Christmas 1987

by Sarah Brown


Christmas 1987 was our first Christmas in the new house. The new house is still the new house, even though my parents have lived in it now for 24 years, and we only lived in the old house for five. It is right around the corner from our old elementary school. The neighborhood used to be full of children, but now it’s pretty quiet. Everyone still puts up Christmas lights, though.

Christmas 1987 was the year of Tulsa’s big ice storm, the biggest until 2007. It didn’t happen until late Christmas night, because I remember thinking, “It’s just ice and not snow, and it didn’t happen Christmas Eve, so it’s not really a white Christmas.” At ten years old, a white Christmas was something I wanted very badly and had only experienced once, in Chicago.

Christmas 1987 was the last Christmas I asked for actual toys, not novels or new clothes or a Nintendo. At ten years old, I was too old to ask for a doll, and I knew it, but I really wanted that doll. I picked her out of the Sears catalog sometime after Thanksgiving. She was one of a set of five, and I’d spent hours agonizing over which doll really represented who I was as a person. Did I like to paint or did I like to shop? I chose the one with the beret and leather jacket. Her name was Elke, and she had hair the color of honey. I know this because I was transfixed by this doll, and carried it around all day asking my parents questions about it no one could answer, like “What do you think Elke’s favorite food is?” I very clearly remember saying, “Dad, what color would you call Elke’s hair?” and my father looking up from his book and saying, “Honey-colored.” I cannot remember how to multiply fractions, but I remember this perfectly. When friends from school came over, I hid Elke and pretended I liked Madonna a lot more than I did.

Christmas 1987 was not our last Christmas with my grandmother. She lived through one more, but she was so ill that I don’t remember her being there. We had both grandmothers spend Christmas Eve at our house, and then the ice storm struck, and we couldn’t leave the house for days. My father made a valiant trip out to Target one night and was gone for hours. He came back with a sweatsuit for each grandma, since they only had the dresses they’d been wearing Christmas Eve and their nightgowns. I thought it remarkable that he picked exactly the right color that suited each of them, even though he went all by himself—plum for Grandmother, pale blue for Grandma. It blew my mind that such things could occur to my dad. At ten years old, these were the sort of things I thought about all day.

My parents splurged and rented a video camera that Christmas. Every year, we watch the grainy VHS tape of Christmas 1987. Every year, my mother cries because there are her children, there is her mother, there is the past. There’s plenty of footage of my three and a half year old brother being adorable, and awkward-toothed me being too old to howl when the three year old elbows me. My cute little brother opens a Superman belt. My cute little brother gets a guitar and immediately loses the pick. My cute little brother calls O Little Town of Bethlehem “the song about the ham.” Gangly, too-tall ten year old me opens a Parker Brothers ouija board and tries to convince my aghast grandmother that I just want to use it “at slumber parties, to find out who I’m going to marry,” as if this should be a great comfort to her. The real reason I wanted it was so that my best friend and I could try and contact the spirit of Amelia Earheart. Later, we also tried to contact the little girl from the Poltergeist movies who’d died of leukemia. Even at ten, I knew better than to let this un-Norman Rockwell detail slip, although eventually a girl at school found out and told people we were Satanists.

On the first night of the ice storm, it was terribly cold and my parents were worried about the heavy tree limbs falling on the roof, so we all slept downstairs in the den, my parents, my brother, my grandmothers and me. There was a fire in the fireplace, and the Christmas tree lights stayed on, and it all felt so Little House to me that I was almost too excited to sleep. I wish there was VHS footage of that, the world outside encased in ice, all of my family asleep in the same room. I could fall asleep to that every night like it was white noise and a blanket.

Sarah Brown grew up in Tulsa and now lives in London. She is the author of Cringe: Teenage Diaries, Journals, Notes, Letters, Poems, and Abandoned Rock Operas.