Had they forgotten me? Again? Shiny green and red packages littered the floor around me; small ones, big ones, and oddly shaped, ugly ones all pile around the tree. I pick them up one by one. To Daniel Merry Christmas; To Heather Love Grandma; To Mom From Ryan; Where are the ones that say To Susan? I’m not asking for a million dollars, or Caribbean vacation here but it would be nice to know that somebody in my family thought to buy me a gift! The presents cascade out nearly halfway into the room. It takes me thirty minutes to check each package. As I work my way closer and closer to the tree my heart pounds louder and louder. There has to be something, right? Thirty presents checked and nothing yet. I’m starting to feel desperate. The count rises to forty four and I still have found nothing. Blood rushes to my face and I feel tears trying to push their way out. One final package is shoved back in the corner. “That has to be it,” I think as I wriggle under the evergreen. The needles prick my body and I breathe in the pine scent. I reach for the tiny silver box and awkwardly pull myself out from under the tree. Taking a deep breath I turn the box over to find the tag. To Aimee From Heather. With that my heart breaks. The tears on my cheeks reflect the twinkling lights of the tree.
They did forget me. Forty five presents and there is not a single one for me…Maybe I should feel mad, but I don’t. I feel stupid, worthless, and unwanted. I’m alone in the crowd, but I guess that’s nothing new. I am the middle child of nine; there’s only so much attention to go around. But these are the people who should care about me the most! I sit amidst all the gifts, crying my eyes out, all the pain escaping through my tear ducts. I hear mom in the kitchen talking with my sisters while Christmas music plays in the background. Dad is with the boys in the other room while Grandma holds her newest grand baby, a crowd of aunts and uncles coo around her. Everyone is busy laughing, talking and celebrating. Nobody notices my tears.
I’m glad we eat Christmas Eve dinner by candlelight. I like it that way, so nobody can ask why my eyes are red and puffy. After dinner my parents give each child their traditional holiday pajamas. After we change, all the kids traipse to the basement for an all night slumber party. My youngest brother is determined to stay awake playing video games until the official 4:00 am wake up call. This year all I want to do is sleep.
The hour arrives. Although I’m still exhausted I join the rest of my siblings in the annual race to mom and dad’s bedroom. It’s the one time each year that we can get back at them for waking us up each morning to the belting sounds of “Rise and Shout the Cougars are Out.” Few things in life are more annoying than hearing your dad sing the cougar fight song at the top of his lungs at 6:45 every morning.
“Wake up! Wake up!” we yell, as Dad protests sleepily.
“It’s still too early,” he groans, but youthful exuberance pulls him out of bed soon enough. Following Dad into the family room I see the evidence of Santa’s magic firsthand. The lights of the tree wink happily, reflecting a soft glow everywhere. A cache of gifts even larger than yesterday fills the comfortable room. I find my stocking overflowing with treats and begin a breakfast of chocolate candy as Dad hands out gifts. My family smiles and jokes, laughing at each others’ bed head. I smile along with everyone else, but in the back of my mind I haven’t let go of the loneliness from last night. I push the sadness away as best as I can. Christmas morning is no time to feel sorry for myself.
Dad hands Mom a gold wrapped rectangle that is addressed “To Julie, From Carl, Santa’s curator for the North Pole Fine Art museum.” Mom rips open the paper and stares at the framed print in her hands. We sit in silence, waiting for her to show us what the gift is. It’s quiet for just a little too long. My brother gives me a sideways glance, silently asking “what’s going on?” Mom’s face reddens and a tear rolls onto her cheek. The mood of the room is instantly serious. Everyone focuses on Mom.
“I love the story of Elizabeth in the bible. She holds a special place in my heart,” Mom says, her voice trembling. She gazes lovingly at the artwork in her hand, unaware of the group of people staring at her. “Think how Mary must have felt in her situation. Pregnant and unmarried; probably being shunned by those around her, but Elizabeth welcomes her with open arms. Elizabeth may have been the only one to believe Mary’s story because of her own experience with a miraculous pregnancy. She supports and loves Mary when Mary most needs it. That’s why we gave Susan the middle name Elizabeth.” As she turns the frame in our direction she looks directly in my eyes. Her gaze is all tenderness, her cheeks red from crying. My throat closes up and I look away to keep from crying. My heart melts like the falling snow outside.
Yesterday I felt alone and forgotten. This morning I feel like the star on top of our Christmas tree. Maybe I’m not as unwanted as I thought I was. Maybe the people in this room really do care about me, even though they forget to show it sometimes. The best gift I got that year was that look from my mother. It didn’t cost anything, but it was perfect for me.
That Carl Bloch print now hangs on my wall, a gift from my mother when they moved seven years later. Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, is at the top of a short staircase with arms outstretched. An expression of pure love is on her face, as Mary approaches from the bottom of the stairs. Each time I pass it I remember my mother looking at me the same way one lonely Christmas morning. And each time I pass it my heart melts a little more.