Tiny Bubbles

Submitted into Contest #121 in response to: Write about someone giving or receiving a gift.... view prompt

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Sad Contemporary Christmas



I was about eight years of age when my mom broke my heart… the first time. My older sister, Margaret, gave me a few dollars to buy Christmas presents for my family. This would be the first year that I would choose my own gifts and take part in the secret magic of Christmas that is the ‘giving’ part.

 A fortunate child, I never went without. I wasn’t spoiled, but I usually got whatever I wanted as far as toys, clothes, etc. I don’t know if my parents spent the time instilling a sense of gratitude in me, but I remember vividly having one. Still do.

I was a kind little girl, well-behaved and polite. After all, it was the age of ‘don’t speak unless you’re spoken to’ and ‘be seen, not heard.’ I was so kind, in fact, that if I was making a wish on my birthday candles or blowing the fluff of a dandelion, I would pray for world peace and no more wars, in those exact words. Mom and Dad religiously watched the nightly news, and the disturbing reports on the war in Vietnam clearly affected me.

My parents were both hard workers. They were Scottish immigrants and started in Canada with almost nothing. They already had my sister when they moved here; Margaret was just a toddler. My father got a job as a millwright in a garment factory, and my mom, a gifted seamstress, worked at a tent manufacturer. By the time I came along, they were both in their late thirties and were middle class comfortable. We had a nice house in a safe neighborhood and I went to a decent public school.

 I wasn’t helicoptered, as some children are now. Like most kids in the seventies, I was free to play outside, being hollered at to come in when dinner was on the table. I remember my father rarely spoke to me, unless it was for discipline or to hold the flashlight while he fixed our ancient washer or dryer in the basement. He wasn’t mean, that’s just the way things were then, for me anyway. Dad was an amazing mechanic. He could fix anything, to the dismay of my mother, who never experienced the joy of owning a brand-new appliance.

I don’t want to say that I was ignored as a child, but I was just there, finding my own way, keeping to myself, behaving and being quiet. My sister was twelve years older than me, so she was off becoming an adult by the time I knew what was what. It’s because of this gap in age that I considered myself an only child.

To me, my sister was a God. When I saw her, which was rare, my eyes never left her. She was ‘older’ and so very wise, so totally cool. Her words were scripture, and I hung on every one of them. I thought she was the funniest, smartest, prettiest human on earth. It was only after I reached my forties that my eyes were opened to the disheartening truth that she was none of those things. That she was merely a human being. I’ve never gotten over the crumbling of that pedestal- the realization that my sister would become just like my mother.

So, here it was, Christmastime, 1974. My parents threw a few big parties every year and my Scottish relatives would all come over and drink, dance and sing in the basement. Mom took great pride in her appearance. She wasn’t a rare beauty or anything. She had terrible teeth until she could afford dentures. But she had a nice figure and a tiny waist, which was always accentuated by her tight belts and even tighter dresses. She worked hard to remain thin and also expected it from me.

I was never overweight, but I had a little meat on my bones. I had a little tummy, which I now realize was normal for a growing girl. I remember the day my mom told me that I needed to suck in my stomach. That was the beginning of my lifelong battle with a negative body image. She also took me to her weekly weight-loss meetings held by a very well known and age-old organization. I was only fourteen at the time and why that company allowed me to partake in those weekly meetings and humiliating weigh ins is beyond me. I wasn’t overweight at all. It’s a travesty and it made me think something about me was wrong and needed fixed.

Witnessing her revulsion at the sight of an obese person also reinforced to me that fat was bad.

Dad was the life of the party. He would have everyone roaring with laughter and he even laughed at his own jokes. He died of a stroke at eighty-five years of age and I will never forget his big laugh- mouth wide open, head thrown back, loud thunderous bellow, and wiggling eyebrows. Even if his joke wasn’t particularly funny, his laugh would have everyone in stitches anyway.

At these parties, the music would be non-stop. ABBA, Perry Como, and Dean Martin blasted on the old Marantz stereo. At one of these parties, the song Tiny Bubbles, by the artist Don Ho, came on. I remember my mom, center-stage, swooning to the tune, singing along with her gin and orange juice sloshing in her glass. She was smiling and everyone else was smiling and singing along with her. It looked to me like this song was her absolute favorite. I made a mental note of it.

Christmas rolled around and, like I said, my sister Margaret gave me some money and took me to the local mall to do my first Christmas shopping. I know I must’ve bought a gift for my dad and something for my sister, but the only present that stands out in my memory is the one I bought for my mom. And I was so very proud of it.

I went into the record store- yes, they used to have stores that sold rows upon rows of records. They not only sold records but, in those days, also eight-track tapes. These were like cassette tapes but bulkier. You didn’t have to flip them like records or cassettes to play the other side. The eight-tracks and records were sorted by genre and then alphabetically, by artist. I could barely see the file tabs with the names above the rows, but I eventually found the section with the Don Ho collection.

I was so excited about this present for my mom. I wrapped it up in the prettiest gold paper and chose a shiny red bow for the middle and placed it front and center under our Christmas tree. The anticipation was excruciating. Christmas was still a week away and I could barely stand it. Every day I would remind my mom that the shiny gold present with the bright red bow was for her and that I had picked it myself. I was positively bursting with excitement about the whole thing.

Finally, it was Christmas morning. I think I was more excited about my mom’s gift than I was about opening my own.

 My sister was married by this time and had a baby, so her husband was there along with the newborn. There were also two of my cousins and my favorite aunt and uncle from my mother’s side.

