“Just close your eyes and when you open them again, it will be Christmas.”

It was Christmas Eve, 1961, and my older sister Katherine was tucking me into bed.

I couldn’t sleep, I was so excited. She sought to reason with me, a star-struck 5-year-old.

“Santa won’t come unless you are sleeping,” she said.

That did the trick.

Dawn came quickly in the large bedroom over the kitchen that I shared with my sisters, Jane and Laura, who were one and three years older than I, respectively.

We leapt out of bed and hurried down the stairs to the living room where a sea of presents flowed from under the tree.

We knew the drill: We could open one gift before everyone else got up.

We quickly claimed what we suspected were the gifts we had requested from the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog.

Laura tore into hers — a blue ballerina costume, all sparkles and fluff. Jane’s was that of a southern belle, a puffy dress flecked with flowers. And I got a nurse’s uniform with a cape, cap and medical bag, complete with faux thermometer and stethoscope.

We donned our new attire and pranced around the house, Laura performing pliés and jetés, Jane, floating like a spirit, and I, cornering them when I could to check their temperatures and heart rates.

My mother was a registered nurse and worked late at night, though she didn’t sleep much and was always up early to make breakfast and see us off to school. Christmas was no exception, but since there was no school, she delighted in watching with amusement as we traipsed around in our new outfits.

One year, my mother couldn’t be home for Christmas because she had bone cancer in her leg and was hospitalized for the entire year.

It was 1963 and President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated a month earlier. I remember that year well because it was the first time I ever saw my mother cry, as she lay there in her hospital bed, watching the televised funeral procession and Jackie, dressed in black, holding the hands of her two children.

That Christmas, we seven children, my father and grandmothers filed into Mom’s room bearing gifts. I got a large baby doll with a bottle that appeared to drain of its milk as you tipped it to her lips. I was so taken by that phenomenon that when we got home, I broke the bottle apart to see how it worked.

While I was growing up, we always had a large fir tree that my father or brothers chopped down in our woods and hauled home across the snowy field. We girls waited with anticipation for the tree to arrive, hoping it would be thick and tall and not scrawny and short. We never knew what we were going to get.

One year, my brother Matt dragged in a tree that was so massive he had to cut both ends off, leaving what turned out to be a giant bush perched in the corner of our living room. But, adorned with lights, ornaments and tinsel, it was absolutely beautiful.

When we were young, we each got a handful of gifts, for which we were grateful. My mother typically knitted us sweaters and mittens for Christmas and my grandmothers and our Aunt Barbara always came through with presents.

After we had grown up, we celebrated Christmas Eve every year at my parents’ house and that continued even after we had all moved away.

My father typically roasted a ham, my mother baked fruitcake, stollen bread and cookies and everyone brought something to share. By the time our family grew to include grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the house was full, the gift pile enormous, and the house roared with laughter and music. My mother played the piano and we gathered around and sang everything from “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” to “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Now, many years later in the quiet of my work space, I can see and hear the din as clearly as if it were yesterday.

It’s strange to think my parents are gone, the house is no longer in the family, and we all celebrate in our own separate bubbles — especially in this pandemic year.

But I like to imagine that, if they listen closely, the people who inhabit that old house now will hear the ghosts of holidays past, reveling on Christmas Eve.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 32 years. Her columns appear here Saturdays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.


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