The Dummy Never Showed Up

[This essay received an honorable mention in the Wisconsin Writers Association’s 2022 Jade Ring Contest. To read the works of other winners, see the links after the essay.]

Charlie broke my heart in 1971. Dressed in a top hat and tuxedo, and well-groomed with manicured nails and combed hair, he was debonair, even if his monocle made him look a bit stuffy. Always ready with a smart comeback, a smooth put-down, or a drop of wisdom, he was witty, candid, and self-assured. Charlie was a dummy, but I wanted him anyway.

The big problem—he was unavailable. Like all desirable men, he was taken. Women everywhere had lined up to have a chance with him. Seems like everyone wanted a wise-cracking fella who was perpetually dressed for the opera.

My mother broke the news to me. “Honey, I have to talk to you about your Christmas list.” I was twelve, so we had long ago stopped calling it “my letter to Santa.”

“I’ve looked everywhere.” Her voice shrunk as she spoke. “I can’t find a Charlie McCarthy doll.” She asked me to think of something else to add to my list. I did, but I don’t recall what it was. I could’ve asked for a hand puppet, but that would’ve been like having to settle for Eddie Haskell after hoping to date Donny Osmond. There was no substitute for Charlie.

I wanted to be a ventriloquist. I was going to be famous. I was going to be a star. And I couldn’t do it without Charlie. My daydream about becoming a celebrated ventriloquist was another chapter in my someday-I’ll-be-a-famous-singer-actor-or-dancer book of fantasies. I spent hours singing with Doris Day, Petula Clark, Dionne Warwick, and Barbara Streisand, pretending to be them. Sometimes I sang along with Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., or Trini Lopez, pretending they had recognized me—a famous singer—in the audience and called me up on stage to sing with them. The exuberant audience, unable to contain their cheers and thunderous clapping, would rise to their feet moments before we had finished our duet.

Sometimes, I’d lay on the floral velour couch in the living room, the most elegant space in our farmhouse, and imagine myself a great actor giving spellbinding performances on stage or film. Or I would be Cyd Charisse, dancing, defying Newton’s laws of motion, giving men whiplash. When I wasn’t doing my famous talent stuff, I would travel to exotic places, win awards, and marry a leading man or a velvet-voiced crooner.

With Charlie I would’ve been more than a ventriloquist—I would’ve been funny! The see-saw, back-and-forth humorous banter between Charlie and Edgar Bergen captivated me. Bergen said things that came out of Charlie’s mouth. Through Charlie, Bergen insulted people and everyone laughed at Charlie. Through Charlie, Bergen flirted with women and everyone thought Charlie was adorable. Charlie sassed Edgar, his elder, and never got whapped alongside the head. My twelve-year-old mind found this setup very attractive. But reflecting on it now, I don’t think my mother would’ve whapped Charlie alongside his head.

After I learned Charlie wouldn’t be helping me on my way to ventriloquism fame, I crawled in the closet under the stairs. I sat with a box of hats, mittens, and scarves. I inhaled a mixture of musty wool and dust while tears rained down my cheeks. Charlie would never sit with me on the floral velour couch. I wouldn’t toss my voice into his throat. I wouldn’t watch our reflections in the mirrored wall as we practiced talking to each other. We might have sung along with Sinatra or Streisand, the three of us making harmony.

I was crushed. I was heartbroken. I was an overly-dramatic twelve-year-old. Oscar worthy, no doubt.

I’d like to say that I pined for Charlie and that Christmas Day was hollow without him and that I asked for him for my birthday in March. But I did none of that. I was over him before Christmas. I don’t remember what I got instead of Charlie, but it was the next best thing, and I’m sure I was happy with it. I ate my mom’s good cooking. I played board games with my sisters and cousins. And I read my new Nancy Drew mystery before I drifted off to sleep that night.

If Charlie hadn’t stood me up, truth is, I would’ve dumped him. Within a month or so, he would’ve been tucked away in my closet, along with my fantasies of winning an Oscar or a Grammy. I hope all the Charlies found better homes.

I never became a famous singer, dancer, or actor. I can’t carry a tune. I have no sense of rhythm. And in seventh grade, I learned I had terrible stage fright.

