A Christmas story (with a cactus)

I could hear them calling for me but I wasn’t ready to come out yet. I was deep underground, in a cave where I was sure an ancient Inca treasure was buried. Or, maybe it was a treasure chest left there by Blackbeard, an infamous pirate, like my friend Ari said. 

Fine, I wasn’t technically underground, because the cave Ari and I had built was made out of snow and the pile of snow was most definitely above ground. 

I guess it’s needless to say that there was no real Inca treasure, either, but I’ll just say it anyway so that there aren’t any misunderstandings: there was no Inca treasure. There was no pirates’ treasure, either. It was all in our our nine-year-old heads.

“Risto! Come on, we have to hit the road right this minute,” I heard Dad shout from the parking lot. 

I sighed. 

“Hey, Ari, let’s pick this up when I come back, OK?” I said.

“What? Why?”

“I have to go.”

“When will you be back?”

“Next week.”

“Next week? Where are you going?”



It was Dad and his voice was just about to reach the point of no return for me. When there was no point for me to return home, I mean. And I still wanted to go home. 

“See ya,” I said and crawled back out of the snow cave. “Oh. Merry Christmas.”

* * * 

Going to Grandma’s for Christmas was a much bigger deal than I made it sound to be to Ari. We never went to Grandma’s for Christmas because, to be perfectly honest, we never went anywhere. 

Oh, by the way, I’m not complaining. I didn’t mind us not traveling or spending holidays at home. If anything, I liked it, because when the other families were gone, I got the entire hood for myself. Our building, our parking lot, the newspaper recycling bins (where you could find some real gems), the park, the abandoned piece of property with old cars on the lot, everything. And nobody to tell me to not throw snowballs, or climb on the piles of snow, or stop me from skiing around the playground. 

Mom was already sitting on the front seat of our red Ford Escort, Dad was standing halfway in, his right foot inside, and his right hand gripping the wheel, but his left foot on the ground and the left hand waving to me to run faster. 

He turned around, tilted the driver’s seat forward and ushered me into the car. Dad started the Ford, I jumped on the back seat and landed on my back, my preferred position to travel. 

I mentioned earlier that we got in our red Ford but should also make it clear that it wasn’t technically ours. We didn’t have a car, but Mom’s brother had lent us his red Ford, the very one in which I was not lying and reading comics. 

Grandma lived only four hours away, but it might as well have been a different country, or even a galaxy, a word I had recently learned from a movie (I had heard the bigger boys talk about). Everything was different, it was like stepping into a time machine. Grandma didn’t have a VCR, she seemed to be still amazed by the fact that her TV had colors. She had a big baking oven, she got up really early in the morning, and she had probably never even heard of the Beatles, let alone the Stones or Bowie or the Bay City Rollers. Now, I didn’t know exactly who they were but at least I had heard of them. 

“OK, here we go,” Dad said, in that overly cheery voice he always used when he tried to calm himself down in traffic. 

“Made it to the highway in under ten minutes, it’s going like clockwork,” he said. 

Mom patted him on the hand (that was resting on the gear stick). 

“This is going to be so much fun,” she said. “Who wants to play a game?”

“Me!” said Dad.

“Me!” I yelled from the backseat. 

I got up and sat on the edge of the seat, by head between the two front seats, which is where I always sat when I wanted to be included in the conversation. 

“OK, so, which famous person am I thinking of … you can only ask me yes or no questions,” Mom said. 

We always played that game, and I knew that Mom always chose either the new Queen of Sweden or the President of Finland, but I had learned to shout those out right away, so instead I just asked if the person she was thinking of had an hair. (President Kekkonen of Finland did not). 

We played a few rounds – Mom’s person was the Queen of Sweden, I went with Clark Kent (and did not accept Superman as the correct answer) – until it got dark. I leaned back, and continued reading my comics. 

“How long until we’re at Grandma’s?” I asked. 

“Oh, we’re halfway there,” Dad said. “So, two hours.”

It started to snow. 

* * *

I can’t tell you whether it was fifteen minutes later, or an hour later, because I didn’t have a watch, but if I had to guess I’d say it was closer to fifteen minutes because I had just finished a new Superman pocket book, and I’m a pretty fast reader. 

I can tell you for sure, though, what happened. 

