Grandma's Reindeer


Grandma's Reindeer

As I have mentioned in my last couple of posts, I have been struggling with grief. Several have mentioned that I need to keep writing, and have suggested that I tell stories of my parents. A couple of stories immediately came to mind, so I am going to share them with you. Here is the first one!

A few years after my brother was born, my parents started trying to have another child. They tried for years but just couldn't. I don't know all the details but there were hints of a few miscarriages and a look at adoption but at some point they just gave up. And, around the time my brother was 14, I surprised everyone and came along. Now that I am a parent of two teens, I've often thought about what it must have been like for Mom to find out that she was pregnant at this stage in her life -- pushing 40, with a husband gone 30 days at a time, with a teenaged son. She's almost done with this parenting thing, and now she gets to start all over! Yikes!

Mom had three brothers and a sister, and all of them had children around the same time that my brother was born. So, I was considerably younger than most of my cousins. I remember family gatherings at my Grandma's house, trying to "act cool" and fit in with all these older kids. Yeah, it didn't work very well! One particular Christmas, we were once again all at Grandma's house. She decorated for Christmas simply but intentionally with a pretty tree and a few Christmas trinkets carefully placed on small tables around her house. One table in her living room held a ceramic Christmas tree. You know the one -- about 18" tall, with light bulbs for ornaments, and one "real" light bulb hidden inside that lit up the whole tree. And next to the tree stood a little plastic reindeer. I have no idea why, but all of us grandkids loved that reindeer. That particular Christmas, several of my cousins had the nerve to ask Grandma if they could have the reindeer. Of course she said no! But they persisted, bugging her all day about it. Now, my grandma was not the stereotypical sweet little Grandma with endless patience. She grew up in a railroad family during the Depression and married a railroad worker. Her sons all went into the military and served during the war. Her daughters had jobs (gasp!). In her world, hard work was just a part of life and nothing was ever simply given to you. Although I wanted that reindeer, I certainly didn't have the nerve to ask for it! So I simply watched as time and time again my cousins bugged her and finally got on her last nerve. A few heads were rolled and few tears were shed, and then everyone recovered and moved on to something else.

At one point later that evening, Grandma asked me to go into the living room with her. She took me to the table holding the tree and reindeer, and asked me if I liked the reindeer. Why yes, I do! It's so cute! She then asked me if I would like to have it. Cautiously I looked in her eyes to see if this was a test. If I said yes, would I get in trouble? I took a chance and said that yes, I would like to have it. And she gave it to me!! But, she said I could only have it on ONE condition -- I could not tell anyone that she gave it to me! I'm sure she was just trying to keep the peace (I can't imagine the war that would have ensued if the other grandkids found out she gave it to me!) and she probably also wanted to get rid of the dumb thing so that she didn't have to be bugged about it anymore. But at that moment, I felt special. Me and Grandma had a special secret! I no longer saw being the youngest as being last. This was the best Christmas, ever!

Grandma told me to go put the reindeer in my coat pocket before anyone saw that she gave it to me, and went back to the dining room where the adults were gathered, playing cards, smoking cigarettes and loudly laughing at jokes that I never understood. I went to her bedroom and carefully dug through the huge pile of coats that were heaped on her bed, and when I found my coat, I shoved the reindeer deep down into the pocket. I then went back to the screen porch where the rest of the kids were playing marbles and dominoes, trying to act normal when inside, I was about to burst!

Riding home with mom and my brother that night, I sat quietly in the back seat, clutching the reindeer inside my pocket, worried sick that it would fall out and be noticed. Once we got home, I tried awkwardly to get out of the car with my hand still stuck in my pocket. Finally my brother lost patience with me and pulled my hand out of my pocket, revealing the reindeer! I can still remember the look on his face and tone of his voice as he loudly whispered "Ohhhh!!! You stole Grandma's reindeer!!" I quickly responded, "No I did not!", wrestled out of his grasp, ran into the house, and into my room. Panicking, I looked around frantically trying to find somewhere to hide the reindeer so Mom wouldn't find it, all the while hoping my brother didn't rat me out (he didn't -- isn't he awesome?). I finally decided to bury it deep in a dresser drawer. Whew. Safe.