Funny, when I was twelve, I never imagined myself as a famous writer. I started writing after I retired, so I’m too old for silly fantasies now. But if I were twelve, I would win a Pulitzer Prize, I would make Oprah’s reading list every other year, and the New Yorker would call me and beg for one of my short stories.

[All the winners of the 2022 Jade Ring Contest can be read in the online Creative Wisconsin Magazine, along with other essays, poetry, and articles. If you wish to purchase a copy of the Wisconsin Writers Association Anthology 2022: Jade Ring and Youth Writing Contest, click here.]

Christmas in Michigan–Christmas Day, Past and Present

December 25, 2021

Christmas Day Past—

My sisters, my brother, and I enjoy a visit from St. Nick. (I’m holding the present.) The cat was not a present. He was a stray we adopted and named George, after our grandpa.

After the longest night of the year loosened its grip and gave way to Christmas morning, my siblings and I had to wait for my parents to get up before opening gifts. Sometimes we snuck downstairs to peek at the tree surrounded by wrapped boxes then snuck back upstairs. This made waiting more difficult, but we knew that to open even one present before they got up would rob them of the joy of seeing our rapturous faces as we opened our gifts. We also knew we’d be in BIG trouble. It was always a late night for them. “The bundle of toys” they brought home in sacks needed to be wrapped and ribboned and tagged times four.

We were fortunate that Christmas morning never disappointed—not even the year my mother told me before Christmas that she couldn’t find Charlie McCarthy, the ventriloquist’s dummy I’d asked Santa for. She and I had to suspend our willing suspension of disbelief regarding Santa for that conversation. Turns out lots of aspiring ventriloquists had asked Santa for a Charlie McCarthy doll. My mother told me she’d try to get me one after Christmas. But even before Christmas morning, my shiny dream of becoming a ventriloquist lost its luster. I told her to forget Charlie.

My mother was good at buying gifts on behalf of Santa. Every year a smorgasbord awaited under our tree. We each received an outfit and a pair of pajamas. I loved going back to school after the holidays dressed in new clothes. And climbing into bed on Christmas night in a new pair of soft pajamas that were still fuzzy because they hadn’t been washed dozens of times was divine. We each received a special toy or two that we’d asked Santa for. He also brought us board games, art projects, and books. Santa wanted us to stay busy during Christmas break.

We had to open our gifts slowly because my father didn’t want to miss a single Kodak moment. He liked to take photos. When he got a Polaroid camera, we had near instant photo results, but this slowed down the gift opening because we were thrilled by watching ourselves materialize before our eyes.

Each of us had a spot on the floor to pile our gifts as we opened them. After all the gifts were opened, I felt like a princess with a pile of riches. I also felt guilty. The gifts my parents received took up little room on the coffee table in front of them, such a small cache of swag. But worst of all they hadn’t received one toy or game or art project. I’d contemplate all they’d given me in the name of Santa, then look at the gift I’d given them—always something handmade at school. A Christmas tree constructed from a toilet paper roll and cotton balls. An imprint of my hand in plaster of paris. A silhouette of my profile. A Styrofoam ball decorated with ribbon and sequins to hang on the tree. I didn’t buy my parents gifts until I turned sixteen and had a job and a driver’s license. It wasn’t until I was a parent that I understood it was more fun to see my children opening gifts, and that I treasured the gifts they made for me more than anything that came from a store.

Christmas Day Present—

On this Christmas morning the youngest one among us is 23. No one snuck out of bed to look at wrapped presents under the tree. (Maybe because they were stacked on a desk.) I got up early because my dogs wanted to go outside. No one was in a hurry to see what Santa brought. We ate breakfast and visited. My sister and one of her sons went to Mass at ten o’clock. No one minded. Waiting wouldn’t short-circuit our wiring. We didn’t open gifts until eleven-thirty.

My mother is still good at buying gifts, but no one pretended they were from Santa. I loved the warm shirt she bought me. I’m of the age where any object meant to keep me warm in the frozen North makes my heart toasty. She gave me a humorous book that pokes fun of British mysteries. I love humor and British mysteries. (Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village by Maureen Johnson & Jay Cooper)

My nephew, distributing gifts off the desk. Bogey, before he gets his pink flamingo.

