'Best Present Ever': A gift to our readers

  • Article by: LORNA LANDVIK , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 25, 2011 - 6:51 AM

On this weekend, when families come together for the holidays, we offer this special story written for the Star Tribune by noted author Lorna Landvik.

On this weekend, when families come together for Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, we offer this special story written for the Star Tribune by noted author Lorna Landvik. Landvik, who lives in Minneapolis. Curl up and read this tale aloud as you celebrate the season.

Certainly my great-aunt Agnes smiled; just never in my presence, and that she would be our guest on Christmas Eve did not fill me with glad tidings of the season.

"Honey, we don't want her to be alone tonight," said Dad as we drove to pick her up at her small south Minneapolis home.

Yes, we do, I thought when she got into the front seat, clutching the collar of her gray wool coat and complaining about the sloppy job the neighbor boy had done shoveling her walk.

The year before, we had celebrated at my grandmother's packed-with-relatives house in North Dakota, with cousins galore racing around, and ripped wrapping paper and ribbons flying like parade confetti, and Mom and her sisters gathered around the piano singing carols in three-part harmony, and Dad and his brothers-in-law joking with each other and teasing us kids to take over to Grandma all toys needing assembly. This year it would just be our family ... and an old lady who never smiled.

After dinner, with her arms tightly folded across her chest in the classic Scandinavian "at ease" position, Aunt Agnes sat near the front door like a sentry who'd been given orders to keep out anyone but the Messrs. Scrooge and Grinch.

She declined black coffee in favor of hot water ("but not too hot!") and when I stood before her with a plate loaded with my mother's most excellent fudge, sugar cookies and krumkakka, she dismissed me with a wave of her blue-veined hand. I can't say I was surprised that she didn't like sweets.

No one else was averse to sugar, and when the dessert tray was empty, Mom nodded at Dad, who finally made the announcement my brothers and I had waited for all year.

In the traditions of our Lutheran/Norwegian household, we did not wait for Santa to make his deliveries, instead getting a jump on the festivities on Christmas Eve. Hearing the words "Time to open your presents!" we scrambled for our booty under the Scotch pine draped with tinsel and blinking teardrop lights.

Days earlier, I had turned 8, and like many with a December birthday, I sometimes (OK, often) felt I got the short shrift gift-wise. Not this year. Tearing open the big rectangular box, I gasped. I had gotten the best present ever.

It was a doll, and she was nearly as tall as me. She had brown hair, softly curled in a shoulder-length pageboy and each round blue eye was fringed with a wedge of plastic eyelashes. She wore a pink organza dress with a full gathered skirt, white nylon anklets and black patent leather Mary Janes. Yes, she was beautiful, but like Miss America, she was gifted with talent, too: She could walk. Not with the greatest of ease, but if you held her hand and tilted her a little, she'd swing one plastic leg out to the side and lurch forward in a step.

"Hey, it's Frankenstein," said my brother Greg.

"No," I said, taking the doll for a brief stroll around the room. "This is Christina."

Winter break ended and on Show-and-Tell day, I was jittery with excitement as I prepared Christina for our walk to school.

"But she doesn't have a coat!" I fretted to my mother, who took Dad's extra mailman sweater out of the front closet.

"She'll be fine in this," said Mom, zipping the sweater and folding up the excess of sleeves that hung nearly a foot past the doll's fingers. She plunked a stocking hat on her head. "And this'll keep her extra warm."

Like Roald Amundsen surveying the North Pole from the helm of his polar ship, I stood outside on that snowy January morning, considering my navigational options. Our house was perched on a hill: How were we to get down the steps? The answer came quickly, inspired by the slippery sound my snow pants made when I shifted my weight.

"Come on, Christina," I said, hoisting the big doll in my arms. "We're going for a ride."

Sitting at the top of the hill, I plunked her on my lap and shoved off. It was quick and efficient transport, and after we tumbled to a stop, I righted her on the sidewalk, swatting snow off her plastic legs. Looking up, I saw my mother standing behind the storm door, laughing. I waved at her and pulled up Christina's arm to do the same.

Off we went. For half a block, I was an attentive and considerate escort, encouraging her every halting, lurching step. When she teetered, I'd patiently wait for her to regain her balance, the way I'd seen our neighbor Mrs. Olson do when she fetched Mr. Olson home from the Eagles Club. A feathery white dust had accumulated on Christina's bangs and I brushed it off with a mittened hand.

We pressed on. Despite having set out early, by block two we'd been passed by a parade of kids and I briskly informed Christina that we didn't have time to dawdle, that I was going to have to carry her.

The wind was sharp and the snow had picked up speed and volume, filling the sky with trillions of twirling, swirling flakes.

"Fine day for a blizzard," I joked, trying to lighten the mood. Christina stared at me, her round blue eyes impassive.

Although slender, my cargo was heavy and by block three, I put her down, apologizing as I explained I would have to drag her.

When I realized the inefficiency of walking backwards as I pulled her forward, I turned both her and myself around so that we were back to back, my arms behind me and clasped around her waist. With my head down and hunched against the pelting snow, I trudged blindly ahead, a Sherpa struggling to get a disabled climber back to base camp. Ahead, Morris Park Elementary loomed like Mount Everest and I had serious doubt about reaching its summit.

Mrs. Madsen didn't scold me when I showed up tardy, sodden and shivering, droopy with the weight of the weather and the big doll in my arms.

"Goodness, look at you two!" said the third-grade teacher, and her cheery voice steered me away from the tears I was perilously close to.

"This is Christina," I said. "She's from California."

"California," said Mrs. Madsen, her eyes wide. "I bet she's not used to snowstorms like this!"

"She thought it was pretty," I said, unzipping the wet mailman sweater, which Mrs. Madsen suggested I lay on the radiator, along with the doll's soaked-through shoes and socks.

"Teacher, can I go barefoot, too?" asked Clayton Hagstrom.

Mrs. Madsen pushed an empty desk next to mine and it was at that desk Christina sat, for the entire school day. We puzzled over our long-division problems (Christina did not like math) and together cut diamond shapes out of construction paper (I was in charge of scissors) for a stained-glass art project. I was allowed to walk her over to the blackboard when we practiced our cursive writing, and when we were questioned on our geography lesson, I raised my doll's hand.

"Yes, Christina?" asked Mrs. Madsen.

I leaned close, cocking my head, listening closely.

"She says that Rome is the capital of Italy."

"Very good, Christina," said Mrs. Madsen.

After I had grown and moved out of my parents' house, Christina remained in my bedroom closet until my nieces brought her out to play. By the time my own daughters got ahold of her, she had some bald patches from too many bad haircuts and one of her blue eyes was slightly bashed in. Wear and tear, like arthritis, had limited her ability to walk. But she still could be propped up for a tea party or have a toy stethoscope held to her chest or listen to a lullaby.

Christina really was the best present ever and my memories of her are an extra gift. She reminds me of Mom and Dad and Mrs. Madsen, all kindhearted and playful adults who encouraged in me the magic of make-believe. And I'll never forget that long-ago Christmas Eve when my Great-Aunt Agnes, upon seeing a nearly life-size doll lurch toward her, whispered a reverent "Uff da" before her sunken cheeks were lifted by a big wide smile.

Lorna Landvik is the author of eight novels. Her one-woman show, "Party in the Rec Room," plays weekends in January at the Bryant Lake Bowl.

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