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.