No one got toys—except Bogey, my mother’s seven-year-old poodle. My husband and I bought him a stuffed pink flamingo. He played with it and played with it, shaking it by the leg, tossing it in the air, and making it squeal. I think he looked at the gifts in front of us humans and felt sorry for us because not one of us had a stuffed toy with a squeaker. He’s too young to understand that not one of us wanted a squeaking flamingo. But we sure enjoyed watching him play with his new toy.

[Words in quotes are a nod to “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”]

Christmas in Michigan—A Tale of Two Eves

December 24, 2021, 10:30 p.m.

Christmas tree, 1966

The night before Christmas, when I was a child, I would gaze out a small rectangular window and scan the sky for Santa’s sleigh. I watched ’til I spotted a red flashing light tracking far above the snow-covered earth. I would declare it was Rudolph leading Santa’s sleigh. (But I knew it was an airplane “so lively and quick” headed to Billy Mitchell Airport ten miles away.) Pretending that Santa’s reindeer would soon be “prancing and pawing” on the roof, I’d snuggle under the covers and close my eyes. Sleep was elusive because visions of Christmas morning danced in my head.

In Michigan this Christmas Eve, before I drifted off to sleep, I read The Quiller Memorandum, a spy thriller from 1965. Quiller, a British agent, brings Nazis to justice and prevents Hitler-loving neo-Nazis from starting a war. None of the characters had twinkling eyes or merry dimples. Not a one “was chubby and plump” or “a right jolly old elf.” It didn’t matter—sleep wasn’t elusive. Because neither the Nazi-chasing agent nor visions of Christmas morning danced through my head.

Although, the idea of people idolizing a person with totalitarian aspirations, should give me something to dread.

[Words in quotes are a nod to “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”]

Christmas in Michigan—The Yipping

December 24, 2021, 9:00 p.m.

Cabela–not worried about roving bands of coyotes

All the light was behind me. A Christmas wreath strung with white lights and pinecones hung from the peak of the garage. Amber warmth from incandescent lights glowed through the living room windows.

In front of me darkness swallowed my poodles because their black and brown fur coats worked like camouflage against the snowless ground. I strained to keep an eye on each of them, and wished they were white poodles. Then I wondered if white poodles would disappear against snow-covered ground.

Loud yips came from over the distant hill. It sounded like dozens of puppies. But I knew it wasn’t. I thought about a kennel of huskies clamoring for food. But I knew there were no mushers in the neighborhood. I thought about the starving wolves in White Fang that stalk two mushers and their sled dogs, picking them off until only one man survives. But I knew that wolves need more territory than my mother’s neighborhood, even with its scattered woods and fields, could provide. Besides, wolves howl, bark, and growl. They don’t yip like a bunch of puppies.

The yips rose and fell in volume but didn’t stop. They didn’t come closer, but they didn’t retreat. I called my dogs and we went inside.

I told my mom about the yipping.

“Those are coyotes,” she said. “We have a lot of them this year.”

My mother lives on a golf course in a rural setting. I wondered if the coyotes used the cart path to move between the areas of woods and fields while hunting. Coyotes are exceedingly carnivorous. Besides wildlife they sometimes eat cats and dogs. My domesticated, spoiled, wimpy canines would be an easy meal for coyotes. But coyotes are wary of humans and avoid us. Which is good because I’m domesticated, spoiled, and wimpy.

Christmas in Michigan—And It Snows

December 23, 2021, 8:00 p.m.

Ziva rests after our snowy walk.

I wanted a white Christmas, and a couple of hours after dinner, I got my wish. It snowed. I walked my dogs, partly to work out the kinks from our nine-and-a-half-hour drive to Petoskey but mostly because it was snowing. My poodles sniffed the brown grass along the road while falling snow, lit by an occasional streetlight, dusted the wooly curls on their heads, backs, and tails.

