A Reading Lesson

A Reading Lesson


I played with dolls. I lis­tened to Peter and the Wolf, Tub­by the Tuba, The Moth­er Goose Rhymes, and the record­ing from a Jet­sons car­toon. Like every oth­er girl my age, I want­ed a Bar­bie, and a Ken­ner Easy Bake Oven. Over­all, things weren’t bad, until the approach of Christ­mas height­ened ten­sion around our house.

I now know my Jew­ish par­ents just did­n’t know how to do this hol­i­day. They were inex­pe­ri­enced duds, much as I still feel today. Their strug­gle as clue­less out­siders, face to face with an ever-mount­ing pile of debt, made the whole sea­son life­less and painful.

At the top of the tall Christ­mas tree in our liv­ing room, pur­chased with Hanukah gelt from our aunts, was a soli­tary star cut from card­board and cov­ered with tin foil. I was five years old, won­der­ing why our tree still was­n’t tru­ly dec­o­rat­ed, and why no presents had mag­i­cal­ly begun to accu­mu­late under­neath, like they had next door at the O’Rea­gans. Would San­ta come, or would he pass over our house and for­get all about us? Maybe he knew we were Jew­ish and could hear my par­en­t’s con­tin­u­ous bick­er­ing, the way I remem­ber it super­im­posed on the smell of pine.

It took until Christ­mas Eve for them to final­ly come to a truce.

Let’s go for a ride,” my father said.

My moth­er bun­dled us up, my broth­ers and me, and we piled into our dirty white Chevy wag­on. My dad drove to Two Guys, a chain of bar­gain depart­ment stores open unusu­al­ly late on Christ­mas Eve, at a time when blue laws were still enforced.

Once inside, my moth­er asked us, “If you could tell San­ta Claus what you want for Christ­mas, what would it be?”

When I turned she’d already dis­ap­peared from sight. But I was busy comb­ing each aisle, search­ing for the one toy I’d had my heart set on for months. I want­ed to bake tiny cakes with my own spe­cial oven, heat­ed with a six­ty-watt bulb. I’d seen the com­mer­cials so often, even though I was just learn­ing to read, that I could instant­ly rec­og­nize the pink Easy Bake logo on the pack­age. The shelves were half emp­ty (this being Christ­mas Eve), and I wan­dered back and forth until I spot­ted the logo. I ran through the store and found my moth­er.

Mom, I found it!”

I took her hand, led her to the spot and point­ed to the top shelf.

This is what you want?”

I nod­ded.

Are you sure?” she said.

We stayed in the store until my broth­ers had tak­en their turn show­ing our par­ents what they want­ed San­ta to bring them. Then we were escort­ed out­side to the icy car.

You kids wait here,” my dad said.

They went back into the store while we hud­dled togeth­er, try­ing to keep warm. Half an hour lat­er they returned with sev­er­al arm­loads of teal-col­ored paper bags and stuffed them behind the back seat.

Did they think we were stu­pid?

The next morn­ing, I awoke to find a long, thin pack­age under the tree with my name on it. It was marked “From San­ta.” I tore it open, thrilled that I would final­ly get my cov­et­ed Easy Bake Oven. But some­thing did­n’t make sense. It was­n’t shaped right. It did­n’t look the same as what I’d seen on those Sat­ur­day morn­ing com­mer­cials. With tears in my eyes, I said, “Mom … it’s not an Easy Bake Oven.”

It’s what you asked San­ta for.”

What is it, Mom?” I asked.

Sound it out.”

I hat­ed those words. My moth­er had end­less­ly repeat­ed them to my broth­er Myles, who was hooked on TV. She claimed he start­ed to read only after she refused to read him the TV Guide. Now that he could read by him­self, she’d start­ed repeat­ing those same three words to me.

It took a while, sound­ing out the let­ters on the box the way I’d been taught at school.

P‑o-p…c‑orn…pop-per.…?“I read.

It was a pop­corn pop­ping acces­so­ry to the oven I’d want­ed so bad­ly… quite a read­ing les­son.

It might as well have been coal.