Before we lived on that beautiful ninety-eight acres outside Charlotte, Tennessee, before we had a large forest in which to wander and a creek to swim in and a field to run in, our family lived in a little town called Kingston Springs outside Nashville-an easy location from which Dad could pursue his music in Music City.
And every time we drove home to our little house there on its quiet, pretty suburban street, we passed the Three Bears' house.
Yes, I do mean that house-the one that Goldilocks trespassed so rudely in. It sat on a hill very near our home, and a winding drive led to the log house that was, obviously, quite big. I was very proud because my dad had been payed to paint the inside of it and knew the Three Bears. However, I was put out, too, because I desperately wanted to meet the Three Bears, and Dad would not take me.
"Daddy, let's turn; let's go see them now!" I said each time we passed the house. "Pleeease!"
"I would, Hoo-doo," Dad replied. "But, uh...they're gone," or, "they're on vacation," or "oh, today wouldn't be a good day, honey. Papa Bear told me their relatives are visiting from Canada. We don't want to interrupt their visit, do we?"
Each time it was a new excuse, but I knew without a doubt that the Three Bears did live there, and I couldn't understand why Dad wouldn't take me to meet them. I wanted to talk to them-I mean its the Three Bears-so badly.
When I grew up a little I knew. You figure stuff out somewhere between three and ten. Life puts the kobash on your flighty imagination that makes bricks out of children's bedtime stories. And Dad saved me from a huge disappointment.
Though I never met the Three Bears or got their autograph, I really liked our little house there in Kingston. Not nearly so well as that little square of a place off Spann Road, of course, but so far as a suburban situation could go, the Kingston Springs house was very pleasant. And my very best friend, a little boy, lived over the back fence. I went to play there often in his dirt yard with its shed full of toys. We'd play for hours-for years it felt like.
Then there's Christmas. It's that time of year, after all, and so I reel out the old slideshow of images from my mind and become a tiny child again.
The first Christmas I remember is a silent film: the lights are very low in the living room or are off completely, but the tree is glowing through the dark from the other side of the room. Mom and Dad are holding hands on the couch to my left. I'm sitting on the floor looking toward the colored lights of the tree, and my three siblings are each on the floor in front of me with their new toys in their hands.
I am fascinated by what they have-far more than by my own gifts. (Well, except for Vinca's; I don't remember what she got any more than I remember what my own gifts were that year-no doubt, her present was too mature for my taste.) Nate has a huge Transformer-like action figure he is playing with, and Annie is creating iridescent art with her Lite-Brite. Our dog Rueben is sprawled on the floor, head cocked to the side with a long rubber shark in his mouth, gnawing on its tail as the wicked toothy grin at its head dribbles dog slobber. Yes, I am even enthralled by his Christmas gift.
That is all I remember, as if I were in a sleepy little trance produced by the lights of the tree and the screen of the Lite-Brite. It's the feeling I had that Christmas as a toddler that I call back to mind-warmth and joy and family.
The second Christmas memory has little to do with actual Christmas day. It occurred a few days before the big morning when Vinca instigated a present raid.
A well-to-do family lived down the street from us. I remember their son; he was an enormous brat, but I believe both my sisters had a crush on him. Anyway, that family gave my parents a box of little-used toys to distribute among us kids on Christmas morning. Mom and Dad stuffed the box in their room and forbade us to step one foot inside the door.
I'm not sure where Mom and Dad went on the crucial afternoon in question. They were close by; I think they were talking to the landlord or a neighbor on the sidewalk in front of the house, but they were gone for awhile.
"Alright, let's go," said Vinca, standing tall and speaking with authority.
She led the way down the hall and stopped just outside a closed bedroom door-Mom and Dad's bedroom door. My little heart pitter-pattered. Toys!
"We have to be quiet," said Vinca. "And we have to listen for Mom and Dad, okay?" Three quick nods. "Alright. C'mon."
She opened the door, and I saw the box. Oh, my gosh! The thing was taller than I was! What glorious discoveries would we make?
I must have stood on a chair, because I remember peering down into a great, disorganized heap of toys. After pushing some things around, I grabbed a potato head and began assembling his face merrily on the floor.
I don't think we were quiet at all-not as we should have been. Toys were dumped haphazardly on the floor in the quest for something that would absolutely blow the searcher's mind with its awesomeness. But then...
One of us must have heard them. There was panic. Stealth was no longer a priority as we all began to throw toys hairum-scarum back into the box. We had finished this adrenaline-fueled process when Mom and Dad came down the hall. Their bedroom door was closed, and we were all standing around as casual as we could be, no doubt with hands stuck in our pockets and whistling collectively off-key. But they knew. All they had to do was look in the box to garner the evidence.
What did they do to us? Sorry, I don't know-must have blocked it out. We kept the toys, but their Christmas morning surprise was ruined.
Still, if I'm really honest here...it was all Vinca's fault! No, no-just kidding. If I'm honest, I'm forced to admit that sneaking into our parents' bedroom to play with a huge box full of toys was a near equivalent to the joy of Christmas morning surprises. And, of course, we had the added exhiliration of knowing we were up to no good. So maybe-just maybe-my little Ella Belle is right: adventure and fun can't always be had while behaving.
Of course, that's not a Christmas lesson of which St. Nicholas would approve.