I always want a white Christmas. Fresh snow opens a gate in my memory, and I wander into the backyard of my childhood. I remember snowmen, snow forts, snowball fights, snow angels, and sledding. I remember catching snowflakes on my tongue and staring at six-pointed and six-sided flakes that landed on my clothes. Amazed by the intricate designs of something so tiny, I admired each flake because I knew its design would never be repeated. A snowflake might have a doppelgänger, but never a clone. On Smithsonian’s STEMvisions Blog, Alex Stempien writes, “. . . scientists estimate that there are up to 10158 snowflake possibilities. (That’s 1070 times more designs than there are atoms in the universe!).” I wonder how much paper it would take to write out those numbers.

After the first snowfall of winter, my siblings and I scampered into the closet under the stairs and resurrected snow pants, hats, mittens, and scarves from cardboard boxes. If the temperatures dropped and the wind nipped, we wore knitted ski masks with three holes, one for the mouth and two for the eyes, the kind bank robbers wore in the movies. We played for hours in the snow until we were soaked from the outside by snow and from the inside by perspiration. If wicking winter clothing was available in the 1960s, we didn’t own any.

My grandchildren enjoy the snow.

I felt sorry for adults because they didn’t get to play in the snow. I promised myself I would never be that old, but it happened anyway. When my children played in the snow, I remembered that promise. When my grandchildren play in the snow, I think about that promise, but I’m not melancholy or envious. Watching children in the snow rekindles happy memories of my childhood. These days my idea of fun in the snow involves shoveling, walking, and snowshoeing.

After my dogs and I finished our walk, I brushed snow off their heads, backs, and tails. I stomped my boots on the brick walkway and brushed snow off my hat and coat. Happy and invigorated, we entered the back hallway. I called to my mother and thanked her for arranging the snowfall. She answered, “You’re welcome.”

December 24, 2021, Christmas Eve Day

By morning three to four inches of snow blanketed the ground. In my head Bing Crosby sang “White Christmas” and stage doors slid open, revealing snow, snow, snow, snow. Crosby and Rosemary Clooney then Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen embraced and kissed.

Cabela on Christmas Eve Day before the snow melted.

My husband and I went into town to shop. The temperatures rose above forty degrees. By noon, about half the snow had melted. By late afternoon when I walked the dogs, most of the snow was gone. The brown landscape had reemerged. There would be no Hollywood magic—no white Christmas. The next snowfall would arrive two days after Christmas morning. But in my heart, I carried the snowfall from the day before Christmas Eve.

Christmas in Michigan—The Trip Over

Bogey

December 23, 2021

My husband, our two dogs, and I missed Christmas in Michigan last year because of the pandemic. This year with our vaccines and boosters completed, we decided to make the nine-and-a-half-hour drive to spend Christmas in Petoskey with my mother and her dog, Bogey. As a bonus, my sister and two nephews came too. We were a gathering of six, well, nine with the dogs. And we count the dogs.

We have two dogs: Cabela, 13½, and Ziva, 11. A few years ago, my husband and I agreed not to board Cabela anymore because of her age and stiffening hindquarters. And if we weren’t boarding Cabela, we couldn’t board Ziva. She doesn’t like being without a family member unless she’s at home. And she’s never liked kennels. She a bit claustrophobic—a condition I understand. We had been fortunate to have a place to board Cabela and Ziva where there was a spacious double-run kennel they could share because the door between their two sides could be left open. Ziva tolerated this because she could be with Cabela. Once, after feeding the dogs, one of the staff forgot to reopen the door between the two kennels. Ziva remedied the problem by chewing the latch and opening the door herself. So, the dogs go to Michigan with us—Cabela because of her age and Ziva because she would be traumatized if we left her at the kennel without Cabela.

Nine and a half hours in a car with two dogs isn’t without its trials; although, it’s easier than when I made the trip with my two young sons. My dogs don’t argue with each other in the backseat or sass my husband or me. Well, maybe Ziva does because we’re not sure what she says when she’s talking. My dogs can’t ask, “How much longer?” or “How come we can’t fly?” even if they look like they’re thinking it.

Ziva gets car sick sometimes; my children didn’t. I prepped the van by layering the floor with towels and car blankets and stashing paper towel in the back. On the trip over, Ziva threw up three times, but only small amounts. Neither dog eats breakfast before we leave for Michigan. Cabela won’t eat that early in the morning, and Ziva, concerned we’ll leave without her, isn’t about to put her face in a dish of food. She keeps her eyes wide open and follows us while we pack and load the van.

