Never did I imagine being in the presence of a psychologist or a genius, much less inviting a psychologist who was also a genius and a child expert to spend Christmas with my family. Or, heaven forbid, thinking I could broaden his professional knowledge.
In Alabama where I grew up, people didn’t trot off to psychologists with their problems. Anybody that bad off had to leave town, first to find a psychologist and second to wait out the whispers. Besides, the psychologist was likely to be as peculiar as his client.
That shows how fond I had grown of my husband’s Uncle Jack since that unsettling weekend we first met at Frank’s family’s lake house.
Frank and I were eighteen and fresh out of high school. Uncle Jack, bald and paunchy at forty-five, had just graduated with top honors from Vanderbilt’s Ph.D. program in psychology. He was Mensa-brilliant, confident and cocky. And, of course, strange in some way, being a psychologist. I was downright wary of him. We played bridge and I knew he could see through my cards into my head and every deep secret I’d ever thought. Frank was equally intimidated. He changed clothes twice one morning, afraid Jack could psychoanalyze him by his color choices.
Jack took a position in New York City and in time achieved some prominence as a child psychologist. We saw him and Aunt Bertha, his wife, only occasionally over the next years. In the meantime, Frank and I married and produced two children and, when asked, heard Jack’s advice: Practice patience, consistency, remove yourself when necessary. Of course.
When a career move finally brought Jack and Bertha within driving distance of our town, we asked them to join our family of four for Christmas.
“Won’t Jack welcome this chance to play Santa?” I said. “Even to be in a home with children for a few days? After all, he’s become an authority in child psychology and he’s never had any children” We were familiar with his advice for parents: practice patience, be consistent, remove yourself you‘ve hit your limit. So reasonable. Too bad he’d had no chance to practice it himself.
“We’re doing him a favor. He’ll be so appreciative,” I said to Frank.
I thought about those words often after their visit.
“Plus he can help me assemble toys,” Frank said.
Toys for our children, now five and seven, seemed to require more complex assembling each year and assembling was not among Frank’s skills. Jack’s hobby, though, was woodworking, and he turned out fine furniture in his spare time, antique reproductions with Queen Anne legs, beautifully detailed work.
He and Bertha arrived on Christmas Eve for a two-day visit. We whisked them right off to the church pageant where our seven-year-old shepherd in his bathrobe clowned while his five-year-old sister, an angel with wired wings, crooned a carol. Back home, the children entertained nonstop all during supper, reciting lists of what Santa would bring.
Jack listened intently, and I could see how well the children took to him. Bertha, too, although she was more reserved. When bedtime finally arrived, the kids marched backwards up the stairs, still chattering and calling to Jack, until we tucked them in.
The adults moved around a corner into the living room. I refilled wine glasses and we sank into chairs around the fireplace, ready for some adult conversation until the kids were asleep and we could assemble the Santa toys.
The five-year-old was first to call out. She was thirsty. Then her brother said she was keeping him awake. Water, giggles, more tucking in, they were too excited about Christmas to surrender to sleep. Another round of wine for us and eventually we heard no more stirring about upstairs.
By this time midnight was approaching, high time to start on the toys. Not entirely certain the children would stay put and suspicious they might be getting wise to Santa anyway, we stationed Bertha near the top of the stairs as a sentry.
I emptied hiding places until we were knee deep in boxes in the living room. Jack and Frank ripped them open, assembled and inserted batteries as needed, until toys were distributed around the tree.
Jack stood up and stretched. “Glad that’s done. I’m ready for bed.”
“Wait,” I said. I pointed to a large flat box. “We still have to put the grocery store together.”
Jack glanced at his watch and this time I could read his mind. “It’s all cardboard. It shouldn’t take too long,” I said.
With no space to spread out in the living room, the men set up shop on the kitchen floor, near the foot of the stairs. We assumed the children were sound asleep but warned Bertha to be vigilant.
Frank slit open the thin box and began to pull out layers of cardboard. And more layers. One-ply, two, three-ply. The store had a cart with plastic wheels, a counter and cash register, and shelves stocked with at least five hundred boxes, each to be assembled. Jack and Frank spread the big pieces over the kitchen floor and began to fit Tab A into Slot A. Bertha, still on the steps, got two dozen boxes of spices to punch out and put together.
I slipped into the living room to break down boxes and tidy up. Soon I heard murmurs from the kitchen. Then Jack’s voice, “Where’d you hide the knife?”
“You had it last,” Frank said.
“Not me. I keep up with my tools.”
“Then what’s that lying beside your knee? Umhmmm. See.” Frank laughed out loud.
“Shhhhhh” from Bertha.
More murmuring. More barbs back and forth.
“The instructions are in the box,” I offered in a stage whisper from the living room, hoping they’d take the hint to lower their voices.
With the living room still a mess, I found a seat on the stairs and began to fold boxes of Rice Krispies, Tide, and Purina Puppy Chow into shape.
Frank made a growling noise. “Tab B won’t fit into Slot B. It’s too big. Look.” He held the two pieces toward Jack.
Without even glancing Frank’s way to acknowledge what Frank was showing him, the expert craftsman replied, “Fold the ends under and try again.”
“That can’t be right,” Frank said between his teeth. He pushed the pieces toward Jack’s face. “Look, it’s cattywumpused.”
Jack leaned forward to see, then sat up straight. Erect posture, his head higher than Frank’s who was bent forward. “No wonder. That’s the wrong Slot B. That’s for Shelf 1, not the counter.”
“Well, dammit, why didn’t you say so at first?”
“Because whoever designed my piece didn’t know what the hell they were doing. It should go like this,” Jack pulled the sides at a right angle to each other, “not back and around.”
“Now, boys,” Bertha said.
“Did you check the diagram?” I asked.
A heavy silence followed.
An hour later the grocery store with all its parts set under the tree—cereals and soaps on the shelves, bills and coins in the cash register, and a cart with wheels that rolled. The living room was tidied up and the trash hidden away.
“Three a.m. We better get to bed before Santa comes,” Frank said. “And thanks for the help.”
We hugged each other and said goodnight.
Our bedroom stood at the top of the stairs where at six a.m. we heard the patter of little feet. Jack and Bertha were asleep on the pullout sofa in the study, separated from the living room only by pocket doors. There was no way they could escape the squeals and laughter when the children discovered their toys from Santa.
Or the horns and whistles, the sounds the toys made.
After all, this was the joy of Christmas, what they came to see and enjoy.
After we’d eaten breakfast, opened gifts and picked up the ribbons and gift wrap, I slipped away to dress. I had kitchen duties ahead.
From the quiet of my bedroom, I heard car doors closing in the driveway outside. I peeked out the window to see Jack and Bertha putting suitcases in their car. I hurried back downstairs and met them on the front stoop.
“We were coming to tell you goodbye,” Jack said.
“But we’re just getting started—
“You can’t leave now,” Frank said, joining me on the stoop.
But they did. It was the merriest Christmas they’d ever had, they assured us, so grand and joyous they just couldn’t take anymore. They waved to us as they drove away.
Incredulous, Frank and I looked at each other, and then we began to laugh. .
“Remove yourself.” Jack had taken his own advice.The child expert had met Santa.