1950s Wife is recuperating with a sprained arm in a sling after getting caught in the scrum at a "Holiday Season Super Savings Vacuum Cleaner Sale." To tide you over, her alter ego, Claire Colinsgrove, presents this Christmas tale. It's a bit of a downer, but hey, so was "The Little Matchstick Girl."
This story is fiction.
Saturday, December 14, 1974
I take pen to paper at the conclusion of another day of joyous accomplishment. As I've previously written, it's my honor this holiday season to coordinate our Junior League chapter's annual project to give toys to underprivileged children.
With all this hullabaloo in the news about inflation, the OPEC oil embargo and high cost of gasoline, I was a bit worried that the poor economy might result in our offering falling short of the standard set in years past. But I must say that, after listening to my pep talk at the toy drive's beginning about our duty of "noblesse oblige" to the common folk, the gals in our chapter came through like troopers.
Such an abundance of marvelous toys we collected. How it warms my heart to envision an underprivileged boy on Christmas morning, who might otherwise go empty-handed, opening the smartly-wrapped box containing his holiday present from the Junior League to find his very own yo-yo to play with while sister takes delight in her gift of miniature crocheted Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls.
My station wagon became so crammed full with toys after I stopped at League headquarters yesterday to pick up the gifts that I could barely see out the back. Our chapter's president was there to let me in the office and graciously offered to come by today to help me wrap them.
But I turned her down. No need, I said, when I've got two extra sets of hands to help me, namely those of my 12-year-old daughter Claire and my nine-year-old son Charlie.
Well, Dear Diary, as might be expected, it turned out to be one extra pair of hands, as Claire, typical of her when there's work to be done around the house, was no help at all.
Such a surly, disagreeable child she's turning into, so different from the cheerful obedience that marked my relationship with my mother when I was Claire's age. The fuss she put up when I told her and Charlie at dinner last night that they'd spend Saturday helping me wrap gifts, you would have thought I was putting her to work picking crops on the plantation.
She didn't pipe down until I told her she might prefer spending the day in her room writing an essay on how lucky she is having parents who can afford to get her loads of expensive presents each Christmas, and how ungrateful she is compared to underprivileged children across town who must make do with yo-yos as gifts.
Claire presented herself at the breakfast table this morning in an acceptable mood, though she did object when I told her that she and Charlie could only watch one 30-minute cartoon on TV rather than their customary two. As they wouldn't outside playing with their friends today, I made them run laps around the yard the other 30 minutes for exercise.
After they cleaned up, I presented Claire and Charlie with what I naively expected would be a delightful surprise. Knowing how important fantasy is to children, to make their day as "Santa's helpers" even more fun, I purchased through mail-order elf costumes for them to wear consisting of green sweaters that fell to mid-thigh, red tights, blue felt boots with toes curling up, and knitted red caps with pointy "elf ears" attached to the sides.
Charlie was delighted with the gift and immediately ran upstairs to his bedroom to put his costume on.
Claire, however, absolutely refused to change, shouting at the top her lungs "I'm not gonna wear a stupid outfit like that!" It wasn't till I threatened to tan her backside with the "ouchy stick" that she begrudgingly agreed to don the costume.
When the children returned downstairs in their elf outfits they looked so darling that I simply had to get a picture made. Our next door neighbor is a photo buff, so I marched Claire and Charlie over to his house to get a picture taken with his fancy camera.
The neighbor told me the kids looked swell in their Christmas costumes. His son is in Claire's grade at school and he happened to come downstairs to the living room just as his father took the picture. Claire's face turned red as Rudolph's nose when the boy walked into the room. Deciding that her pretty blush added a festive look, I asked our neighbor to take another snapshot.
The neighbor said he'd bring me prints as soon as he got the film developed. He added that he did freelance work for the local paper and would like to submit a photo of my two jolly elves. I said that would be fine as long as he told the editor Claire and Charlie were dressed up to help their mother wrap presents for the Junior League's project to give Christmas toys to underprivileged children. Won't that be grand publicity!
As we walked back to our house, Claire complained that I had ruined her life, that the neighbor's son was going to tell everybody at school how stupid she looked in her elf outfit and if the paper ended up running the photo of her and Charlie dressed as elves she would just die.
