By on January 2, 2015

The holiday season can be a mixture of confused emotions and ideals as expectations clash with our experiences.

One holiday memory that arises for me starts with a frigid wind that drove icy splinters into my young knees and exposed legs. I tried to wedge my body between my grandmother’s wool coat and the storefront window to protect my skin. Her hand occasionally sought mine, but mostly I grabbed the back of her coat and hung on as the line of people twisted around the downtown building. I inhaled the scent of wet wool coats and the city’s aroma of exhaust and pavement. My ears registered the sound of children impatiently asking, “when,” muffled by the wool hat over my ears. Behind the glass I could see animated figures swaying in the enactment of a holiday scene. I watched in amazement as elves rotated in perpetual movement, arms rising and falling in the preparation of gifts for unknown children. I could see families decorating trees together by their hearth, accompanied by a playful animated dog.

I wasn’t sure what we were waiting for. My grandmother was silently focused in her pursuit of entering the large department store. I knew to be silent in the face of her determination. I knew not to complain or inquire. It was an unusual excursion that now I suspect was offered to relieve my mother from my two-year old enthusiasms at a time she was eight months pregnant with my younger brother. All of this was mysterious to me.

People moved dutifully forward, heads bowed into the wind, coats and scarves tightly wound, fingers curled into frozen mittens and gloves. Boots protected from puddles of mushy snow but my patent leather shoes leaked the slush around the sides and edges. My toes ached with the cold. The front revolving door offered a first blast of warm refuge, and I held on tight to the back of my grandmother’s coat to not be lost in the crush of bodies.

The scent of perfume and cologne, fabric in all colors, boxed wrapped and ready greeted us. My eyes were enchanted by the spectacle of objects, apparel, jewelry, men, women, children, bustling to glass counters brimming and sparkling with holiday gifts.

A soft velvet rope marked the route. My fingers gently traced along the length as my grandmother held my other hand and encouraged my approach. The line of wool coats slowly evaporated in front of me to reveal an elaborately carved chair, empty and waiting. I felt hands nudging me forward as I waited in anticipation. A large, rotund man approached from the long corridor to my right, dressed in red velvet and his face covered in white beard with a red stocking cap. He wore heavy boots that seemed to be way too hot to wear in such a warm room. Lights were bright and blazing. Up to that moment I had never met a man with a full beard, and was not sure whether it was safe to approach. As he settled himself in the prepared chair, I was directed to climb into his lap.

I searched my grandmother’s face for re-assurance that this was acceptable. I was already “too big” to sit in my parent’s laps and to make such a public spectacle of this event seemed contrary to any of my childhood training to date. My grandmother’s face showed impatience and a desire to move on. She had endured the crush of crowds for as long as she could tolerate and soon she would be released from her duty as grandmother and return to her usual solitary routine. Her hand gently pushed me forward in anticipation of ending this ordeal.

I approached compliantly and hands helped me ascend. My senses instantly were assaulted. This unknown man was way over dressed for the hot room, and the scent of sweat permeated his velvet pants and jacket. His hands and jacket were moist with perspiration and transmitted the acrid familiarity of cigarette smoke that permeated every crevice and fold of his attire. As he addressed me, his breath revealed his recent momentary break and consumption of alcohol, which I recognized instantly. My stomach tightened as he made inquiry to whether I had been a good little girl the past year. Adults approached with flash cameras poised in anticipation of my wide-eyed delight to request my long awaited doll as my gift of choice for this holiday season.

I smiled on command and the flash of camera lights captured the moment. Soft curls of hair emerging from my little cap, tied with a bow under my chin. The picture revealed me in my wool coat now open with a hint of velvet holiday dress, satin ribbons and white petticoat. My ankles crossed without any trace of cold, wet toes curled in lace-trimmed bobby socks and sparkling patent leather shoes. White gloves were held clasped in my lap while the man’s gloved hands held my arm immobile. Flash.

The moment passed. I returned to home to waiting parents. The photograph passed from hand to hand, from year to year. Unknown to me at the time, it was the beginning of sensory delights and multitude disappointments associated with the holiday season, which can be a very complicated time of delight, joy, disappointment, grief and loss.

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Katherine Calvert Counseling is a private practice led by Katherine Calvert, LCSW. Katherine Calvert has built her practice from decades of education and applied experience working as a direct service provider in schools, hospitals, and counseling clinics. She holds a Masters in Social Work, is trained in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Imago Therapy, and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy. Her practice is a warm, safe and inviting space in the Portland, Oregon area.