Our family Christmases were idyllic, if simple. Each year on Christmas Day, we would all open our presents. My sister and I would get doll clothes (this was when you got outfits, not multiple Barbies) and plush animals, Spirograph and paint-by-numbers, and such.
Then we’d get dressed, jump in the car, and drive to Granny’s house, where we’d open more gifts of clothes and stationery and Avon cologne. We’d wreak havoc on a turkey and trimmings, before the adults went off for naps, after dropping us kids off at the movies.
Then came the year when my sister and I had to grow up fast.
My parents had always tried to keep any bad news away from us and carry on as normal, but there was no hiding this bad news. After being accidentally hit by the garage door, my father’s injured neck turned out to be something much worse than a sprain, strain, or contusion. It wasn’t the garage door that caused it. of course, but that was when my father was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.
It’s a horrible form of cancer that attacks the bones all throughout the body and destroys them. I hope the treatments have gotten better in the decades since, but for my father cancer meant radiation, chemotherapy, and an operation to fuse the bones of his neck using bone from his hip. He lived many years longer than the doctors predicted, which I attribute to his stubbornness. He certainly wasn’t a health aficionado.
Naturally, all those cancer treatments and hospitalizations were expensive. My parents had good insurance, but even that was nowhere near covering the costs. And my father’s illness was not something my parents could keep secret from us kids, much as they would have liked to. It affected every part of our lives.
When Christmas came that year, I was 15 and my sister was 16. My mother explained that because of the family’s medical expenses, we wouldn’t be able to have Christmas as usual. No driving from Ohio to Kentucky to see our relatives. And no Christmas presents.
My mother said that all we could afford was a magazine subscription for each of us. Our choice of titles. She hoped we weren’t disappointed.
I wasn’t. To me, a magazine subscription was special, something that grown-ups got, and something that kept giving all year long. I chose Analog, a science fiction magazine, and my sister chose Sixteen. It was exciting to watch the mail for each month’s issue. (As kids, we didn’t usually get much mail, except cards on our birthdays.)
For the Christmases after that, my mother would renew our subscriptions, or let us change to a different title. When I started studying astronomy in high school, I switched to Sky and Telescope. When she turned 17, my sister switched to Seventeen.
Now I subscribe to the electronic versions of three magazines –Smithsonian, National Geographic, and Discover. I still get a little thrill each month when the new cover icon appears on my e-reader screen. It reminds me of the first time I ever got an actual, grown-up present – when I started becoming an adult, whether I wanted to or not.