It was a Friday afternoon a few weeks before Christmas and I was sledding the hill behind the Curley’s house, which was not something I was supposed to be doing. The hill had the biggest drop-off of any of the houses in our neighborhood, almost straight down into the woods, and it wasn’t cleared the way most of our backyards were. You had to know how to steer to avoid the trees. Our parents told us it was too dangerous to sled there, but we did it anyway. The Curleys worked and weren’t around in the afternoon to chase us away.
The hill was especially icy today, and my first few times I’d wiped out. There was snow down my jacket and inside my gloves. I had one more try before I had to go home and get ready for a Cub Scouts meeting, and I was determined to make it to the bottom.
I did, too: but I kept going, smack into a tree. I hit full-on and head-first, and then went sprawling through the air.
I ended up face down in the snow. As I got up it took me a few seconds to remember where I was, what had happened. I felt my head—there was a big bump there. My ears were ringing, too. Everything, the woods, the snow, the Curley’s house, looked weird to me, like I was seeing them from a distance.
I shook my head. But I still couldn’t make my eyes focus right or the ringing go away.
At home I felt the same way, as though everything was underwater. I started to get a bad headache, like the one I’d had when they rushed me to the hospital and later found out I had rheumatic fever.
I didn’t let on to my mother. How could I? It was my own fault. I shouldn’t have been over there at the Curleys. I’d been warned it was dangerous.
I ate my dinner, hot dogs and carrot sticks. I dressed up in my Cub Scout uniform. In the car ride over to the meeting, I kept checking my ears to see if there was anything wet coming from them. I’d heard somewhere about people bleeding from their ears after getting hit in the head.
The event that night was a holiday gathering at the Mombasha Fire House for all the local troops in town. There was a spaghetti dinner and each troop had to sing a Christmas carol and at the end we each received a treat bag with some scout-oriented gift. Last year, I’d gotten a kit for a car you could make out of balsa wood.
The den mothers had outdone themselves decorating the Fire House. There were Santa faces and ornament posters taped to the walls, and all the tables had green and red tablecloths with fake snow arranged in small drifts. Christmas carols played from the stereo system and there was a big, tinselly tree in the corner, blinking white and blue lights.
It was all I could do to make it over to my troop, 246. My head was still throbbing. Under my Cub Scouts hat it felt like the bump was getting bigger. “Are you okay?” my den mother asked when she noticed me sitting by myself not speaking to anyone. I was usually a pretty talkative kid.
I nodded my head as enthusiastically as I could manage. I didn’t want her to think anything was wrong.
Dinner was served and the entertainment began. Troop 186 sang “Holly Jolly Christmas.” Troop 210 sang “Let It Snow!” Both groups sang so low I wouldn’t have been able to hear much even if my ears weren’t ringing. But then one of the Brownie troops came up and started “Winter Wonderland” in clear, strong voices:
In the meadow we can build a snowman
And pretend that he is Parson Brown
He’ll say, Are you married, we’ll say, no man
But you can do the job when you’re in town
One of the Brownies was a girl from my class, Monica Sanford. I’d never paid any attention to her before but tonight I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She was singing the loudest and had a huge smile on her face as she sang. In her hair was a green ribbon. I couldn’t remember if she’d ever worn a ribbon like that to school. It looked beautiful. Monica looked beautiful.
Later on, we’ll conspire as we dream by the fire
To face unafraid, the plans that we made
Walking in a Winter Wonderland
I scanned the room as I listened. I loved this, the decorations, these songs, the watery spaghetti on the plate in front of me. Having my troop mates, my friends, all around me. As the Brownies went giggling off the stage to our applause I wondered if I’d ever sit by a fire with Monica, talking, planning, unafraid. It would be so stupid to lose it all just because of crashing into some stupid tree and dying.
I woke up the next morning and felt fine. I never spoke to Monica, who moved the next spring to somewhere impossible like San Francisco.
First love, first intimations of mortality. Or maybe just a concussion. But even the cheesiest version of this kind of dopey song brings back those feelings of gratitude and possibility. When better for that than Christmas?