This is Advent, the season of waiting. We wait in faith for for the light to conquer the darkness, and we wait in suspense to see what gifts we will receive for Christmas or Hanukkah and whether our gifts to others will be received with delight.
The year I was six, I experienced a very startling surprise during this season of waiting.
My father’s side of the family had gathered at my grandparents’ house. Christmas Eve, after supper, my four-year-old brother and three-year-old cousin and I decided to play hide-and-seek.
In that long-ago time when my grandparents were still able to climb the stairs routinely, their downstairs bathroom had no tub, only a shower stall with a door. That would be a great hiding place. As my brother counted in the warmly-lit living room where the grown-ups were chatting, I scurried around the corner into darkness and tiptoed into the bathroom. The ceramic tiles were chilly through the feet of my tights. I opened the shower door.
Suddenly I was engulfed in…something…no, two somethings…some kind of large, soft, pale somethings with a nubbly texture but some loopy parts and…was that a large, floppy bill? I was too startled to cry out, struggling to stuff the two big somethings back into the shower as my nylon-clad feet skidded around the floor.
Suddenly Janmother, my grandmother, was there beside me, whispering urgently, “Shhh! Don’t tell!!” She wrestled the somethings back into the shower and hustled me out of the bathroom. I hid behind coats hanging in the hallway, just as my brother finished counting.
Never before or since have I had so much trouble falling asleep on Christmas Eve. I kept attempting happy thoughts of Santa and snowflakes and magic, only to be interrupted by the memory of those big tumbling lumps falling on me. Janmother had given me enough twinkling, secret-sharing looks to make it clear that those were Christmas presents, but what were they, and for whom?
Christmas morning, we came downstairs to find even more gifts under the tree than had been there the night before, including two that were too big to wrap: My brother and cousin each got a big stuffed duck, crocheted by Janmother. His was yellow, and hers was white. Each duck had an oblong body the size of a sofa cushion, with loops of yarn forming the feathery edges of folded wings. The head of the duck was a separate stuffed section, connected by a hinge of crochet so that it lolled alarmingly if not propped up just right. It had a big, floppy bill of orange yarn.
My younger relatives took to their new yarn-feathered friends right away and found that they had many uses: A comfy seat on the floor! A bed just the right size for a small person! A steed to ride on an imaginary adventure across the lake of carpet! A hungry bill to be fed wrapping paper! Maybe we could sled down the stairs on them—no, that was not allowed.
It took me much longer to warm to the idea of giant ducks in the house. I wasn’t sure I could trust them not to fall on me again.
We returned home after Christmas with my brother’s duck riding between us in the back seat. Our cat spent most of the trip sleeping on the duck’s back but, upon awakening, instantly seized the duck’s bill in his jaws and began pummeling its head with his hind legs. I understood the impulse and was impressed with his bravery, taking on a waterfowl several times his size.
Once the duck was in our house—and it was only one duck—it no longer made me nervous. I could sit on it and include it in various games. It became just part of the furniture, in its own weird way.
We must have kept that duck for at least six years, because I didn’t get a camera until I was twelve, and I remember taking a photo of my brother with his duck just before he threw it away. It was flattened, slightly mildewed, and losing its stuffing, but still it was hard to part with it. Not everyone gets to have a giant duck or a grandmother with such an impressive aptitude for crochet.
Somewhere there exists a photograph of my brother at nine or ten years old, sitting on the duck, making an exaggerated sad face, in our garage at the foot of the Christmas tree, which was set up in its stand waiting for the living room to be rearranged so we could bring it in. He thought it would be appropriate to pose the duck for its final (only?) portrait underneath the Christmas tree, since he’d first seen it under a Christmas tree. But that’s not where I first saw it.
These days, I hide gifts that are waiting to be wrapped in the top shelf of my closet. Every December, there comes a moment when I try to cram something else up there and several of the things fall on me. Every year, as I stand there shielding my head and waiting for the avalanche to stop, I think, “Well, at least it’s not giant ducks.”