Sweet Thunder

A reminder: This is Day Seven of The Seven Days of Pricklesmas Contest. Details here! Entries are due to me at karalareau@me.com by the end of the day tomorrow!

When I was a kid, my best friend Danielle and I seemed to have everything in common. We both loved the color pink. We both loved singing and dancing to our Donny and Marie albums. We both had crushes on Shaun Cassidy. We both liked riding our bikes up and down our street, which was a dead end, but was almost long enough to make up for it. Our bikes at the time were hand-me-downs, but we didn’t care. That is, until we caught a glimpse of Sweet Thunder.

Sweet Thunder was the name of the girls’ dirt bike introduced by Huffy in 1978. As the above photo confirms, this bike was every seven-year-old girl’s dream come true. It was cooler and tougher than the usual dippy girls’ bike (which invariably featured a banana seat and a white flowered basket between the handlebars and a tinkly bell), but it definitely wasn’t a boys’ bike, because it was PINK. Danielle and I hatched a grand plan for ourselves: we’d both ask for Sweet Thunder for Christmas, and then we’d both be able to ride our new bikes up and down our street together. We’d be like a two-member bike gang, the coolest of the cool. Eagerly, we wrote our letters to Santa, and placed Sweet Thunder at the top of our Christmas lists. And then, for the rest of the holiday season, we talked about almost nothing but the bike and how amazing it would be when we could ride it together.

I’ve talked about how hard it was for me to fall asleep on Christmas Eve, but I was particularly wide-eyed and excited that year. After all, it was just a few hours before I would have my very own bad-ass ride! How could I possibly sleep? When I finally did manage to doze off, it was with visions of Sweet Thunder dancing in my head. And then, some time after the prescribed Christmas Day wake-up time of 7am, my mother called to my sister and me from downstairs. Santa had paid us a visit. I threw on my robe and raced down the stairs, breathless and giddy. And what was waiting for me when I got there?

A blue bike with a banana seat and a white flowered basket between the handlebars.

I can’t fully articulate my reaction at that moment, but I know shock, confusion, disappointment, and several other negative emotions figured prominently. I was SO SURE that what I’d be seeing under the tree was Sweet Thunder, and this bike was the opposite of Sweet Thunder in just about every horrible way. To my seven-year-old mind, it just did not compute. I rubbed my eyes, as I thought I must be having a dream. Or my worst nightmare.

My mother must have noticed the look on my face at that point, because she took me aside and gently explained,

“We know you wanted the pink bike, honey. But I went to the store and took a look at it, and I didn’t like how it was made. Some of its parts were plastic. But this blue bike is sturdy, and will last a long time.”

I remember these words, and yet, they held no meaning for me at the time. I know now that my mother was only ever trying to do what was best for me, and the blue bike was, in her mind, of better quality. But at seven years old, what did I care about things being sturdy and lasting? In the Stages of Sweet Thunder Grief, I was still in the shock phase, and I remained there for the rest of the holiday…

…until the phone rang. It was Danielle, and she could barely contain herself.

“OhmygoshohmygoshIgotSweetThunderandit’ssocool,” she gushed. “Ican’twaitforustorideourbikestogether!”

What began as shock quickly transitioned into a mix of humiliation and envy. This was followed by a lingering bitterness, directed specifically at my mother, which I carried with me for too many years. The phrase “Sweet Thunder” took on a new significance for me — it represented all the things I thought I deserved that my life failed to deliver. (This was before I learned that no one, including me, is owed anything, even the pink bike of my dreams, or a sporty red car, or a life free of hardship.)

But my mom was right; the blue bike did have staying power. So much so that when my sister was old enough to ride a bike on her own, she inherited it. Ever-ingenious, she tricked it out with a dirt bike seat and dirt bike handlebars, turning it into the bad-ass ride it was meant to be. By that time, I had moved on to junior high and a host of other desires and issues (Jordache jeans, legwarmers, and puberty being just a few), and Danielle had her own interests, too.

As an epilogue to this epilogue, my sister surprised me with a very special gift when I turned thirty. She called Huffy and spoke to someone with access to their design archives, and explained the whole Sweet Thunder saga to them. They did some research and sent her a copy of a photo of the bike from the 1978 Huffy catalog, which my sister turned into my 30th birthday card, shown above. I keep it framed in my office, where it carries a new significance — I may not have received the bike of my seven-year-old dreams, but, as ever, I received exactly as much as I needed to get where I am today.

Tomorrow: A book-birthday celebration for Mr. Prickles, and a chance for you to enter (and WIN) the Seven Days of Pricklesmas contest!

