Each of us has moments in our lives that we’d like to recapture. For me, one of those moments was the Christmas I received Shirley. I was seven and the excitement of the season was still fresh in my heart, beginning with the signal from my mother indicating it was time.
Time to venture down to the basement and rummage through stacks of boxes until we found the right ones. My mother would pretend not to see them, allowing me the thrill of spotting the boxes first. Worn from years of use and handling, they were filled with fragile, shiny ornaments and treasured decorations. Out came the large red Santa boot, made of Styrofoam, red paint and glitter, which we’d hang on the front door. Nestled in another box, we’d find the plastic reindeer that would spend each Christmas watching over us from its perch on the hi-fi. Meanwhile, my father would take my brothers to purchase a tree from a nearby lot. Once they returned, we’d open the box with the delicate ornaments. We’d peel away the tissue paper to uncover each gleaming object in hues of red, blue and silver. As we decorated the tree, Andy Williams and Perry Como records serenaded us with such classic songs, as “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas” and “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”
A few days before Christmas, my mother would take my brothers and me into the city. There, we’d move swiftly and purposely through the snow dusted streets, where the warm scent of chestnuts roasting in the vendors’ carts filled the cold, biting air. First, we’d catch a matinee at Radio City Music Hall, not so much to see the film, as to see the Radio City Rockettes perform in their Christmas show, always a spectacular sight. Afterward, we’d cross the street to Rockefeller Center to gaze upon the enormous Christmas tree, ablaze in lights in the dusk of a New York City evening, and watch the skaters glide gracefully across the ice. Before taking the subway back to Queens, we’d make one last stop at Macy’s on Herald Square. Riding the elevator to the 8th floor, the anticipation of seeing Santaland made my heart beat faster. For the entire floor it seemed had been transformed into Santa’s village, replete with fake snow, starlight heavens, miniature buildings and a wooden bridge you’d walk across as you headed to see the man himself, Santa Claus.
We’d open our presents on Christmas Eve, which in our family was even more important than Christmas Day. The gifts were modest and simple as my parents couldn’t afford more than that. One year I received a plastic set of checkers. Another, a Dr. Ben Casey doll that had been purchased with S&H green stamps. In fact, green stamps were used to purchase many of our gifts.
But this year was different. This was the year that I was given Shirley, a flaxen-haired, blue-eyed doll in a pink dress and crisp pink and white striped pinafore. She was absolutely breathtaking! Shirley, whose name my mother had chosen because the doll reminded her of Shirley Temple, was the most beautiful doll I’d ever laid eyes upon–and she was unattainable through green stamps. No ordinary doll, Shirley was a Madame Alexander doll, purchased at the most prestigious, high-end toy store in New York City, F.A.O. Schwartz. I hugged my new doll tightly, breathing in the smell of brand new plastic. In my delight, it didn’t cross my mind to ask how my parents were able to afford such a doll. Too excited to even sleep that night, I just didn’t think about it. During the night it snowed. In the morning we’d all go sledding. But tonight I had Shirley. This was Christmas for me.
It wasn’t until later that I learned how a number of relatives and close family friends had pitched in to help my parents purchase Shirley for me. I learned how my parents made the decision to not give each other gifts that year, so that I could have Shirley.
Throughout my childhood, I received other dolls, but none compared to Shirley. The other dolls, for the most part, are gone now, but I still have Shirley. She is safely stored in a cedar chest, which I sometimes open at Christmastime, for one more look, for one more touch of my old, dear friend. For when I hold Shirley, I am surrounded again by my parents’ love, their real gift to me.