My family had just moved from my childhood home in South Saint Paul, to a new home, several hundred miles north. The Swifts packing plant my dad had worked at for 19 years, was closing down. My mother quit her job as an R.N. at Divine Redeemer Hospital in West Saint Paul, and my parents bought the Belmont Motel, in Moorhead Minnesota.
The Belmont Motel was right next to the Sunset Lanes bowling alley, along what was to quickly become old Highway 75, as soon as the new Interstate-94 opened up, bringing a Motel 6 and a Super 8 along with it. My parents were optimists, or ignoring important facts, you choose.
That Christmas is the bellwether against which all future Christmas's would be measured. I had just turned 12.
In a kids mind. . . . Christmas is Christmas. There is no such thing as evaluating the circumstances. So when my family gathered around our fake plastic tree that year (my sister's allergic to pine needles), I expected my fair share of Christmas loot.
The house we now lived in, was attached to the motel we now ran. The Belmont Motel house had two bedrooms and living quarters on the main floor, and then you'd exit the kitchen, go down a small set of 3 stairs and you'd find yourself in the office of the Belmont Motel.
Walking through the office, the first door on your left led to the downstairs, and my new basement bedroom. Sequestered away from the rest of the family, in my new Harry Potter/cupboard under the stairs accommodations.
How Dickensian, you're thinking. . . Oh. . . dear reader. . . it gets worse.
There wasn't much under the tree that year. My folks had invested every penny they had in their new venture. We always open presents on Christmas eve, and that year. . 1969, we were finished in minutes.
I had opened a small music box (which I wanted, and had asked for), and then I opened something that was so inexplicable. . . even now, that I have a hard time making sense of it. The gift was a royal blue and white lacquered plate, with all the signs of the zodiac. It wasn't food safe, and there was no way to hang it on a wall or anything.
Perhaps my 12 year old brain struggled to find some empathetic response. A game faced "thank you", or something. But I'm pretty sure I had a look of complete disgust on my face when I asked "What is this?"
Falling asleep that night, in my cold basement bedroom, a small ray of light still burned in my heart. . . I harbored a secret hope. . that in the morning, Santa might redeem this crappy Christmas. I had just had a birthday and at 12 years old, I was too sophisticated to believe in an actual Santa, but I dearly believed in what Santa could offer. A big stocking full of candy, toys and things I really wanted.
That morning I walked up the cracked and shabby linoleum steps that led up to the motel office, and part way up the steps was an unwrapped Avon eye shadow compact, with blue and green eye shadows inside, and a note written on a scrap of motel paper that said "Merry Christmas from Santa", in my mothers handwriting.
That year I learned the lesson of the impersonal gift. To this day, I try and put careful thought into choosing something for someone, finding just the right gift, that takes into account what that person might like to get. Over the years, I've usually gotten it right.
So imagine my horror when my daughter heard the Zodiac plate story recently and responded:
Mabel: That's like the year you gave me Balancing Sam.
Me: What? Balancing Sam was so cute, he could balance on his nose, or his toes, or his head . . . and he could spin.
Mabel: It was my 13th Birthday. Why would I want that?
Silence. . . and then.
Mabel: Do you want some cool water for that burn?
Dang. Balancing Sam was a toy that I liked. It's the curse of the Zodiac Plate and now I have passed that legacy on to the next generation.
Before you all call child protective services on me, I'd like to state that 2011 was also the year Mabel got an iPad for Christmas. She did not just get Balancing Sam. But living here in the United States of Parental Guilt, I can see the similarities in both stories. No one likes getting something they don't want.
So be it a Babylonian inspired tchotchke or a red and yellow gravity-defying clown, we all have our own kairotic moment that forever serves as an "it could have been worse, at least it wasn't a Zodiac Plate".