The holidays can be hard. Joyful, but hard. My ten-year-old gave me her Christmas list this morning. She handed it to me over breakfast and watched me like a hawk while I read down to the bottom and found the last two items:
Item #19: A motorcycle
Item #20: A pet ferret
When she was sure I must be finished, she cleared her throat.
“I really want the motorcycle,” she said, staring at me, unblinking. “And not a toy one. A super-fast, dangerous real one.” That was out of character for her. She is not normally a motorcycle-type kid.
“Yes,” she answered, still staring at me. “I will be heartbroken if I don’t get one.”
“Heartbroken?” What was she up to?
“Yes, so are you going to get me one?”
“Of course not,” I told her. “You’re way too young to even get a motorcycle license.”
“I’m devastated,” she said, working hard to look the part. She even laid her head down on her arms and made an unconvincing crying sound. I looked back at her list.
“You’re not getting a ferret,” I told her. The fake crying stopped instantly, and her head snapped up.
“I haven’t even asked yet,” she complained.
“But you were about to tell me it’s the only thing that can console you, weren’t you?”
She glared at me.
“Why can’t I have a ferret?” she demanded.
“No more pets,” I told her. “Two dogs are more than enough.”
“But a ferret is different. Ferrets are so smart and beautiful and cuddly,” she pleaded.
“Please! You wouldn’t have to get me anything else for Christmas.”
“No,” I said firmly. “Out of the question. No ferret.”
“You’re so mean,” she told me, really sounding hurt now. “I bet you don’t even know what it’s like to want a furry little friend just for your own.”
But I did know. You see, I had requested a furry little friend just for my own on my thirteenth Christmas in 1977. I hadn’t asked for a ferret though; I had asked for a monkey. Apart from a whole bunch of fantasy books, it was pretty much all I wanted. I hadn’t been as clever as my daughter. I hadn’t set up my list with a straw-dog motorcycle I could sacrifice to make the monkey seem less extravagant. I had, however, been very magnanimous about my request. I’d allowed as how I didn’t need a chimpanzee if my parents felt that would be too big. I was ready to settle for a smaller primate, like a spider monkey, a lemur or even a capuchin. But my mom and dad gave me the same response I gave my daughter. We already had two dogs. A monkey was absolutely out of the question.
I was not concerned. Obviously, if my parents were planning to surprise me with a monkey, this was exactly the kind of ploy they’d pull. It would be the only way they could fool me into thinking I wasn’t getting one. So I worked at being a model child as the last ten days ticked down toward the big event. It was incredibly hard, but I made my bed almost every morning. I cleaned my room to the best of my ability. I even ate my asparagus, despite my firm conviction that asparagus was toxic. I also dropped hints like a madman to everyone in my family, hoping they were all in on it and one of them would let something slip that would confirm it. I even phoned my older brothers, who were away at college, to talk about the monkey. And every time I was told I wasn’t getting one, I tried to look sad, all the while feeling a growing conviction that, come Christmas morning, I would have my own furry friend.
Then, the night before Christmas, my parents put their presents to me under the tree. I couldn’t tell for sure because they were wrapped, but most of them were obviously just books. I had requested A Spell for Chameleon by Piers Anthony, Swords and Ice Magic by Fritz Leiber and The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander. Even the bigger, non-book-shaped package couldn’t possibly contain a monkey. Not only was it too flat, it was far too light, and it had no air holes. Also, when I shook it, it rattled like the game Hungry Hungry Hippos, which I had also requested. Monkeys don’t rattle.
And now I was devastated. My parent’s hadn’t lied to me, the jerks. They really weren’t getting me a monkey.
But much later that Christmas Eve, after I had mostly gotten over my disappointment and had been lying awake in my bed for what seemed like days, I heard something that made my heart leap. No, it wasn’t the sound of reindeer on the rooftop. It was a little startled shriek from my mother and then a lot of whispering.
“It’s moving,” her horrified words came muffled through my bedroom wall. She was talking to my older brothers, who must have just gotten in from college. “You can’t put it under the tree.” I held my breath. What was going on?
“Don’t worry. He can’t get out,” said my brother John, and I could hear the grin in his voice.
He? Get out? They couldn’t be talking about a …
“Isn’t he cute?” my brother Bill chimed in. “He’s so furry.”
It had to be …
“No, it’s not cute! I can’t believe you brought that into the house,” my mother scolded.
A monkey. My brothers had gotten me my monkey. It was a Christmas miracle! But then my heart stumbled in my chest. Would my mother make them take it back to wherever they’d gotten it? Would I be allowed to keep it?
“Well, put something heavy on top of its cage,” my mother whispered. “If that things gets out, I’ll have a heart attack!”
There was no sleep for me for the rest of that glorious night. I lay in bed, going through names for my monkey. Maximillian? Einstein? Boris? And thinking about how, when I took him to school to show everyone, he could wear the baby clothes my little brother had outgrown. And I would train little Boris to sit on my shoulder and wear a tiny fez and pick people’s pockets. I would be the most popular kid in the history of middle school. I would be like a god among children.
We had a rule in my family. No one was allowed to “wake up” for Christmas morning until the sky had begun to turn gray. That’s why I spent the last hour or so sitting on the edge of my bed, staring out the window for the faintest touch of light. And when at last it arrived, I was out of that room like a bullet out of a gun. I sprinted to the tree, just as the rest of my siblings were converging on it, ready to explode from anticipation.
There was my pile of presents, much taller than when I’d last seen it because it had been stacked on top of a container with air holes. YES! Through bleary eyes I saw a clear plastic cage in which something was moving. Something furry. YES! I dropped to my knees and dumped my other presents unceremoniously to the floor, only slightly puzzled by how small the cage was. Did they get me a baby monkey?! YES! I pressed my face to the cage.
NOOOO! I threw myself backward, screaming. The fuzzy thing inside the cage was not a monkey. Not even a baby monkey. The thing inside the cage, the thing I’d just had my face right next to, was the biggest tarantula I had ever seen. I don’t like to think that I was a wussy when I was thirteen, but I did have a pretty healthy fear of spiders. They just freaked me out—and the bigger they were, the more they gave me the willies.
Now, some kids seem to like tarantulas. They let them crawl around on their arms, and they even pet them as if they aren’t poisonous bugs because those children are stark raving mad. I was not, and despite my older brothers’ assurances that I would come to like that giant spider, I never did. My parents made me keep him in my bedroom, which gave me nightmares for weeks. He was not cute or lovable. He could not wear a tiny fez or pick people’s pockets. And I never once took him to school.
I could not bring myself to touch that spider as he scrabbled around in his cage under the tree, but what I did do that heartbreaking Christmas morning was swear to myself that I would be better than my parents had been to me. I vowed that if a child of mine ever asked for a little monkey as a furry little friend, I would not hesitate to grant that wish.
And now, back in the present, at the breakfast table with my own daughter, all of it came flooding back to me, and I thought how truly glad I was that she had asked for a ferret instead of a monkey.
“Absolutely not,” I said again. “A ferret is out of the question.” So she stormed off to her room.
The holidays are hard. Joyful, but hard.