Ziva needs at least four or five potty stops. Something about riding in a vehicle makes her want to piddle—me too, but if I’m honest almost anything makes me want to go. When Ziva has to go, she puts her front paws on the center counsel of van and noses my arm or my husband’s arm. We stop at gas stations with green space where we can walk the dogs. Cabela won’t always piddle because even at 13½, she has bladder stamina that most people of a certain age, like me, envy. I remember when I was young and could ride eight hours from Milwaukee to Gordon, Wisconsin, without going to the bathroom. One of my sons liked to stop a lot to go potty, but it wasn’t due to a weak bladder. He just wanted an excuse to get out of the car because he hated long rides. Once, on a trip to northern Illinois, I pulled into every rest stop along I-94, so he could “go to the bathroom.” It added at least a half hour to the trip, but after every stop his mood improved. He was the one who was miffed because we didn’t fly.

Ziva

After we arrived at my mother’s house, we put the dogs inside so we could unpack the van. Ziva cried and cried until my husband and I finished unloading the van and took our coats and boots off. Then she curled up on my mother’s couch and went to sleep, finally convinced we wouldn’t leave her. Cabela was already snuggled up in an upholstered chair. She wasn’t worried we would leave her. Bogey slept by the kitchen table. My sister and nephews would arrive the next day on Christmas Eve.

Cabala

My mother, my husband, and I sat around the kitchen table and ate lamb curry takeout, a scrumptious beginning to our Christmas visit. Still, I gazed out the kitchen windows at the brown fields and leafless trees and hoped for snow.

Day 12—Christmas Surprise Earrings, Circa 1999.

Diamonds are difficult to photograph.

I opened my last gift, a small box that had been tucked under the tree in the back. Inside a pair of “mama-bear” diamond stud earrings winked at me.

I had long wanted a pair of diamond earrings, but the reality is two diamonds cost more than one, like double the price. I didn’t want to settle for tiny diamonds because I wanted them to catch and throw light. But I didn’t want diamonds so big they looked fake. I had wanted mama-bear-sized diamonds, which were still in a fairy tale beyond my budget.

I gushed, and told my husband they were perfect. But I worried they cost more than our Christmas budget allowed. He’d won the money on a football pool. He’d guessed, correctly, the outcomes of more football matchups during the season than anyone else. And he used the money he won to buy me diamond earrings.

“I’m sorry they’re kind of small,” he said.

“Are you kidding?” I laughed. “I was just thinking they’re so big.”

I put on my new earrings. My husband gave up his winnings to buy me a special gift. I think of my diamond studs as my O. Henry earrings.

Day 11—Winter Earrings

I wasn’t looking to buy earrings. (Ho, ho, ho.) I was just looking at the rack, passing time while my mother shopped for clothes in a boutique in Harbor Springs, Michigan.

But when I saw these silver-colored drop earrings with hints of black peeking through the cutwork, and set with white crystals, I changed my mind. At just under $30, my wallet agreed.

But my mother and I arrived at the checkout counter at the same time, and she bought them for me.

I call these my winter earrings because they make me think of snowflakes, silver bells, and icicles.

They pair nicely with a black-and-white winter sweater my mother bought me for Christmas in 2018, three months after she bought me the earrings.

This year I hope to wear the earrings and the winter sweater while sharing Christmas dinner with my mother.

Overlooking Lake Michigan, Christmas Eve morning, 2018

Things That Go Boom in the Night Frighten Cabela

Last year COVID canceled the city-sponsored fireworks. Many people in our neighborhood bought fireworks and staged their own shows on the Fourth of July. In the twenty-four years I’ve lived here, the amateur firework shows have never been louder or lasted longer.

Boom, snap, crackle, and bang reverberated from after sunset until sometime after midnight. My twelve-year-old poodle, Cabela, distraught at the noise that wouldn’t end, trembled. I took her to the basement, her comfort spot when a thunderstorm or a few pre- or post-Fourth-of-July fireworks explode.

