Sun winked off ice piled high as our T-shirt necks. Grins split our faces. Our knobby knees pumped full-tilt for the mound of “snow” the Canfields had scored at a Miami ice house, loaded into the back of a pickup, and dumped in the marina parking lot.
The five of us Fetterman and Canfield kids tossed handfuls in the air, shaped ice-balls and dropped them to splatter when our hands got too cold. Our toes scrunched and whitened in our flip flops.
The grown-ups grinned and folded their arms on the edges of imported winter—grousing about the “snow’s” consistency and swapping sledding tales.
Matt Canfield shot me a devilish smirk and fired an ice rock at my thigh.
“Yow! You are so dead!”
Kate flung a missile at her brother as I scooped a handful of ice. Our ammo fell apart in midair.
R.J. palmed ice into his mouth.
“What’s it taste like?” Scottie tossed back a fistful and chewed.
“Snow cone without the syrup,” R. J. mumbled around his mouthful.
“Let’s make a snowman.” Kate bossed, “Boys, you build the bottom ball. Annie and I will make the belly.” As more marina brats showed up, Kate commandeered the minions to fetch carrot, floppy hat, and clam shells for the face.
December 24th sun puddled a halo around us as we grunted and patted and thawed our hands in our armpits.
Hours later, the ice melted to a granite reef, we laughed and shoulder-shoved each other toward Pier 1.
“Let’s build a sand snowman on the island Christmas afternoon,” Kate blurted.
For the second time today, we all agreed with her.
R.J. scampered into the cockpit, past our three-foot dejected excuse for a Christmas tree, and disappeared into the main cabin.
Like Santa’s trip to the marina in a Model T last night, the tree—tethered to the tiller—didn’t drum up the Christmas delight I’d felt as a kid.
Sunset toasted the Annie Lee. Fish and curry and the sounds of my family talking and pin-balling around the cabin filtered through the hatch.
I’d been 12 for two weeks and I felt… old.
Trying to hang onto happy, my brain hop-scotched through Christmases to age five—when I’d bagged Chatty Cathy.
I smiled, picturing Mom, Dad, and I packing the doll and our lives into a Volkswagen van for a year. I’d slept on the front bench seat, the bowl from my old potty chair tucked beneath. Mom and Dad got the fold-out dinette in back.
In Boulder, Colorado, I wandered a dusty prospecting shop while Dad piled up picks and gold pans, and parts for a sluice box. I didn’t wonder where Dad came up with his dreams. I just knew—like digging clams under bridges and hunting antique bottles in the Everglades—they didn’t match mine or Mom’s.
The proprietor passed me a sweating Bubble-Up beneath Dad’s blanket of disapproval. “On the house, little lady,” the man said.
I pressed the cool green bottle to my lips for my first taste of soda. Clear liquid eddied in my mouth. Sweetness exploded on my tongue.
Several weeks later, camping off a dirt road beside a stream, Mom stowed the Coleman stove from last night’s roadkill armadillo—that only Dad consumed.
I poured milk from the cooler over Shredded Wheat and watched Dad dismantle the sluice box. Hope sparked in my belly that we’d break camp. I’d grown bored with sifting river sludge for gold flecks and the long string of people-less days.
“We’ll head for Mexico,” Dad announced.
Mom and I exchanged a glance of glee. I didn’t know where Mexico was, but it had to be more interesting than nowhere, Colorado.
Dad didn’t comment on the pittance of gold dust and nuggets in the bottom of a pill bottle—our prospecting profit. I suspected his dreams were more about adventure than net results.
On a dusty Mexican road that looked like every other Mexican road, I sat in the back of the van reading One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish for the hundredth time.
Mom slathered Miracle Whip on whole wheat, piled on liverwurst and lettuce, and passed it to Dad.
He reached over his shoulder and glanced back for the sandwich.
We swerved. A thump shuddered through the van. Dr. Seuss flashed yellow across the dinette. A white glob of mayonnaise slid down the upholstery as we came to a halt.
We walked from our motel and peered through the repair shop’s chain link at our home. I never saw anybody work on it, but after a week, whatever the boulder Dad hit had busted on the belly of the van was no longer broken.
At a stall on the street we bought refried beans on fresh-made tortillas—almost as good as Bubble-Up.
I pulled Chatty Cathy’s string and loosed her repertoire of I-love-yous and lets-play-schools.
Chattering, brown-skinned children clustered around me, smiling and stroking Chatty Cathy’s brown hair—like they did everywhere we went in Mexico. I grinned and held out the doll to a girl my size for a turn pulling the string.
While Chatty Cathy won me friends, Dad harvested oysters from polluted water. He and Mom took hepatitis home for a souvenir.
We landed on Dad’s sister’s stoop in LA where Mom and Dad went to bed for three months and I did a second spate of kindergarten. I walked to school under I-5 through a graffiti-marred tunnel or over the freeway on a bridge with cars whizzing past my elbow. Twice a day I chose the option I deemed less-terrifying—abduction or death by traffic. Easels, big sheets of bare paper, and bright gooey paints rewarded my bravery.
Melmac clattered on the table below deck, then silverware and I knew R.J. had pulled table-setting duty.
Rose and purple crayoned the boats now. As the seconds evaporated till Mom would holler, “Dinner!” and the colors melted into gray and black and darkest blue, I realized Dad wasn’t just a dreamer. He was a doer.
He’d competed in the Olympic trials in backstroke. He’d spirited us off to the Virgin Islands to camp on the beach. He’d socked away paychecks till we could hippie across the west. While I landed in first grade in Miami, R.J. made his appearance, and I checked off second, third, and fourth grades, Dad dreamed a boat into reality in the backyard.
If Dad got what he wanted for Christmas, I’d spend my teens sailing around the world.
I wanted to stay on Pier 1 with the Canfields who felt like family. I’d bypass a long string of people-less years boxed in our boat with Dad and a buffet of bad feelings. But I didn’t get a vote.
Mom wanted a baby blue leather coat with a fox fur collar.
On Christmas morning, Mom unwrapped… a can of paint. She didn’t bother to paste a smile on her pique—the smile she donned every day after her RN uniform, the one she prayed would produce happy childhoods for me and R.J.
On Christmas night our sand snowman, a sentinel keeping watch over Pier 1 from the beach, must have glanced away.
R.J., five since September, hadn’t mastered staying afloat. He and his Christmas cowboy boots slipped off the dew-wet bow into winter-cold water, dark as the nine p.m. sky.
Mom—still a novice after Dad taught her to swim in her 20’s—jumped in after him.
Mom—the wage-earner of the family—would later buy herself the $110 coveted coat and a double dose of Dad’s disapproval.
But on Christmas night, 1969, both R.J. and my parents’ marriage slept safe.