Every now and then when Ginny and I still lived at home, Mama got a wild hair to clean out the tin house behind Nanny and Pops’ house. We didn’t have an attic, so we stored all the flotsam and jetsam of our lives in the tin house. At any given time the tin house stored: assorted Christmas decorations, a table and chair set Mama and Daddy had when they first married, some steamer trunks full of baby clothes. There were a couple of shelves for books, some records, and magazines. Always there were cardboard boxes of different size and shape. Daddy also kept old tax records and used checkbook stubs in nondescript black trash bags for safe-keeping. That’s right, safekeeping.
Cleaning out the tin house meant we dedicated an entire Saturday in the fall to hauling everything out into Nanny’s backyard so we could clean the inside of the storage house first. Then, we made a burn pile in an old rusty barrel and sorted treasure into four piles: dump, burn, dust and put back. I hated those days. It usually took us approximately forever to finish.
Mama was pretty good about keeping a steady pace, but Daddy would discover things. We stacked all National Geographics and Southern Living’s on the tailgate of the old, blue, farm truck so we could tear them apart for the burn pile. Daddy wouldn’t let us just throw them in. We had to flip through them, then tear them into sections so they’d burn more easily. While tearing apart magazines, he’d inevitably find an article about ancient Egypt or the Tower of London or how to fertilize azaleas. Tin house cleanout would quickly come to a screeching halt. “Wait. Wait. Wait,” he’d say, “Don’t throw that out yet. I want to look at the article about The Creek Wars. Andrew Jackson traveled right through here, you know.”
Meanwhile, Mama fussed about pace, elbow deep in baby clothes, “Kent, if you want to read the article, just rip it out for later. I’m not getting rid of the baby clothes,” she’d say while folding them gingerly back into their places, “They aren’t hurting anything in this steamer trunk.”
As we all got older, Mama and Daddy kept less and less in the tin house. Eventually, all it held were well-labeled Rubbermaid boxes of Christmas decorations, a chair or two, some steamer trunks, a handful of cardboard boxes and our dollhouses. Ginny and I each had one.
Santa Claus brought Ginny’s dollhouse the Christmas she turned seven. It was a fancy, two-story-deep red, almost burgundy house with white gingerbread trim. It had a shingled roof, front porch, real windows and a front door. The spacious rooms were full of furniture: an upholstered couch and chair, a dark cherry colored dining table set and china cabinet. Even the toilet had one of those really tall tanks with the long chain that you only see in old movies. The dollhouse family that lived there had a dog.
You’d think I’d have been jealous of Ginny and her suped-up, fancy-schmancy dollhouse, but I wasn’t. Not at all. It never occurred to me, and that’s because Santa Claus brought my dollhouse on what was my best Christmas ever.
When Mama and Daddy married, Daddy promised my grandfather that he would always bring Mama home to Frisco City, Alabama for Christmas. And he did – with one exception. The Christmas of 1979, Ginny was due to be born any day. Mama couldn’t travel, so there was to be no trip to Frisco City. I was worried that Santa Claus wouldn’t know to look for us in Georgia. I remember thinking Christmas wouldn’t be right. We’d never been home for Christmas before. What would we do without Gaga and Bopa and all the aunts and uncles and the neighbors? There were no bubble-lights on our Christmas tree. To a four-year-old, Christmas wasn’t Christmas without Bopa’s bubble-lights on the tree. Besides, Gaga and Bopa had a chimney. How was Santa supposed to get to me? Just walk in the front door? Mama reassured me that everything would work out.
Enter Christmas magic.
The Sanders’ are big believers in Christmas magic. Always have been. Mama is a magic conjurer from way back. A big believer in tradition and a sentimentalist at heart, Mama wordlessly decorates, cooks and summons up Christmas magic with ease. She makes most any normal something into special: soft, thoughtful personal touches that add the coveted and often whispered, “How did you know?” and teary-eyed, “Where in the world did you ever find this?” that are the most fun parts of the Christmas season.
This Georgia Christmas was no exception. In the weeks before, a brown-paper package tied up with string (I’m not even kidding.) arrived addressed to Miss Elizabeth Sanders. It was from my grandmother in Frisco City, Alabama and inside was my Christmas dress.
Gaga was an excellent seamstress. Every Christmas, she made me (and all her granddaughters) a Christmas dress. Every year they were out of a different pattern with surprise material: one year, a long, soft, light-pink velvet jumper, once an ankle-length blue and red plaid with white lace and tiny red buttons on the high-waisted bodice.
This Christmas dress, though, was something else. Nestled gently in tissue paper, was the dress that looked like it was built in two pieces. The first piece was a floor length, emerald green, gold, and red plaid skirt made in taffeta. It swished when I walked, and the material was so full the skirt stood out a little, like a princess. The second piece made of emerald green satin with white lace trim on the collar, cuffs, and around the apron was fitted at the waist and fit over the top of the taffeta skirt. I wore it with white lace socks and black patent leather shoes. I have never, ever, in my entire life felt as beautiful as I did at four years old wearing that Christmas dress. Magic.