But she didn’t crawl into her kennel and curl up like she normally does. She slunk into the back of the basement next to my husband’s workbench, sat on his cushioned floor mat, and stared at the wall, waiting for the noise to stop. She had the demeanor of a shell-shocked soldier.

I stayed in the basement with her. I sat on the stool in front of the workbench. Eventually, she lay down, keeping her nose to the wall. I wondered, Does she think if she stays in the corner long enough the punishment will end?

It’s the middle of June, and the firework warmups have begun, a few pops here and there, mostly off in the distance. Cabela is a bit hard of hearing, so she doesn’t hear all of these early fireworks, and mercifully their duration is short. But the Fourth of July is coming. The booms will become closer, louder, and last longer. I wonder if this year’s Fourth will be a repeat of last year’s Fourth because even with her diminished hearing, she will hear them. My sweet, tender, stoic dog will be frightened and confused.

Neither one of us likes the Fourth of July anymore.

Christmas Lights in the Time of COVID-19

In 2015, I named this evergreen The Twinkling Tree because some of the lights gently winked while the rest burned steady. When I took my dogs for a walk, I’d say, “Let’s go see The Twinkling Tree.”

Almost every night I take my dogs for a second walk, sometime between the end of Wheel of Fortune and nine o’clock. During our winter walks, the cold air is warmed by Christmas lights strung on houses, trees, and bushes. I never tire of seeing the lights sparkle on a cold winter’s evening. From a house with a single lit wreath to a house with strings of lights illuminating every possible structure, tree, and shrub, I love them all.

This year, because of the pandemic, I expected to see fewer Christmas lights. I based this on my experience around Halloween, having noticed fewer Halloween lights and decorations, in keeping with fewer trick-or-treaters.

Christmas lights remind me of my childhood Christmases in the 1960s and 70s. Our house was a busy place. Both my parents worked and had four children born within eight years. But at Christmas my mother created magic in our living room and dining room, which flowed together as one long rectangle.

She strung multicolored C7 lights and hung old fashioned ornaments on a Christmas tree she chose for its perfect shape, fullness, and generous size. She stopped using tinsel sometime before I was old enough to remember, but I have a picture of my sister and I sitting in front of a Christmas tree festooned in the silver stuff. My mother said with a dog and two toddlers, tinsel was everywhere.

She framed the big picture window in the living room with a string of pastel lights sheathed in plastic opaque icicles. In the corner of the dining room, we had a built-in, floor-to-ceiling hutch. She created a winter wonderland on the part of the hutch meant for serving trays, first laying out fresh boughs of pine, then weaving twinkle lights through the boughs, and finally spraying the arrangement with canned snow.

The lights made the rooms glow because before she decorated, she cleaned and polished every surface. Humble and old, those rooms in our 1907 farmhouse shone with warmth and welcome.

And when the schools closed for Christmas vacation, my siblings and I spent many hours in those rooms. We played a version of twenty questions in front of the Christmas tree. Taking turns, one of us would silently pick an ornament, and the rest of us would start asking questions, trying to guess the ornament. We lifted wrapped presents from under the tree, shaking them, attempting to guess what our faraway relatives had sent us.

At twilight we sat on the couch in the sparkle of the pastel icicles, staring out the picture window into a farmer’s field and the woods beyond, talking about we wanted Santa to bring. When my mom bought a used upright piano and put it along a bare wall in the dining room, I played Christmas carols and my siblings and I sung, our small voices combing as one rejoicing sound.

On Christmas night my siblings and I sat around the dining room table, playing with board games and art supplies we received every year. Christmas lights shimmered and music played on the stereo. The relatives, who’d joined us for dinner, had all gone home, and the dishes had been washed and put away.

I remember those Christmas-light days as peaceful and other worldly, a respite from our hectic childhood days. Twinkling lights on a tree or a house or a city light post carry me back to the magic my mother created.

Although I expected to see fewer Christmas lights this year, I was amazed by the number of people who decorated their homes for the holidays. Walking my dogs up and down the streets has turned into a warm hug from Christmas Past, a wonderful gift in this year of uncertainty and anxiety.