One minute she was yelling at us, the sound muffled only slightly by the heavy snow that, if anything, seemed to intensify in response to her shouts, and the next minute, well, things happened quickly.
We were on our way home from the soda fountain at Weyland’s Drug Store, where we had enjoyed a chocolate milkshake (me), a cup of hot tea (my sister), and a cherry phosphate (our mom). My mother had suggested the trip earlier in the day, and we were more than happy to bundle up and trudge a mile through the storm to sit on the spinning leather stools at the long fountain in Weyland’s, where women in white aprons and matching paper tiaras served up whatever a person needed on a cold, snowy day.
But then came the bait and switch.
My mother had really lured us out to shop for Christmas presents at Weyland’s and Ben Franklin’s Five and Dime, even Pep Boys. If we had been reasonable, storybook children, we would have clapped our hands with glee and begged our mother to take us anywhere and everywhere, however long it took, to find some wonderful gifts—no, the best gifts in the whole wide world—for our brother and our father, both of whom were home watching TV on our 7-inch Admiral, whose tiny picture was magnified to the equivalent of a gigantic 11-inch set, thanks to a full-screen magnifying glass that magnified just fine but tinted the on-screen images to a sickly green, what we thought of then as color television.
In the long history of whining, I don’t think any two siblings ever achieved a louder, more disruptive wail, every person at every stool turning to gape at the two rude, disrespectful, worthless children who deserved to be kicked into a Dickens novel and dropped off the nearest bridge.
My mother was so angry and so embarrassed, she just grabbed both of us by the arms and tugged us out of the store before launching into a litany of ever-escalating punishments involving various stages of food denial and enforced imprisonment in our bedrooms.
And then, as I said, the next minute came—quickly.
We were turning the wind-swept corner for home, our house barely visible through the snow, when my mother slipped and fell into a snow bank, ending up on her back, arms and legs flailing. It was a wondrous sight to behold, not merely because our mother looked like an overturned turtle, but because she had not even paused in her harangue and continued to shout out future punishments.
And then—and my sister and I still count this as a Christmas miracle—she began to laugh. And laugh. And laugh. Finally, she grew quiet, reached out, and said, “Here, somebody give me a hand.”
We pulled her up and out of the snow, helping her brush off her coat. We walked the rest of the way home, no one saying a word until we reached the front steps, where she grabbed us by the elbows and turned us around, making us look at her. Then she shook her head and smiled. “You kids, honestly!”
The next day, after our brief imprisonment, we all went Christmas shopping, and found the best gifts in the whole wide world.