Aunt Betty was my mother’s sister. She was a gorgeous woman- platinum blond hair and big blue eyes. She was thin and always dressed to the nines. One summer when our families went camping, I saw that one of her legs, her right calf, was badly mangled and the foot on that leg was also painfully disfigured. She never let those scars stop her from wearing her short shorts and pretty sun dresses, though. Her personality matched her looks, too. She was kind and funny, always had a smile on her face. When she passed away from cancer in her sixties, I was heartbroken. She was one of a kind.

Everyone was opening presents in a frenzy. There were lots of ahs, and oohs and thank you’s going around. I went to the tree and picked up the special, shining gift for my mom and walked it over to her. I even had the audacity to speak up and ask everyone to watch her open it… my super special Christmas gift.

The room was quiet, all eyes on her. She was smiling, not at me really, but smiling just the same. I stood beside her, not wanting to miss her look of surprise and her joy at my thoughtfulness and care to buy her the perfect present. I couldn’t wait to see her happiness, but that’s not what happened. Not at all.

“What the hell is this?” she asked, holding the eight-track tape in her hand for everyone to see. My heart dropped, my smile faded.

She looked at me with a serious glare and said, “Is this a joke?” Then she made a pffft sound. That sound, coming out of her crooked teeth, surrounded by the bright red lipstick, made me feel so stupid and insignificant, like I had no right living, no right even breathing. Then, horrible silence.

I didn’t know what to do.

My cousin, Jake, two years older than me, laughed at me, pointed at my face. “Loser,” he said.

My face got all hot and my mom put the gift on the table. Everyone simply went back to the festivities. I disappeared into my room and put my face in my pillow and cried. I was so deeply hurt, and I felt so stupid. But I thought she liked that song so much. How did this happen? To make things worse, it felt like no one cared that I was missing. I could hear them all laughing and enjoying themselves without me. Maybe I was just stupid, a waste of space. Maybe they didn’t care about me at all. I just wanted to die, disappear, and never bother them again.

Then my bedroom door opened. I opened my burning, swollen, red eyes and saw my sister standing in the doorway.

“Hey,” she said softly. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing,” I replied. She was an adult now, and adults rarely spoke to me, so I didn’t think she’d care about my dumb heartbreak.

But she did.

“Don’t feel bad about Mom,” she said, and sat on the side of my bed. “I thought it was a great gift, Kara.”

“You did?” I said, surprised.

“Sure. Mom’s just that way sometimes. You don’t know it yet, but you’re getting older now. And one day, I’ll tell you all about it.”

I had no idea what she was talking about then, but she was right. I eventually learned that the woman who gave birth to me, the unselfish, understanding woman that seemed to always be there for me, had another side to her. A cunning, cruel, and jealous side. But I had years ahead of me before I’d see it for myself. My sister would bring it up occasionally, over the coming years, but I would always defend her. Margaret even told me that Aunt Betty’s leg happened because when my mom and she were little, mom pushed her into traffic because she was jealous of her beauty.

It would be almost another thirty years before mom did something right in front of me that opened my eyes forever. That was the moment all the painful little memories, the little things she had done, scattered throughout my childhood, came rushing back, and I would never be the same. I caught her rolling her eyes behind my back and smirking to my nephew’s wife in a ‘see what I mean gesture,’ as I helped her cut through a tart at a family gathering. I know it doesn’t seem like much of a betrayal, but up to that point I had always defended her, believing that she always had my back. Now I had doubt.

 After that minor event, I witnessed her true nature regularly and after my dad passed, it was no holds barred. She showed her evil side freely, usually at the expense of me or my family. I think Dad must have been her filter, and kept her cruel behavior in check, as much as he could. There are too many incidents to list here but suffice it to say that I could fill a novel. Maybe one day I will.

It would be many more years until, through the aid of spiritual quests and deep inner work, I forgave her. I realized that she was doing the best she knew how to at the time, and that she wasn’t perfect. None of us are. People who hurt were often hurt themselves.

‘Each day we pick our way through unknown territory.’ I don’t know who said that, but it’s a quote I repeat to my own now adult children- my two beautiful daughters, who I’ve made sure would never be hurt by me the way I was by her.

My mom is now in her nineties and she has Alzheimer's Disease. Physically she is amazing. She doesn’t use a cane and takes no medication. None.

 I once asked her what her secret is. “You must have made a deal with the devil,” I said.

“Yes,” she answered. “And he was a nice devil, too.”

Even though she hurt me so much in my life, I invited her to live with me when she started failing. Unfortunately, any remaining filters she had that covered her true evil nature were stripped away completely by the disease. She became violent and impossibly cruel. For ten years, my days were consumed with the worst of the human mind. She lives in a care home now and I empathize with the other residents and the care workers that are now living my nightmare.

When I visit her there she often says, “I’m too mean to die.” Which makes me think she is still in there, and knows she’s being mean. This behavior is not the disease then, is it? Maybe she doesn’t have Alzheimer’s at all.

     I wonder sometimes how I became such a kind, empathetic person when the woman who raised me was so inherently evil? What happened to her to shape her that way, and why did my dad, such a fun, humorous man, marry her? The elders in my family have all passed on, taking the answers with them. There’s one no left to ask. I guess I may never know.



November 26, 2021 16:11

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3 comments

Michael Regan
16:53 Dec 02, 2021

I liked the story. I had a little trouble with the ending. I would have stopped at with paragraph that starts with "‘Each day we pick our way through unknown territory.’ " I didn't think the bit on Alzheimer added anything to the story.

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Boutat Driss
11:02 Nov 30, 2021

nice tale. well done!

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KS Logan
01:31 Dec 01, 2021

Thank you so much

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