My uncle’s red Ford stopped. It coughed a couple of times, then lost all power, and barely made it to the side of the road. I could see my Dad’s white knuckles on the wheel as the car stopped in the snow. 

Mom and Dad looked at each other, then Dad slammed the steering wheel with his hand. 

“Honey, maybe it’s just the snow. Maybe there’s snow in the carburetor,” Mom said in her most understanding voice. 

I sighed. This was no time for jokes, and surely Mom was joking. Snow in the carburetor?

Dad popped the hood and got out. He opened the hood and attached the long metal rod onto it so it’d stay open, the international call for help. Mom got out and walked a few yards towards the traffic and waved her hands from side to side, another international distress call. 

I got out on the ditch side – carefully – and walked up to Dad. He was swearing, but stopped when he saw me. 

“On a Christmas Eve, buddy. Of all the days,” he said. “But, maybe I can fix it,” he added, stuffed his hands in his winter jacket’s pockets and started at the engine. 

Mom came back, visibly upset. 

“Nobody stopped! Not one. And it’s Christmas. Peace on earth, my a–“. She cut herself short. 

She walked closer to Dad. 

“What are we going to do?” she asked him. 

“Well, let’s hope somebody will stop and take me to the nearest gas station so that I can get some help.”

“Fat chance of that,” Mom said, still upset that none of the five cars she had signalled to had stopped. 

And right them, coming from the opposite direction, there was a red roadside assistance truck. Mom and Dad both jumped up and down, waving their hands from side to side. I joined them, and it must have looked funny to the driver, seeing a family doing jumping jacks by the side of the road. 

More importantly, though, he saw us and he stopped. 

Dad quickly came up with the plan. He asked the roadside assistance driver to get on his radio and get us a cab. 

“You guys get in the taxi and go back home,” he told Mom. 

“What about you? And your mother? Wat about the food in the trunk? And the … you-know-whats?”

“I’ll get the car towed to the nearest gast station, and if they can fix it there, I’ll drive back home and we’ll make a new start tomorrow. And I’ll call Grandma, she’ll be fine,” he said. “I’ll figure something about, you know, with the … things.”

(They were talking about my Christmas presents). 

“Can we afford a taxi, though?”

“No, but there’s nothing else we can do,” Dad said, and slammed the hood shut. 

So that’s what we did. Two hours (and fifteen minutes) later, Mom and I were back at our apartment building, which was now almost completely dark. There were lights in only one window as far as I could tell. 

Poor guy, I thought. I was happy to be back, so that our window could keep his window company in the dark. After all, it was Christmas. 

* * * 

As soon as we got in, Mom went into overdrive. Since we were supposed to spend Christmas Eve at Grandma’s, nothing in our apartment reminded anyone of the ongoing holiday season. No mistletoes, no Christmas tree, not even any of the drawings I had made at school. 

That had to be fixed. 

“You!” she said, as if directing traffic or giving orders to strangers. “Your pictures of snowmen, angels, and Santa, in a box, in the top cupboard in the hall, put them up. Also, take down the tree decorations, while I’ll cook dinner.”

She marched – still in the military mode, I noticed – into the kitchen and opened the freezer door and took a deep breath. 

“OK, there’s bread, peas, ice cream,” she muttered and she pulled small plastic bags and boxes out of the freezer. 

I taped my drawings on the walls in the living room (which was also my bedroom, thanks to the multifunctional bed sofa), and carried the cardboard box filled with Christmas decorations to kitchen. 

“There they are! Excellent. We’ll turn this into Christmas, you watch,” she said, and grabbed a few glass balls and tied them to the kitchen lamp. Then she tap danced into the living room and tied a few more to the lamp there. 

“Put on some music, buddy,” she said. 

We didn’t have any Christmas records, so I took one of Dad’s swing albums and put it on the turntable. “In the mood” started to play, and it certainly put Mom in the mood. Mom and I danced around the living room, throwing silver tinsel here, there and everywhere, and hung candy canes from door knobs and lamps, and whatever we couldn’t find a place for, we hung on a tall cactus in the corner so that it looked like a very skinny Christmas tree. The rest of the room looked like a Christmas shop. 

“OK, time for dinner,” Mom said. “Could you set the table, please.”

I set the table for three, and put a snow globe in the middle. I sat at my place and hummed along Glenn Miller. 

