’s probably the best star in the whole world. That is my assessment at the early age of four years old.
The rest of the ornaments are little fragments of memories and time. Felt things that my grandfather sewed after the muscular dystrophy first came and put him in the big chair all day. That man was always industrious. Before he lost control of the muscles in his arms he would sit around after our card games and make loop rugs and high-tech paper airplanes. He couldn’t walk so he constructed. Who needs walking?
With the star on the tree there was only one thing left to do. Heather and I had to make our appearance on the infamous sledding hill.
Leavenworth is a small, Bavarian style town. The center is a park that is built on a small hill and in the winter every tree is covered with an impossible number of Christmas lights. The BIG ones. Carolers stroll through and the church bells bang out a familiar tune every few minutes. Every kid with any sense in their head at all is on that hill after supper time.
This year, I am making my big-kid debut. Heather and I are sent out alone. She is dragging the big, orange toboggan sled and walking at a pace that I am having trouble matching. I don’t want to complain though. I need to be tough.
I have a red roll-up sled under my left arm and I am watching my big moon-boots as they tromp tromp tromp through the snow. I am at a slight jog. My sister is built like a beanpole and dad says I will be too – I’m just not quite there yet. Her legs cover ground that I can’t even think about.
When we get to the hill I case the joint. It only takes one look to figure out that my sister is going to own this hill. This is the cool part about being with Heather. She kicks the ass and I make sure to take the names.
There are a bunch of wimpy, dumb boys at the far end of the park and they appear to be making a jump. O dude. My sister is SO the queen of jumps. These dudes are toast.
We set to work. I want to make a run but I’ve never gone by myself so I stick close to my sister. This means helping build her jump, which needs to rival that of the boys. Building a killer jump takes time and effort but she is a work-horse and she is doing triple time compared to those chumps. They’re watching us and I know it. I push the snow around as best I can.
Finally. It is time.
Heather has to test the run, to make sure that the jump isn’t too big for me. That’s what she says anyway.
She takes a running start with the orange sled in her right hand. Just as she hits the crest she throws it in front of her and takes a flying leap, landing on her belly, with her skinny nose just point over the front edge of the sled. O baby, this is the big time. Belly down on the first run? I told you those bozos were toast.
She is gaining speed like nobodies business. She is a madwoman. She always gets this incredible glaze in her eyes when she is on the edge. And she is almost always on the edge of everything. Hell, she almost got kicked out of pee-wee football for being too rough.
She hits the bump like a runaway train and dangles there in the air like an ornament. One leg slightly up in the air, keeping her from flipping. One arm out to the other side. The sledding hill is silent and my eyes refuse to blink. She is up there forever.
When she lands it is terrific. Smooth but solid. It makes a big noise that makes you think it hurt like you wouldn’t believe. But as soon as she slows she is springing off that orange sled with her fist in the air. She is sprinting back up the hill toward me in a show of strength and triumph and ownership. We haven’t even seen those boys take a run and we STILL know who owns the park.
“C’mon it’s your turn! C’mon, get ready! It’s great – it’s the best jump ever!”
I’m a little worried. It’s a big jump and she’s got 8 years, 2 feet and at least 60 pounds on me. But I can’t lose face now. This is my big-kid debut. If she thinks I can do it then I can. That’s the way it’s always been. That’s the way it is tonight.
I roll out the red sled and she stops me. “No way. That thing won’t work. You have to use the toboggan.”
And she hands me the sacred toboggan. The BIG big kid sled. O my god. This is like the day she let me ride the Green Machine. O my fucking god.
I don’t go belly down. I’m no fool. I sit with my legs straight out in front of me. Fat, little-kid fingers clutching the sides. I have an off-white hat on with a little puff-ball on top. As she gives me a push I imagine the way my little puff-ball is gonna dance when I hit the ground on the other side of that jump. My eyes are full of big-kid dreams.
All at once the nose of the sled meets the front edge of the jump. I bear down. Somewhere in the black night air my voice is pulsating. A little, four-year-old scream. High and clear. Terror.
I Am. Flying.
The town unfolds before me and the church bells are everywhere. The lights are a blur. The snow is perfect. The trees are my minions. I am so high. I own everything. And I can hear my sister’s voice cheering for me in the background. I am light so I soar long and far.
But contrary to what you’d expect, I land HARD.
I land so hard that my teeth shake in my head. My fingers are white-knuckling the edge of the sled. My legs rattle.
I am still flying. Only not in the air anymore. I am speeding along the well-padded snow. I am racing.
And unlike the big kids who drag their feet or roll over, I have no idea how to stop. I just keep going.
Soon there is a tree. I see it and know it wants me. I know that I can’t be that girl who ran into the tree. Especially not with Heather’s rep on the line. I shift my weight and veer hard to the right. Out of the line of the tree but over another completely invisible bump instead. It’s tiny so no one really even notices.
It is an all-star performance.
But the bump hit me the wrong way. My bottom becomes slowly warm and I know that something is terribly, horribly wrong. Something has gone awry. I am in deep this time.
She is rushing toward me. She is all congratulations and exclamations and loving me with her words the way she always does. And I am smiling and trying to be big and not look scared. But I’m not a good actress yet.
Her face drops.
“I. I. I’m not sure. I feel. Wet.”
Her face is a crinkle.
“It’s the snow.”
It’s not the snow, we find out. It’s me. It’s a little four-year-old girl who hit a bump and peed her snow-pants. I am warm and wet but the warm part is turning to freezing cold.
“O Jesus.” She rolls her eyes.
She never does this so I know I am in trouble. I ruined the sledding hill and you just don’t mess with the sledding hill.
“Do you need to get home?”
I am non-committal. Trying to stay out of trouble and still get her to take me home. No one knows but still I am humiliated.
“I’m. I’m getting a little bit cold down there.”
It is too much. I start to cry. I am uncomfortable and a failure. An uncomfortable failure.
“O god,” she groans, “Get up. C’mon. Let’s go home.”
So that’s it. One run each. That’s all we get for the big debut. She is disappointed but I am secretly happy.
Later, when mom puts me in a warm bath, I explain to her how we owned the sledding hill. You know… until that thing happened.
“It was an accident.” I repeat.
“I know it was an accident, baby.” She says, “You’re my little warm puppy dog.”
When she calls me that I know I’m not in trouble any more so I play imaginary games where my fingers are people and they all crash their boats and drown.
Dad always said I had a morbid streak.
My sister is outside with dad building snow forts in the yard. In the morning there will be a great snowball war and I will do my part by losing miserably.
For now it is me and mom in the tub. Me drowning the finger-people and wondering what is in those packages under our homemade tree in the living room.
For now it is me, the little warm puppy dog. Dreaming of owning the sledding hill again tomorrow night.