In response, I told her she needs to get over worrying what other children think of her. The only people's opinions I cared about when I was growing up were my parents' and my teachers'. That's how I became house captain senior year at boarding school, president of the student disciplinary board with a straight-A average and admitted to a "Seven Sister."
Back at the house, I had Claire and Charlie fetch the boxed-up presents from my station wagon in the garage and bring them into the dining room while I retrieved wrapping paper, scissors, scotch tape and green and red ribbon from the sewing room.
I also retrieved the "ouchy stick," which is a 12-inch ruler affixed to a four-inch grip, from the coat closet. I needed a ruler for Claire to use to measure when cutting wrapping paper and seeing the ouchy stick would remind her to diligently attend to her task and not bellyache.
We gathered round the dining room table and I instructed the children on the procedure: Claire would cut paper, I'd wrap, and Charlie would use his finger to hold the ribbon down while I affixed it into a smart bow. We fell to work and soon became an efficient team, though I had to threaten a time or two to rap Claire's knuckles with the ouchy stick for cutting off too much paper. "Waste not, Want Not," the Good Book says.
After two hours, it was time for lunch, so we sat down to a nutrious meal of tomato soup and tuna fish sandwiches. Twenty minutes later we were back at work.
Claire was so placid and compliant during the first two hours of gift wrapping that I almost felt like I had a new child. But I suppose the tomato soup was a bit too spicy because it wasn't more than a few minutes into the afternoon session when "Lil' Miss Hot Head" made her presence known.
First she complained that she was sick of the Christmas music I was playing and wanted to put a Partridge Family record on. Well, even though I get more than my fill of that insipid show watching it each week with Claire and Charlie to make sure they shut their eyes and cover their ears during inappropriate parts, I graciously allowed her to play the record just to prove that I'm not, as Claire has impertinently called me more than once, "the world's meanest Mom."
We weren't more than two songs into the record when Claire said her hand was cramping and needed a break. So I allowed her to rest two full songs but almost immediately upon returning to work, she cried out that her wrist still hurt and I needed to put liniment spray on.
So up we went to my bathroom and I applied a generous amount of liniment spray even though I strongly suspected she suffered from a dose of "malingeritis" rather than a strained wrist.
We returned to the dining room and she managed to work through the end of side one of the Partridge Family record. But were only one song through Side B when she announced she needed to go to the bathroom.
Upstairs she went while Charlie and I continued to wrap presents. Charlie is such a good boy. He graciously offered to cut paper in Claire's absence but I don't trust a nine-year-old with adult-sized scissors.
Several minutes passed. The Partridge Family record droned on, the noise giving me a headache. Finally, I went over to the turntable and shut off the music. I called upstairs, "Claire, are you OK? Do you need me to come up there?"
"I'll be down in a minute," she shouted back.
Charlie and I returned to wrapping. Five more minutes passed and still no Claire. I walked to the foot of the stairs.
"Claire, get down here this instant," I called out in a sharp voice.
"OK. OK," she shouted back. "Gosh, I can't even take a few minutes break to use the bathroom."
Claire returned to the living room. "Can I put a 'Brady Bunch' record on?" she asked.
"No Claire, I need a break from the noise," I told her. "If you want music, play a Christmas record."
"I don't wanna listen to stupid Christmas music," she cried. "I wanna hear the 'Brady Bunch'!"
"Claire, you're pushing your luck," I scolded. "Get to work!"
"I don't wanna wrap presents anymore. I've wrapped enough," she cried. "This is so stupid. None of my friends would have to spend their whole Saturday wrapping presents for kids they don't even know!"
"Claire without our help, those unfortunate underprivileged children would get no presents at all," I chided. "Think how lucky you are to have parents who can afford to get you so many wonderful gifts at Christmas."
"I don't care!" Claire screamed, her face flushed red. "I'm not lucky. You're the lucky one. Grandma and Grandad are rich and you had a maid growing up to do all the work. You never had to do stupid stuff like this!"
"Claire, I've had enough!" I shouted. "Start wrapping now or Santa won't bring you any presents."
"I don't care about presents!" Claire screamed as she ripped her elf's cap off and threw it on the floor. "And I don't believe in Santa. There is no such thing as Santa Clause. Even Charlie knows that."
I looked over at Charlie and my heart nearly broke as I saw his lips quiver and a tear roll down his cheek.
"There is a Santa Clause," he said in a hurt tone. "Right Mom?"