On Christmas morning, the house was still dark and quiet, but the lights from our smaller than usual Christmas tree illuminated the living room just enough that I could see the outline of a dollhouse. It was the most magnificent thing I had ever seen. It was simple: small, with a pointed roof and a red brick chimney and painted-on shingles, but there was a yellow bedroom, just like mine, and the dollhouse family had a little girl and a baby. I don’t remember anything else Santa left for me that year. Not one thing. Daddy put the dollhouse on a little table in my bedroom, so it was chest high and I could play with ease. I redecorated and rearranged furniture all through the holiday. The dollhouse became my most prized possession. Magic.
A few days after Georgia Christmas, in the early morning hours, I rolled over in my bed to find Nanny sleeping with me. She always wore a nylon-polyester blend nightcap to protect the longevity of her permanent, and although I spent the night at her house quite often, she’d never spent the night at my house. I wasn’t expecting her. So when I rolled over and saw her, it scared me so badly I sat straight up in my bed and screamed. Sound asleep, she sat straight upright in bed screaming, too. (We both tended to be a bit dramatic.) I remember playing with the ball on top of that nightcap after we’d both calmed down and tried to go back to sleep. She told me Mama and Daddy had gone to the hospital, so Mama could have the baby.
Later, Daddy came home, and he and I went to the hospital together to meet Virginia Lyn. I wore my new Christmas dress that day because it was a very special occasion. I remember holding Daddy’s hand as we walked down a long, bright hallway and specifically remember the way the fluorescent hospital light reflected off my patent leather shoes. I have no memory of Mama in the hospital at all. I was too interested in Ginny. She had dark hair and smelled good. She had tiny fingers and fingernails. I got to hold her all by myself. I very much appreciated that Mama had gone to all that trouble to have a baby just for me. Magic.
Back during the summer, Mama stopped by our house. She walked in the kitchen door carrying my dollhouse and said with a smile, “I think it’s time this comes to your house, don’t you?” I didn’t really know what to do with it, so I put it in the dining room on the floor by the buffet.
The other day, on a wild hair, I decided to set up my dollhouse. It fit perfectly on a little buffet accent table Mama and Daddy bought for me at an estate sale years ago. I dusted off its roof with painted on shingles, gently washed down the walls of the old, yellow bedroom and red, upstairs living room. There is a little water damage, ironically enough, in the white bathroom. The roof looks like it wants to separate from the top a little. I opened the shoebox with the furniture that had been saved inside. The butcher block and rolling pin for the kitchen and the coffee and end tables still looked like new. There was a couch, but I didn’t recognize it. I put all the pieces back in the shoebox and didn’t think about it again. I mentioned to Mama, offhandedly, that I was going to look around for dollhouse furniture and set it up in time for Christmas.
Jamie laughed at me. Colin and Jack looked at me funny, “Mama, dollhouses are for little girls. Why are you setting that old thing up in our living room? It’s a toy.” I ignored them. “It’s my living room. I’ll set it up if I want to,” I did not say out loud but thought very, very hard.
I vacillated between thinking I was being silly and yearning to shop for dollhouse furniture. How ridiculous it would be to spend money on something like that, I thought, when there are about a million other things we need right now.
Sunday night the boys and I got to church early. Jamie was still on a business trip. I’d promised Mama I would come to help with the final touches for the first Sunday in Advent. It was cold outside and had rained all day long. A cold, fine mist drizzle was still falling as I herded the boys into the fellowship hall. “Hurry, guys. It’s still raining,” I rushed them out of the car and to the back door, my shoulders all squinched up around my ears, hoping to keep the chill off.
It was warm inside and Christmasy already. Mama stood at one of the long tables in the church kitchen setting up refreshments and some games for after church. I’d just gotten in the door when she held out two shopping bags and said, “Merry Christmas early. I don’t want to wait.”
Inside one bag, wrapped in tissue, were a Santa Claus and Christmas tree with painted ornaments and presents underneath. “How sweet, Mama. Thanks,” I was puzzled. “Keep going. Keep going,” she answered, fanning her hand at me. In the second bag – dollhouse furniture: an upholstered couch, chair and ottoman, a Tiffany lamp, a white painted kitchen table with four matching chairs, a set of dishes with utensils, a set of pots and pans, a plate of cookies (for Santa), and a gumball machine on a red stand, just like the one Ginny gave Colin for Christmas three years ago. I gasped and squealed like a little girl and hugged her hard.
That night, when we got home from church, I set up my old dollhouse. I’d not played with it since I was likely ten years old. I organized all the furniture, put out Santa’s cookies. Placed the rocking chair by the Christmas tree and then changed my mind and set it all up again, but this time differently.
For just a little while, I felt like Elizabeth Sanders. Not a wife or a mama – just little, red-haired Elizabeth Sanders from Elmodel playing with her dollhouse.
Magic. Christmas magic. Mama is extra good at that kind.