Yankee Swap

A reminder: This is Day Six of The Seven Days of Pricklesmas Contest. Details here!

After my parents, my sister, and I would enjoy our own carefully-choreographed gift unwrapping at our house on Christmas Day, we’d go to my grandparents’ house, where we’d meet up with my aunt, uncles, and cousins and tuck into our Big Sandwich. Then we’d go about the business of exchanging gifts with the rest of our family. This was a lovely tradition, though it was probably a lot of work for my aunt in particular, since she was buying and wrapping gifts on her three sons’ (my cousins’) behalf, even when they were well into their twenties and thirties. So it wasn’t exactly a surprise when my aunt eventually suggested that we end the tradition of exchanging.

But what did that leave us with, other than a six-foot sandwich and some (however-delicious) fishy Christmas Eve leftovers? Well, we still had a grab bag. When I’ve participated in grab bags in the outside world, the usual requirement is that the gifts cost somewhere between five and ten dollars. Our family’s grab bag had a one-dollar limit. This proved, well, limiting. The grabs usually included such treasures as kitchen sponges, rubber gloves, lottery tickets, ancient Andes mints or gum, and, from the truly lazy, a one-dollar bill. My grandmother insisted we add a Yankee Swap element to the proceedings, but since all the gifts were equally crappy, we’d end up with a pretty even exchange in the end.

One year, my sister and I made a last-ditch attempt to breathe some life into the experience and threw some gag gifts into the mix. I can’t remember what they were, but we wrapped them in lovely paper, each accompanied by a little joke or poem that the recipient would have to read to the group. Those who drew the gag gifts would have a chance to win the grand prize, a family pack of very special bathroom tissue. Doesn’t that sound like fun?

Unfortunately, our family was less than enthused by our modifications. They moaned and groaned through the whole thing, failing to find enjoyment in any of it. We came to realize that not everyone’s sense of humor or idea of fun is the same (or even existent, ahem), and that’s their loss. So my sister and I admitted defeat and threw in the towel.

Well, she threw in a towel. I threw in some Andes mints.

The Big Sandwich

A reminder: This is Day Five of The Seven Days of Pricklesmas Contest. Details here!

We’ve always spent most of our holiday with the Italian side of my family (I’m half Italian on my mother’s side, and a mix of French-Canadian, Irish, and a smidge of Blackfoot Indian on my father’s). One of our many traditions is a Christmas Eve dinner called The Feast of the Seven Fishes. If you consider yourself a real Italian, you’d better like seafood.

We used to enjoy this meal with my grandfather’s side of the family, with his sisters and sister-in-law (my Aunt Eleanor, Aunt Sandy, and Aunt Fanny) and my grandmother preparing the meal together. Because, really, it takes a village of skilled Italian women to cook that much fish. They made a dish of spaghetti flavored with olive oil, garlic, walnuts, breadcrumbs, and anchovies. This was followed by breaded, fried shrimp, calamari in red sauce, and scungilli (snail) and baccala (dried cod) salads, and at least two other fishy dishes to equal the requisite seven. On the side, we had a special fried dough my relatives pronounced “guh-DOOST”; I have never learned its origins or how it’s officially spelled, but it is delicious (especially on Christmas morning, dipped in hot chocolate and smeared with sugar). I should mention that our Feast of the Seven Fishes was always, always served to us in the basement, where long tables were set up for family-style dining, and there was usually a second kitchen. (You can correct me if I’m wrong, but this seems to be an Italian thing. At least one of my great aunts owned her own sizable house, but only truly inhabited the basement; her upstairs kitchen was so pristine, she kept a doily in the sink.)

When it came to Christmas Day itself, my parents and my sister and I and my aunt, uncles, and cousins would all descend upon my grandparents’ house, where we’d open our gifts and listen to Johnny Mathis and Bing Crosby and drink and EAT. After a marathon cooking session to prepare the Feast the night before, my grandmother would put on her apron and prepare a whole other meal for us on Christmas Day: chicken cacciatore and stuffed artichokes and spaghetti and meatballs and roasted potatoes, among many other things. While it was amazing and heroic of her, it eventually seemed to take too much effort. But what could we substitute that didn’t need any preparation, that could sit on the dining room table all day and feed us all comfortably?

Enter The Big Sandwich. I don’t know who came up with the idea (or how my grandmother came to agree to it), but we started ordering a six-foot sub from somewhere, half-Italian (salami, capicola, mortadella, provolone) and half-American (some combination of ham, turkey, roast beef, and a generic yellow cheese), which suited us just fine. My grandmother would put out some leftover seafood from the night before, too, in case anyone was still willing.

