I cannot say how many times I heard it announced as a small boy - if it was my mother, there'd be a modicum of kindness in it: "Aw, poor little Gary, he's gotten himself so riled up he's about to lose his lunch."
If it were my sister, who I love with all my heart, the concern for me might have been couched in somewhat less obviously affectionate terms: "aw heck, the little punk's about to puke!"
I was an excitable little thing, with a stomach not so much "ironclad" as maybe spray-painted bronze. When it comes to my guts, as Ebenezer Scrooge said, "a little thing affects them." And Christmas was no little thing.
One Christmas in 1959, at the age of 8, I decided to become a man this year; I would pass a holiday season without losing my cookies. Not once.
I started to catch the Christmas buzz as soon the nights began cooling off in late summer. The first glimpse of tinsel in the department store set me slobbering.
I loved presents because what kid didn't get excited about presents? Hell, I still get excited about presents. I've never opened a bar of soap on a rope, a pack of socks, or a pair of slippers that haven't genuinely delighted me. So sure, I'd be thinking about presents, but as much as I loved them, I find that my sister's fudge, to this day the best I've ever tasted, lingers much longer in my memory.
The Shelton women started cooking for Christmas early - potentially months early. Beginning around April, as soon as the snow began to clear, our kitchen would become a bustling research and development laboratory. My father, my brother and myself became very willing guinea pigs, submitting ourselves wholly to the sweet ministrations of Mom and Elaine.
As the middle child I occupied no special position in the Shelton heirarchy. I was neither the cutest nor the smartest of the bunch, but for a few glorious years, I got to lick the spoon of cake batter, icing, and fudge. I sincerely hope that my kids all have a couple of memories that they will someday remember as fondly as I do that particular culinary privilege. I truly don't think I've ever tasted anything better.
The cooking of the Shelton women, I came to realize, was also a friendly but deeply tactical competition. Not with each other, as I'm sure Mom regarded Elaine's skills in the kitchen with pride. No, the real competition was with the beloved and much-revered aunts, great aunts, cousins, and whomever else entered the ring by bringing along some sugary confection of their own creation. When I say they were competitive, I don't mean they weren't supportive of one another. But watching Aunt Ruth compliment my sister on her fudge somehow put me in mind of a lion complimenting a hyena on her skill at taking down a gazelle.
And now I realize that Aunts Ruth and Claire must have also started months early, repeating and perfecting their own Christmas delicacies.
Dad, on the other hand, could make a plate of scrambled eggs and heat up a chop in the skillet, but these delicate baked goods and candies were beyond him. Not to be outdone, he borrowed a genuine one-horse open sleigh from one of his buddies in Lewistown's South Moccasin Club, a social organization made up of farmers and ranchers who also lived just north of Lewistown. Dad managed to disappear for an hour or so without anyone noticing and then returned with that gorgeous vehicle bedecked with jingle bells and holly. Most incredible was that Dad had apparently been training Babe, our Sorel horse, to stomp so that it rang the bells on his halter. Babe, his tail tied up in a neat Bob, seemed about to burst with pride at his new station.
We all climbed into the sleigh and nestled under blankets, the adults perhaps passing around a pint of brandy to keep out the cold and appetize us in preparation for the big meal to come. I say "us," but, of course, we kids had to make do with hot cocoa instead of booze, an arrangement with which we were well pleased.
Dinner was as splendid as we could have hoped for, served on a table groaning with turkey or ham, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, stuffing, homemade rolls, butter, and to follow, ice cream made fresh that day from our dairy cows' produce served, melting, atop latticed apple pie. And then, to follow, the adults had another sip of brandy while I tucked into another few square inches of Elaine's delectable fudge.
This was when a little tyke, laden with so much sugar and meat, might start to find his eyes heavy. Indeed, my little brother Neal had already succumbed to a festive coma, curling up under the tree with the dogs. I was starting to think that bed sounded pretty good myself, but I wanted to stay awake forever if possible, to prolong indefinitely that Christmas feeling.
And it turned out there was one more surprise. Dad came in from the cold, stamping his feet and breathing into his gloved hands. "Come on, kids. I've got something to show you."
Outside, we blinked and rubbed our sleepy eyes, goggling at what we found. Dad's GMC pickup stood idling in the snow, and behind it trailed the hood of a Hudson or Packard. He must have found it at the junkyard, and now he had attached it, upside down, via a length of rope to the truck's tow hitch. The inside of the hood was filled with cushions and pillows.
I looked up at Dad questioningly.
"Get in, boy," he said.
I climbed over the cushions and held on.
I shot him a thumbs-up and a toothy grin, and Dad took off across the snow like Santa leading twelve tiny, speedy little reindeer. Giddy with joy and screaming my head off, I watched the Christmas lights of the house spin and blur. The old junker's hood kicked up a rooster tail of snow that caught the glitter of the lights. I laughed and laughed. If it sounds like it was dangerous, well, maybe so. But Dad knew his hayfield, and there was nothing but deep snow and smooth sailing, so to speak. Elaine watched and waited her turn, while assorted Aunts and Uncles smiled primly, as if they weren't completely sure about all this nonsense.
And then, after a few minutes it was over and I climbed, wobbly, off of the makeshift sled. Tears were streaming down my face from laughing so hard.
"How was it, boy?" Dad asked after he got out of the cab of the truck.
"Great, Pop! Better'n the rides at the county fair!"
Dad smiled and nodded. "Well, who's next, then? You, Aunt Ruth?"
Aunt Ruth laughed and dismissed him with a wave.
It was Elaine, who, despite being four years my senior, still had some of the little girl in her as well, at least when Christmas came around. Little Neal, meanwhile, regarded the sled warily, which was fine because Mom would have tanned Dad's hide if he'd let her littlest baby onto that death contraption.
As for me, still dizzy from the ride, I joined the rest of the family on the porch. What no one knew, and didn't need to know, was that somewhere in that snowy field I had deposited a quantity of semi-digested Christmas dinner. I tried to reckon with my failure to achieve my goal of being a grownup and not ralphing once over Christmas. After some deliberation, I decided to forgive myself and try again next year. For one, I hadn't counted on the sled ride on the hood of the Packard.
And for another, I now had room for more fudge.