SCM Executive Editor is taking over my blog for the Christmas holiday. He’s sharing a memory of his mother — and a sensational Matchbox garbage truck — from Christmas 1967:
I carry 57 years of Christmas memories around in my head — including the first time I ever kissed a girl — but the one I remember best is the oldest.
It was 1967, and I was a 6-year-old with a horrible allergy to grass pollen. We lived in the endless summer of Los Angeles, California, which meant gummy snot oozed out of my nose just about every day of the year.
My mother was determined to fix this.
Each week, my mother drove me to the UCLA Medical Center in Westwood Village, where a doctor stuck a thick syringe needle in my arm and slowly squeezed in liquid that would, over time, end my allergy to grass pollen.
It hurt like holy hell.
My mother, who was born and raised in England — and remained English in every way — was also determined that I would not cry during this ordeal. On each trip, as she wrestled a battleship of a 1966 Dodge Monaco station wagon down Sunset Boulevard, she would light a cigarette and take me through this ritual:
“Do good boys cry when they get a little shot?” she would say in the crisp English accent that my friends couldn’t quite understand.
“No, mum,” was the correct response.
My mother’s steely determination was living evidence of how the British conquered half the world and later prevailed in World War II.
I hated my weekly allergy shot, but I loved the trips to and from Westwood. I had three siblings at the time, and this was my only chance to get my mother’s undivided attention.
She was my goddess.
My mother was an ultra-smart, beautiful woman. She spoke French, devoured history books for entertainment and did the crossword in ink. She taught me to read before I was in kindergarten. She had huge green eyes, raven hair that glistened in the sunlight and a spray of freckles across her nose.
She was 30 years old that year.
After I gritted through my shot — my mother’s big eyes locked into mine — we sat on a bench on the UCLA campus and ate egg sandwiches and drank tea from a thermos. I longed for a burger and a Coke at the nearby Hamburger Hamlet.
But English people ate proper lunches.
We then walked down Westwood Boulevard to Bullock’s Westwood — a huge, impossibly fancy department store. My mother loved to wander the gleaming floors and eye the clothing.
It was December, and those were the days when department stores turned into Winter Wonderland Toy Stores. Displays of toys rose toward the celling amid lavish Christmas decorations.
One table held a stunning display of Matchbox cars. I had a couple Matchbox cars at home, but I had never seen the entire catalog on lavish display in one place. Each tiny car glowed in the holiday lights, and I wanted all of them.
Unboxed cars were placed on a model roadway to tempt kids just like me. It was so perfect.
My mother let me play with the cars. I fell in love with the Ford Garbage Truck. You could tilt the back of the truck, and the hatch would open up to spill out all the imaginary garbage. I was enthralled with each car, but the garbage truck was the best by far.
After a while, my mother was ready to press on, but I held her hand.
“May I have one?” I said. “Please.”
I had never wanted anything more in my life that that little garbage truck.
I will never forget what happened next.
My mother’s big eyes widened as she stared at me. “Of course not,” she said.
If I close my eyes now, 51 years later, I can still feel my throat suddenly clog up and tears come to my eyes — over a toy truck.
Back then, I did know that crying was the worst thing to do, so I put my hands over my eyes and tried to push the tears back into my head.
Then, in the dark — amid a world of Christmas music and shoppers — I waited for the consequences.
I felt my mother’s warm hand on the back of my head, and then she knelt down and pulled me into tight embrace. The scent of her — cigarette smoke, black tea and Chanel No. 9 — filled my usually stuffy nose.
Then my mother’s cool English voice floated in my ear.
“Listen to me,” she whispered — to no one but me. “I know you love the little truck, and you’ve been a brave, good boy for a long time. Keep on being a brave, good boy — Christmas is almost here.”
Then she pushed me away a little bit, and those big green eyes — softer now — gazed at me.
She nodded, stood up and marched out of Bullock’s into the bright California sun.
At that moment, I knew, deep in my young bones, that my mother knew me and loved me — runny nose and all. Then I trotted after her.
I woke up on Christmas morning and ran to the big tree in the living room. Lots of tiny wrapped packages — each the size of a Matchbox car box — were perched on the fragrant fir limbs.
Another package, just about the size of an “Official Matchbox” No. 8 Collector’s Mini Case, was under the tree. It was magic — as my mother intended — but I was just old enough to know that the real gift was given in Bullock’s toy department two weeks earlier.