"Yes Charlie. There is a Santa Clause," I reassured him.
Turning to Claire I told her, "Upstairs to your room, young lady, and take the ouchy stick with you."
"No Mom, I'm too old for that," Claire said, tears starting to flow.
"Save your tears, young miss," I scolded. "You'll have plenty to cry about in just a minute."
Claire ran up the stairs and slammed the door to her room.
I turned to Charlie. "I'm afraid Claire needs a spanking, Charlie," I said. "You're such a good boy. I'm so glad that you always behave and never need an "ouchy." Santa will be bringing you lots of presents.
Now go put a Christmas record on so the noise from me punishing Claire won't disturb you. But be careful and don't scratch it with the needle."
"Yes Ma'am," Charlie cheerfully replied.
I walked upstairs to Claire's room. While I'm a firm believer that the ouchy stick should be used sparingly, if outright defiance by refusing to do just a little bit of work to bring Holiday joy to children less fortunate than her, plus ruining Christmas for her little brother by telling him there's no Santa Clause, doesn't call for an "ouchy" than nothing else does.
I opened the door to Claire's room. Seeing the face of a child who just a few years ago ran down the stairs on Christmas morning shouting with delight at the many gifts Santa brought in the night softened my resolve.
I picked up the ouchy stick from where Claire set it on her nightstand.
"Last chance Claire," I told her. "If you apologize and come back downstairs to wrap presents, we won't have to go through with this. We're more than halfway done. It'll just take a few more hours. What do you say?"
Claire stared at me for a second. Then she spoke in a voice I scarcely recognized, the tone so calm and even.
"I'd rather be spanked with that stick than wrap one more stupid present," she said. "Why should I care about kids I don't even know? It's not my fault they're poor."
My mouth hung open in shock at her defiance.
"And there is no Santa Clause," Claire continued. "Charlie knows it. He's just playing you for a fool by going 'boo hoo' because he likes to see me get in trouble."
Well that did it. I'm afraid, Dear Diary, while my philosophy is never to punish in anger, I may have lost my temper a bit at my daughter's hateful words.
I grabbed Claire by the shoulder, turned her round and gave her backside six sound swats with the stick, scolding as I spanked "There is too a Santa, you little brat. He brings presents on Christmas Eve to good children like Charlie and leaves lumps of coal in the stockings of bad girls like you!"
Even though I spanked Claire longer and harder than I intended to, it didn't appear to hurt that much, as she didn't cry nor do the after-spanking "ouchy dance" like she sometimes does. I suppose the thickness of her elf sweater and tights spared her.
So, to make an additional impression, I told Claire she could stay in her room until she wrote a letter to read to me aloud apologizing to Santa for being bad and asking him to give her a second chance for presents by being extra good from now on.
Claire didn't write the essay, however, as her father, upon returning home from playing golf, told me she'd been punished enough. He went into Claire's room and told her she could come out. I also overheard him reassuring her that she was getting Christmas presents and that she should try to remember how much pressure her mother puts on herself when it comes to Christmas projects.
He also told Claire that she was too old for spanking and he was going to tell me so and to toss out the ouchy stick.
A few minutes later Claired headed out the door in a change of clothes to visit a friend, calling out "I'm eating supper at Sharon's. I'll be back at nine o'clock. Bye Dad. I love you."
After Claire left, my husband informed me that a "no spanking" policy was now in effect and to put the ouchy stick in the trash. He added that it was too much to expect children to work all Saturday wrapping presents when they wanted to be playing with their friends and I was putting too much pressure on the family by going overboard with Christmas projects.
Too much pressure! Doesn't he realize the strain I'm under? The entire Junior League is counting on me.
Enough writing for tonight, Dear Diary. Church in the morning. And no matter how much Claire complains, she's getting up early for Sunday school before services. I've been far too lenient about that.
And once we get home from lunch at the country club, I'm getting out the guidebook to private schools I ordered. I'm having second thoughts about no boarding school for Claire even though my husband says we can't afford it. He can always get a second job at night to help pay tuition.
Goodness knows Claire's surly attitude would make her a poor candidate for my alma mater where school spirit is placed at such a premium, but perhaps we can find a less-expensive second-tier school that would be a good fit.
I wonder if those military schools that advertise in the back of the "New Yorker" accept girls?