As we don’t have a big Christmas Day celebration anymore, we no longer have need for The Big Sandwich, but we still do the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve, with my sister cooking the meal. And like a true Italian, she makes the same amount of food for the four of us that used to be served to five times as many people.

What kinds of holiday foods do you enjoy? Anything out of the ordinary?

O Christmas Trees

A reminder: This is Day Four of The Seven Days of Pricklesmas Contest. Details here!

When I was growing up, I didn’t know anyone who had a real Christmas tree. Our tree was artificial and broke down into three parts, which we kept in Hefty bags in the crawl space beneath our basement steps. When we put it together, my parents would spray it with pine-scented air freshener, which only briefly fooled our cats.

My grandparents had an AWESOME tree, which was made of aluminum, and required careful assembly (the image above is an inferior modern replica). What looked like a silver broomstick drilled with holes was screwed into the special tree stand (which was a revolving stand that had a miniature Santa and reindeer going around it). Then, a big cardboard box with many tiny compartments was brought down from my grandparents’ attic; each compartment housed a different aluminum branch, and each branch was stuck into a different hole in the silver broomstick until the tree took shape. Then we hung ornaments on it, which were all the same, pink and round and shiny. And then a tree skirt was swaddled around the base, which was white felt dotted with multicolored glitter, like a blanket of newly-fallen snow.

This was just the opening act. More cardboard boxes were brought down from the attic, and each one contained carefully-wrapped treasures that went under the tree. There was the Nativity scene, of course. But there was also a village of tiny cardboard houses and a church, covered with glitter and fake snow. Trios of ceramic singing nuns and choirboys. Plastic deer. Bottle-brush trees. Kissing angels. It was our job, as the kids, to unwrap these delights, place them under the tree, and spend the rest of our time on our stomachs, playing with them, as the Johnny Mathis Christmas album played on the stereo and our grandparents set up the rest of the room (including a multi-colored light that revolved next to the tree, which gave the illusion of turning it different colors). In some ways, the unveiling of my grandparents’ tree and its dreamy underworld was more exciting than the unwrapping of our actual gifts.

But all dreams must come to an end, and sometime in the 1980s, someone in my family (an adult, no doubt) convinced my grandparents that the silver tree was tacky. So it was sold to some lucky, lucky person, and my grandparents put out a tabletop tree after that, which allowed very little room underneath for treasures, so those went by the wayside, too. I guess the grownups in my family didn’t realize just how much the tree and its accoutrements meant to the rest of us; it really was the focal point of our holiday, and its removal punched a big ho-ho-hole in our experience.

Lest you think this story has an unhappy ending, I’ll provide you with an epilogue, which began a few years ago, when my sister managed to find a nearly-identical vintage aluminum tree (on eBay, I think). And then, when we were in an antiques store here in Providence a little while ago, we found the revolving stand with the tiny Santa and reindeer, still in its original box! Our holiday dreams never truly died — they were just waiting for us to reassemble them, branch by silvery, glittery branch.

P.S. I’ll be on the “Reading with Robin” show on WHJJ 920AM tomorrow morning from 7-8am. If you’re an early bird, I hope you’ll tune in!

The Christmas Clipboard

A reminder: This is Day Three of The Seven Days of Pricklesmas Contest. Details here!

I admit it — I’m a compulsive list-maker and note-taker. But some people in my family have organizational impulses on a whole other level.

As I’ve mentioned, Santa was in the habit of delivering unwrapped gifts to our house for a while, until my curiosity (and greed) got the better of me. Once wrapped gifts began to appear on Christmas morning, my mother devised a special unwrapping system. She’d write a tiny number on each of the gifts, and then she’d tabulate a list of those numbers and the corresponding contents. She’d wield this list on a clipboard on Christmas morning, when the unwrapping system went something like this:

Me (reaching for gift): Can I open this one?

Mom: What number is it?

Me (checking): Um…5?

Mom: (consulting her clipboard)

Mom: (consulting her clipboard)

Mom: No. Not yet.

Me (reaching for another gift): How about this one…it’s 12.

Mom: (consulting her clipboard)

Mom: (consulting her clipboard)

Mom: Okay.

This back-and-forth would go on all morning, as my mother (and her clipboard) carefully monitored our present-opening. Clearly, she had a certain rhythm in her head of how she wanted Santa’s bounty to be revealed, and it was about more than just leaving the bigger gifts until the end. By controlling the unwrapping order, and creating a juxtaposition of “big gifts” versus “little gifts,” she was lending a dramatic arc to the proceedings. While one might very well perceive the clipboard as anal-retentive madness, at the same time, there was an artistry to it that I have to admire. It was a true presentation. And it’s that kind of perfect rhythm, that juxtaposition of major and minor reveals, that I strive to emulate in my storytelling now.