“This Christmas, we’ll have a French toast feast!” Mom said, and lifted a piece of formerly stale bread on my plate. Then she opened the fridge door and grabbed a few jars of jams and marmelade. “All you can eat, buddy, all you can eat!”

I saw her take glances at the phone at regular intervals. She was obviously waiting to hear from Dad. I was, too. 

By the end of our French toast feast – I ate a record eight – Mom went to flip the record. On her way back to the kitchen, she stopped at the doorstep. 

“What is THAT?” she said and pointed at the window. 

I turned around but obviously not quickly enough because I didn’t see anything. 

“What was what?” I asked her. 

“I’m pretty sure it was – Santa,” she said, whispering the last word. “Quick, come here,” Mom went on, rushing to the window. 

I got up and also rushed to the window but there was nothing to be seen. No Santa, no elves, not anyone. Even the bus stop was completely empty. 

“Maybe I was mistaken,” Mom said. “Or maybe Santa moves fast…”

“Maybe,” I said. 

“Go have a look on the other side of the building,” she said. “And turn of the lights so you’ll see better!”

I hopped over a candy cane and some silver tinsel on the floor and pressed my forehead against the living room window. It was dark outside, but I could tell that Ari hadn’t dug any deeper into our cave. Most of the windows in the building across the street were dark, too. 

“No, Mom, nobody here,” I yelled without turning around. 

“OK, look harder!”

I put my hands to the sides of my head to block any light from coming in, but still didn’t see anything. Glenn Miller had given his band a break but I could hear a noise from the door.

Suddenly, the front door opened and slammed shut, and a voice called into the apartment.

“Ho, ho, ho, are there any nice children in the house,” it said. 

I walked slowly toward the front door. 

“It is I, Santa Claus,” the person said. 

Santa was wearing a white fur hat, long women’s winter boots, and a fur coat that looked like it was inside out. The beard looked to be very soft, as if it was made of cotton balls. 

“Well, you must be Risto,” he said, in a husky voice. 

“That’s right,” I said. 

“Well, you’ve been very, very nice this year, but Santa had some problems with the elves and the reindeer tonight, so I, Mrs Santa, had to come to rescue and bring this to you,” Mrs Santa said and handed me a small present. 

“Thank you.”

“Where’s that wonderful mother of yours?”

“Oh, she was right here, hold on…” I said and turned around. 

“Maybe in the kitchen?” Mrs Santa said and winked. 

“Maybe, let me check.”

I took a few steps into the kitchen, and waited. I walked to the window and looked out and saw a car come down the hill. 

“Mom’s not here,” I yelled back. 

“Oh, well, I must be going. Merry Christmas!” 

“Merry Christmas.”

I looked out, only half-expecting to see Mrs Santa walk out through the front door. The car turned left toward our house and the headlights suddenly illuminated the front of our house. No Santa – Mr or Mrs, – no footsteps, nothing. There was more noise from the front door, though. 

“Hey, Risto! I went out to take the trash, did I miss anything?” Mom said casually.

She took my by the hand and walked me to our Christmas cactus. 

“What’s that in your hand?” she went on then. 

“Santa was here.”

“Santa was here?”

“He gave me this. Or, she. Santa had a cold so Mrs Santa delivered the presents this year.”

“That’s a first! I think.”

I had just started to tear open the present when the front door opened, and slammed shut again!

“HO HO HO! It is I, Santa!” a deep voice shouted from the front door. “And with me, I have some presents and food that got left over from our dinner back at the Santa ranch!”

Mom rushed to the front door and gave Santa a hug and then made a big fuss of all the food. She sent me to the kitchen to unpack the food sack while she stayed in the hall whispering with Santa. 

“Anyway, I have to go now,” Santa yelled from the door, “Merry Christmas!”

“I’ll just leave these here,” he added under his breath. 

When I got to the front door, he was gone. Five seconds later, I heard somebody turn the key in the lock. 

Dad opened the door with a big grin on his face. 

“I think I saw Santa on my way up here, buddy. Hope I didn’t miss anything important! It’s been quite a Christmas,” Dad said, as he hugged Mom and me. 

“The best,” I said, in a muffled voice, from inside the hug. “The best.”

* * * 

Merry Christmas!

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