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Holiday Memories

I grew up thinking the UPS man was Santa Claus. He had a bunch of elves that wrapped all the presents in brown paper and his reindeer were under the hood of his big, chocolate-colored truck.

See, we were poor. And when I mean poor, I mean oatmeal and instant mac and cheese (cheese sauce made with water, not milk) for the last week of the month until we got paid again poor. And who could forget Mom's breakfast pucks, eh? If I haven't told you the story before, my mother would make these cookies for breakfast when money got tight. "They've got everything you need for the entire day in them," she'd say. They had molassas and oatmeal and cinammon and yesterday's leftovers all baked together into lumpy little mounds of food-stuff. To give her credit, they weren't bad the first day. The second day you had to dunk them in your tea to soften them up a bit. The third made you want to find a jack-hammer. You know, hockey pucks. She'd also pour a can's worth of water into the pan along with the Ravioli whenever we were lucky enough to have Chef Boyardee in the house. "Gotta make it stretch," she'd say, and we'd all sit down to a nice meal of pasta soup.

Poverty makes the worst kitchen mate.

We survived on a thousand dollars a month after my father died and there were, at one point, seven of us kids under one roof.

I was one of the youngest. My sister Dee was the only younger child and as time went on, my other brothers and sisters moved out of the house; some of their own volition, some shoved out the door by my mother's behavior. I'm slowly beginning to forgive my mother for some of the things she did. With the situation she was in, it doesn't make me wonder that she went a bit crazy after a spell. One of the benefits, of course, was that my brothers and sisters remembered what it was like growing up in our house and when Christmas came around, they took care of us younger kids.

My older sister Kathy went into the Marines. To this day I don't understand how someone can have two such different sides. She was (and is) one of the sweetest women to ever walk the planet. She'd take me and Dee to the park when Mom wouldn't. She always had a smile on her face and handed out love faster than you could earn it, even when you were stealing quarters from her jar so you could buy a Pepsi at the machine across the street. And yet, from what I've heard of her Marine Corps days, she could lock up the toughest Marine on the planet and dress him down as well as anyone, leaving this big muscular guy to limp away with a look on his face like someone just raped his cat with a tire iron.

Yet every year, Kathy would make it back home for Christmas. Her arrival would be heralded for at least two weeks by the UPS truck, delivering her brown paper packages full of gifts for the family. Those packages were always marked, "Do not open until Christmas," and you could hear the UPS truck's engine sputter "Ho, ho, ho," as it drove away.

My favorite present is still, even after all these years, a set of Star Trek walkie-talkies she bought for me when we were in West Virginia. They looked like Kirk's very own communicator and even made the right "bli-bli-bli" sound when you flipped open the lid. I thought I'd died and gone to rich kid heaven.

But even better than that was just having Kathy home, and greedily chomping down all of the love we'd missed throughout the year and washing it down with cold Dr. Pepper in glass bottles.

Some of my brothers and sisters didn't make it home for Christmas once they moved out of the house. As much as I missed them, I understood. Some hurts can't be healed, and mother knew how to inflict such wounds without even trying. She tried to be a good parent, but it just wasn't in her. Wherever you are Mom, I may still be a little angry with you, but I love you too. That's why the pains are so hard to live with.

But we all survived and we've all turned out to be good people in our own different ways. We may not like each other all the time, but we always will love each other.

And isn't that what this time of year is really about? You share a life with your family, wanted or not. You are them, like it or not. Ignoring them is ignoring yourself.

I'm turning thirty-nine the day after Christmas, but to this day I still look for the big brown truck around this time of year and wonder how Santa got all those reindeer under that little hood. I know, I know: it's magic. Maybe not the kind of magic with flying dust and glowing noses and round-the-world Christmas eve flights, but the kind of magic which springs out of walks to the park and piano lessons from your big sister and long walks home at night from Karate practice with your big brother. It's the kind of magic made up of all the wonderful memories I have of my siblings and our time together in the chapel of poverty and confusion.

And that's the kind of magic in which I choose to believe.

That's the kind of magic that can heal you.

Joseph Haines, signing off from The Edge of the Abyss.

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