I guess you could say my mother gave me her biggest gift without even knowing it.

Holiday gift tag from Zazzle.

“He knows when you are sleeping…”

A reminder: This is Day Two of The Seven Days of Pricklesmas Contest. Details here!

I’ve always had trouble sleeping. It takes me forever to get my brain to stop working and wind down, especially when I’m anxious or excited. And when I was a little kid, and it was Christmas Eve? Fuggedaboudit.

For the first ten or so years of my life, my family’s Christmas was pretty minimalist. And by that, I don’t mean we received few presents. We received a TON. It’s just that they were never wrapped. On Christmas Day, my sister and I would race downstairs to the living room, where her gifts were displayed on one couch, and mine were on the other. Any spillover or smaller gifts were stuffed in our stockings or left under the tree. It was pretty green of Santa, when you think about it, not to waste all that wrapping paper.

But this meant that Santa left my Christmas bounty out in the open and nearly beckoning to be played with. And there I was upstairs, in my bed, wide-eyed and vibrating with anticipation. This was a recipe for trouble, and my mother knew it. She made it very clear that we (meaning ME) weren’t to come downstairs until 7am. But even then, as a wee moppet, I knew all rules were meant to be broken. Over the years, I made several, increasingly-artful attempts:

Attempt #1: I snuck downstairs and spent a good ten minutes ogling my gifts before my mother discovered me.

Attempt #2: I was discovered by my mother as I was sneaking down the stairs. When interrogated, I pretended I’d been sleepwalking.

Attempt #3: I stayed up all night reading my entire Laura Ingalls Wilder library, then set my alarm clock ahead one hour, went downstairs at 6am, and claimed my clock had malfunctioned.

After this final, Ocean’s Eleven-level ruse, Santa decided to play hardball, and started delivering wrapped gifts. With all the hours and hours Santa and his elves spent on gift-wrapping, I’m sure my parents were thrilled that they were finally able to get a good night’s sleep. And I could finally sleep, too, once the lure of exposed Christmas treasures was removed. A détente was reached.

But not for long. My mother had a whole new set of rules to implement. And those rules involved a clipboard.


Image from The Graphics Fairy.

Magic is Happening

A reminder: This is Day One of The Seven Days of Pricklesmas Contest. Details here!

The early days of my youth happened to coincide with the final, dying days of variety shows. Donny & Marie. Carol Burnett. The Smothers Brothers. Barbara Mandrell. The Muppets. Sonny & Cher.

I had a soft spot for Cher, because I coveted her long, shiny, dark hair (I always wanted to be a brunette, a dream I am currently living) and her dressing room. Or at least, I coveted her doll’s dressing room. Back in 1976, I was five years old, and the TV commercial advertising the Cher’s Dressing Room Playset was mesmerizing. I liked the Cher doll’s glamorous white dress and fluffy maribou stole. I liked her dressing room’s Native American motif. I especially liked the part when the girl in the commercial stood her Cher doll in front of the dressing room’s “magic mirror.” And then, in the blink of an eye, Cher’s outfit changed!

When I received the Cher doll and the dressing room playset for Christmas, I was supremely underwhelmed. As it turned out, the magic mirror wasn’t magic at all; behind it, you had to insert a “magic mirror card,” which featured a photo of each of Cher’s outfits from the neck down. When you put her in front of the mirror, it merely gave the illusion that she’d changed clothes.

That was my first taste of genuine (and literal) disillusionment. I think about Cher’s Dressing Room all the time; while it’s kind of a sad lesson in naïve consumerism, it also reminds me of how awesome it was to be a kid, where anything seemed possible. With eagerness, I accepted the promise of a world where a mirror could instantly change your doll’s clothes, or where cereal could be made from real, delicious miniature cookies and not just small discs of sugary corn cereal dotted with fake brown “chocolate chips” (see The Great Cookie Crisp Disappointment of 1976), or where you could mail away your allowance for a kingdom of exotic SEA MONKEYS that looked like actual, tiny people, and not boring, gross brine shrimp.

I should mention that the Cher doll itself offered further disappointment, and met an even worse fate. As it turned out, the doll was pretty high-maintenance (much like Cher herself, I suspect). If you didn’t brush its hair regularly, it turned into a matted, black nimbus, especially if you forgot to put the doll away one too many times and left it to languish on the basement playroom floor, where its hair accumulated further knots, as well as random cat hair, Play-doh clumps, and dryer lint.