by Stacey Seaman
“Do you remember the Christmas with the telescope?” Mom asks me. I stop eating and look over at her. She has been digging around in the boxes that I brought down from the attic. There are cobwebs stuck in her hair as well as patches of dust on her t-shirt. We are settled down in her living room drinking coffee and eating cookies when she breaks the silence.
“Of course I remember,” I say after a pregnant pause, clearing my throat which suddenly seems to have closed up. I don’t want to talk about this. I want to take this little memory and push it back down where it belongs, in that hidden place we all have inside of us. That place where we keep moments and thoughts that hurt so god damn much. The moments and thoughts that scar us over and over and over each time we are forced to relive them. It happened over two decades ago, but we have never talked about it. I thought she had forgotten about it. I prayed that she had. It is my burden to carry, not hers. I want it for myself; because I know I am strong enough to deal with it in a way Mom is not. My sweet little arthritic mom should not be forced to think about that damn telescope.
“Will you tell me what you remember about it?” she asks innocently.
“Well, one Christmas Eve when we were kids, you and dad let us open one gift each that night. My gift was that telescope.” I stand up with my coffee cup, meaning to go into the kitchen and end this conversation before it really begins. Mom doesn’t protest, and I dump the dregs of my coffee into the sink. The damage has been done, though. I can’t shake the memory. It is bubbling up to the surface, forcing itself into my head, making me relive it. I press both of my hands onto the counter, slump my shoulders, stare at the ground, and remember.
I am twelve years old and it is Christmas Eve night. I have a little sister, Evie, and a little brother, Carl. They are 8 and 6 respectively. They still believe in Santa Claus. I don’t, and I haven’t for several years, but I still pretend for them. I love their excitement. Mom and Dad are both home and, for the first time in a long time, they are both happy. They are laughing and joking with each other. Dad even hugs Mom from behind as she does the dinner dishes, something he hasn’t done in months, not since he started having to sit in the unemployment office each week. The house smells like pumpkin pie and peppermint, the turkey Mom picked up from the church is in the fridge thawing out, and there is Christmas music playing on the tiny radio we have set up in the living room. When “Little Drummer Boy” comes on, Mom turns it up all the way and sways back and forth listening with her eyes closed, a forgotten cigarette burning down to ash in her hand. It’s been a wonderful day.
“You kids come sit down on the couch, your mom and I have something for you,” Dad yells at us from the living room and we don’t hesitate. We run from our shared bedroom where we were playing Chutes and Ladders and sit down heavily on the couch. Evie and Carl are bouncing up and down in anticipation. I am giggling at them, but my heart is racing. I am just as excited as they are. Because I know what this is. They are going to let us open a gift, and I just know what my gift is. I have had a feeling, a gut feeling, for the past week. It was the only thing I asked for the entire year. I want a telescope; any telescope to help me see the stars more clearly at night because I want to be an astronaut when I grow up.
The moment of truth has arrived because Dad is handing us wrapped presents, one each, and they are spectacularly wrapped in shiny silver paper with huge red bows. My parents are standing in front of us, Mom taking pictures with her disposable camera. Every one of us is smiling so hard our cheeks hurt. I have a realization then, one of those seconds in time that remain burned in your mind forever, where I think that this is one of the sweetest, most precious moments of my life. I am with my family, we all love each other, and the world seems perfect and still. Everything in my life from now on will be become a reference to either taking place before this moment or after this moment.
I unwrap the present in my hands with shaking fingers. I rip into the paper, the only true way to unwrap a gift Mom has told me, and it is a telescope. It is exactly what I wanted it to be and I squeal in absolute delight. My legs kick frantically at the couch as my body pulses with excitement. It’s beautiful, the most beautiful perfect gift I have ever received. It is a wagon-red refractor telescope with an alt-az mount. The box tells me it has a long 60 mm focal length and a 50 mm diameter. I don’t know what this means, but the box says “60 mm focal length!” and the exclamation mark makes me believe it’s a good thing. Beside me on the couch my brother and sister are happily playing with their new toys. I already have the telescope out of the box and I am staring at it in total awe. In the background I hear “O Come All Ye Faithful” and the winding of Mom’s disposable camera as she snaps as many pictures as she can.
I look up at Mom and Dad and I smile. Mom takes one more picture of me, at that exact moment, with all of my teeth exposed and the telescope perched on my lap.
“Get your shoes on and let’s go outside and try it out,” she says to me. I won’t realize it until later, but I wish we had just stayed inside. I wish we had waited until after Christmas.
The night is cold as stone and brilliantly clear. There looks to be as many stars in the sky as there are grains of sand on earth. We are all outside standing on our front lawn. Evie and Carl are shivering as they run around in circles around us trying to keep warm. Mom and Dad are both smoking. Dad helps me set it up.
Finally, my face touches the eye piece. There is a pause in all of us; a moment when we all catch our breath as I look towards the stars. Nothing. I see nothing but a blur in the telescope. I adjust the focus knob for a minute, push it back and forth. Still nothing. I try to refocus for a long, long time. My heart starts to drop. Before I can catch myself, I feel my face fall. I don’t want my parents to know. Not tonight, not after our wonderful day, but I can’t hide my disappointment. Dad sees first, and his smile fades. Mom is next, then Carl. Evie is too young to understand, but she senses the change in mood. It is like someone has pulled the plug on our day. We stand outside for a few more minutes in silence, my parents staring at the ground, the house, the sky. They look everywhere but at me. I know at this moment that I never want to see this kind of helpless shame on their faces again. I decide to take this memory and bury it.
The telescope is never fixed or exchanged or returned. It was an Angel Tree gift. All of our gifts that year were. It sits in my room pointed at the window and sometimes I look into it, praying that whatever is blocking the lens has magically cleared. Sometimes I pretend the image is crystal-clear. Sometimes I pretend I can see all the way to Mars, a planet I just know I will get to travel to one day after Dad gets a job and my parents can afford to send me to space camp and then to college.
Before I leave Mom’s house she hands me the picture of me and my telescope. My breath catches in my throat. I feel my eyes water.
“I found it in a box. I have never forgotten that night,” she tells me.
I give her a strong hug. It is cold outside, snow flurrying down on bare branches and fallow fields. I tell Mom to go inside, she’ll catch her death.
It is a long time before I can bury the memory again.