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Wednesday, December 24

A Tale of Two Stockings

For me - Christmas has always been a time for reflection. Who I am now is part and parcel of who I was – good or bad, there’s no escaping it. A past and future me, I guess. Tomorrow? Well….tomorrow always seems to hold such promise – yet that promise remains fungible, if you know what I mean - stamped with indelible ink. I cannot escape it – so I remember; and in remembering, lay to rest the tiny pin-pricks of memory that can cause so much pain. I am not that child. Why then does Marley’s ghost haunt me so?

Every child has a Christmas stocking. It’s tied up with their identity - symbolizing family and tradition. Every year it is lovingly unpacked, creases smoothed, the story of its making passed around like some treasured heirloom. Up on the mantle it goes next to all the others - its owner’s tiny face shining with anticipation – reflected in the light of a cheery fire. Soon…..soon it will be filled with tangible evidence of the love that created it – peppermint sticks, a small stuffed bear, that card saying ‘Merry Christmas’ and signed ‘With Love from Mom & Dad’. Perhaps Santa will add something special – something unexpected.

I had a Christmas stocking – one that I treasured. Every Christmas I’d free it from that box in the attic, wipe the cobwebs and soot away, get a white tack out of the kitchen drawer and hang it from our fireless fireplace. It was made of thick red felt, with faded sequins and brick-a-brack - each sewed on with a single stitch. Not very big – maybe a foot in length - but I didn’t care. Yes, it looked rather puny next to my niece’s larger, store bought stockings; and my friends all had fancier versions too – better made, better cared for; yet I loved mine all the same. I clung to it as a symbol that I belonged in my family – even though the story of its making belied that very fact. Still – I would clutch it against my chest every Christmas and ask, “Mommy – tell me about my stocking.”

She’d make a face, she’d sigh – and I’d begin to beg. “Please, mommy. Please tell me again.” And out it would come – the same story I’d heard every Christmas for every year of my life. How when I was two the next door neighbor came over and asked why there was no stocking for me hanging on the mantle next to those of my much older brother and sisters. My mother would then dismissively wave her hand while coming to the next part – telling the neighbor that she just hadn’t gotten around to making me one yet. That it didn’t really matter, as I was too small to even notice – but I did notice. I remember not having a stocking – not feeling like I belonged. I remember crying when my brother would tease me with all the candy in his – say how I was adopted and adopted children didn’t get Christmas stockings – or candy. My brother was one evil son of a bitch.

Anyway - this neighbor, out of her own sense of compassion, went right home and made me my very own stocking. She cut some red felt, she stitched it together, glued silver ribbon around the edge, sewed a few sequins here and there, and presented it to my mother for me to use ‘until something better could be provided’. How could she know that nothing better would ever be provided. That her single act of kindness would be treasured by me for years to come.

Pretty sad little story – yes? Yet I insisted on its re-telling each and every Christmas. It made me feel loved, you see; as if the person making the stocking had actually been my mother, instead of some faceless stranger I have no clear memory of. I still have that stocking, by the way; even though I replaced it myself when I became an adult celebrating Christmas on my own. The sequins are rubbed bare of glitter of course - and its inside is stained with coal dust. Yes – my mother actually put real coal inside my stocking on Christmas. Not every year, mind; but enough that I remember how bad it felt. Any transgression in the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas warranted it. If I so much as looked at her wrong – out came that coal. Yet I’d still put my stocking up every year – just in case. And I believed in Santa. I believed he would come help me. Just like I’d pray to god for rescue – around Christmas I’d also pray to Santa; that he’d whisk me up the chimney to Christmas Town.

I no longer hang that old stocking – but I lovingly unpack it every year, smoothing out any wrinkles, looking for tiny stains or tears. There’s a permanent hole in the felt where the white tack used to go. It’s not very big. There was never anything heavy enough in the stocking to stretch it out. The silver on the ribbon trim has flaked with age and the sequins are now transparent. I marvel that it has lasted all these years. The memories it invokes are thick and heavy; though not all bad. If not for that stocking, I would have had nothing of my own on Christmas. Whether it contained coal or candy – items put in there were for me and me alone. Nothing in my stocking was ever re-gifted to one of my nieces (my mother’s favorite ‘gotcha’ for reasons that still surpasseth understanding) – a circumstance I remain thankful for to this day. Had this unknown woman not stepped in – no stocking would ever have hung from my chimney with care. In a very real way she gave me a family, a tradition. I think of her every year – wonder who she was and why she did it. Wonder if she went out and bought the felt, or already had it at home for her own children. She must have been a very special person. She must have been very much loved.

Somewhere in the world there is an old woman who made her little neighbor a Christmas stocking a long, long time ago. How I wish I could thank her.

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