FORTY-FIVE years ago this week, our family of six packed what remained of our belongings in my father's sky-blue Corvair, my aunt's yellow Thunderbird and an orange U-Haul and made our slow but deliberate pilgrimage toward the suburbs. We were abandoning the only home I truly remembered, a beautiful old rented house in Logan, for what I'd been told was a wonderful mansion in Havertown, where I'd have my own bedroom and where we would be the owners of every wall, every high-beamed ceiling and every hardwood floor.
Frankly, I wasn't impressed. In fact, I was apoplectic, in the way that only eight-year-old girls who were used to getting their way could become apoplectic. I did not want to move. I loved our house on N. 12th Street, with its stained-glass vestibule, its spacious front porch, its wide bay windows and two large and graceful pear trees in the backyard. I hadn't been consulted on, much less given approval for, this change of scenery, and I refused to go gentle into that good Corvair. Although I could not yet spell it I felt it: righteous indignation.
Who were these people, masquerading as loving parents, who were ready to rip me from my beloved home, where, in case they'd missed it, I already had my own room complete with canopy bed? Why were they moving me like some tiny female member of the Bataan Death March away from my BFF Wendy, the park around the corner and the nearby Penn Fruit, where I could count on a daily supply of Tastykakes or, failing that, Sealtest Dixie Cups? Surely, this place they'd scouted out, thousands of miles from civilization, in a place called Delaware County (Delaware? Were we leaving the state, for God's sake?) had no Penn Fruits, no Tastykakes, no canopy beds and definitely no Wendy.
To make matters worse - much, much worse - was that on December 23, 1969, God sent a blizzard to accompany Mom, Dad, Teddy, Jon, Michael and yours truly on our trek west. If I'd been old enough to make the connection, I would have looked upon us as the Donner Party and in fact my father was so frazzled that day he could have chomped on a few kids with a clear conscience.
I have the clearest memory of one thing in particular, a deep-seated fear born of the impromptu realization that we hadn't told Santa we were moving. It was at that moment that the horror of it all came cascading down on my head, heavy and suffocating like the avalanche of snow on our car roof: I was going to be a suburban child with no Tastykakes, no friends and no Christmas presents.
The suburban part wasn't that upsetting, because I had no concrete idea of where the city ended and wilderness began. To this day I consider myself a Philadelphian, and so does the fellow who collects my city wage tax. You say suburbanite, I say shmuburbanite.
The prospect of no Tastykakes was slightly more troubling, but I figured that even in Delaware County they had an indigenous form of tooth-rotting treats.
But the Santa thing was devastating, and I spent the entire ride inching through the snow trying to figure out how to let the red-suited one know that I'd been kidnapped by two maniacs named Ted and Lucy and that I still believed in him.
I was especially heartbroken at the prospect of being overlooked on Christmas morning because I'd been very good during the latter part of December after an unpromising early start (there was an incident involving my brother and a can of Aquanette) and I thought I'd really earned my Dancerina doll.
I was in that troubled state, questioning the injustice of the world, when we pulled up in front of our new home. I couldn't tell what the house actually looked like because it was blanketed in close to 18 inches of snow, and it wasn't until March that I realized that our house wasn't entirely white. So you can imagine my distress: we'd left my beloved Logan home where Santa was a regular to take up residence in an igloo that probably wasn't even on his radar screen.
Mom and Dad were too busy moving our lives into the igloo, and my brothers were too young to understand the catastrophe that was about to befall us, and I felt completely alone. Forty-five years have passed, many things that by any normal measure would been considered much worse have happened and yet those first moments in Havertown are among the saddest and demoralizing I can remember.
The next day, Christmas Eve, I pretended to be happy. At some juvenile level I understood that my parents were nervous, having indebted themselves for the first time, to the tune of $34,000 and having placed more than just a few snowy miles between us and the rest of the Irish-Italian relatives. They, too, were lonely.
But I knew that my life was irrevocably changed, and that even though I looked the same, I wasn't. The world had shifted in its axis. And Santa wasn't going to be in it.
That night, I fell into a troubled sleep on a lumpy, makeshift sofa bed, longing for my canopied haven with the big-eyed Keane moppet paintings on the wall. For the first time in my young life I didn't look forward to Christmas morning.
And then, in the middle of the dark night, my mother tiptoed into the room, shook me gently and said, "Listen!" And I heard them, the scratching of hooves on the rooftop and the muffled tinkle of the bells.
An hour later, I rushed down the steps and saw the tree that hadn't been there before, glittering with tinsel and weighted down with the ornaments I loved. And underneath its branches, she was there staring up at me with long-lashed eyes and golden curls: Dancerina.
And somehow, I knew that I was home.