This all worked out great until a couple of weeks later, when Mom decided to clean out my dresser one day while I was at school. I came home after school to find her standing at the kitchen counter, one hand on her hip and the other angrily tapping on the kitchen counter. And next to her tapping hand stood Grandma's reindeer.  Uh oh. She immediately asked me, "Did Grandma give you this reindeer?"  Thinking quickly, I remembered Grandma's strict orders that I was to tell NO ONE that she gave it to me. And Grandma trumps Mom, right? So, I looked at Mom and answered quietly, "No." So, Mom asked me "Did you steal Grandma's reindeer?" Well, I didn't, so I again answered, this time emphatically, "No!"  Well, unfortunately there really weren't any other options. And so Mom really had no choice but to conclude that I was lying to her. Heads rolled, tears flowed, and we got in the car and drove to Grandma's. I remember Mom gripping my shoulder tightly as we walked briskly up to Grandma's front door, while I'm sobbing and clutching the reindeer. Mom opened the storm door and banged angrily on the front door. A few minutes later, Grandma opened the front door, confused and surprised to see us, her hair half-done-up in curlers -- clearly we had interrupted her!  She stood there staring at both of us -- Mom obviously angry, me sobbing, clutching the reindeer -- and asked what on earth was going on. Mom haughtily explained that I had stolen her reindeer and we were here so I could apologize and give it back. Grandma stood there for a second, chuckled a bit, looking at the mess that was both of us, then looked at my Mom and said, "Dammit Pudge, I gave her the f-ing reindeer. Now go home!" And slammed the door in our faces.

It was a quiet ride home, and it was never discussed again. And every Christmas, the reindeer would be unpacked with all the other Christmas decorations. It found a place on a little table in Mom's front room, next to our little plastic nativity scene. But one year, it disappeared. Mom had no idea what had happened to it, and it was clear by her tone that nothing was to ever be said about it again.

Several years later when I was in college, Grandma moved into a nursing home. Her kids had first pass at going through her house to take what they wanted, and then us grandkids. I don't know how I managed to do it, but I was able to get that ceramic Christmas tree! It has become one of my most favorite decorations and I am always excited to get it out each year. But boy I sure missed seeing the reindeer standing beside it.

During The Purge at Thanksgiving, we spent the week clearing nearly everything out of Mom and Dad's house, including the basement. At the end of the week, there were only four or five boxes in the basement left to go through, and it looked like they only contained old National Geographics, books, and other items that would most likely just be tossed into the burn pile. I went back to Illinois for a few days between Christmas and New Years to help my brother finish the cleanout in preparation for putting the house up for sale. One night I was at the house by myself, and I decided to go down to the basement and sort through the remaining boxes. Sure enough, old National Geographics, some old books, an old sweater. Wait, that sweater had a "lump!"  I picked the sweater back up and suddenly the reindeer tumbled into my hand!!

For the next several minutes, all I could do was laugh, cry and jump up and down in the basement all by myself, clutching my reindeer as I celebrated this great find!!

I finally plopped down on the basement floor to try to put some logic behind why the reindeer was wrapped up in an old sweater and hidden in a box. All I could conclude was that Mom hid it on purpose. At first, that made me mad -- why would she hide it from me? But the more I thought about it, the more I thought about how awful it must have made her feel every year when she got out the Christmas decorations and came across it. Every year, another reminder of that time when she messed-up as a parent. Every year, another reminder of how her mother was so impatient and cold. Every year, another reminder of how our family was so bad at apologies, and so good at covering up mistakes. She could have thrown it away, but that would mean I would never find it. So maybe, just maybe, if she wraps it up in this old sweater and stuffs it in this box, someday when she's gone (and doesn't have to talk about it!), I'll find it.

Your plan worked, Mom. Thank you.

(Even though Christmas was over when I returned from Illinois, I just had to leave my ceramic tree out for a few more days, so it could finally be reunited with my cute little reindeer. I can't wait to see them again next Christmas!)

reindeer and tree

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A wonderfully story, wonderfully told. I felt like I was five years old again, a time when you could be in thrall to the awesome power of a holiday icon, not to mention the awesome power of a grandparent!


Oh my, you had me in tears! What affirmation Grandma had for you. I am glad you have had a chance to reunite the Christmas tree with the reindeer. My Grandma has the same Christmas tree and I love it just like you!! Family


I love this!


Oh, thank you for sharing this wonderful story. I could just see it in my mind as each step unfolded. I could relate on so many levels to the family dynamics and the holiday if grown ups playing cards and smoking and kids playing dominos and marbles. \r\n\r\nI hope writing your this memory brings you some relief. It certainly touched my heart.


Oh my goodness, this story touched every part of me, the happy and the sad. What a great story and so honest about the confusing emotions and struggles of family dynamics. I was right there with you. Thank you so much for sharing it. Since I am a new grandmother, I could participate in every role you mentioned and understand each one's perspective. Part of me longs for the time when such a simple thing as taking an ornament was important and violated the rules. I hope remembering this and enjoying your reindeer confirms and re-confirms the story of your family's unique love and bond to each other.

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