In October of 1966, my friend Mary received a “Pattaburp” doll for her birthday.
The moment that sweet face emerged from the gift wrap I was in love.
Pattaburp was soft and cuddly, with short brownish red hair, a fluffy pink dress, rosebud lips and big blue eyes surrounded by a fringe of thick lashes. Best of all when her back was tapped a few times, she’d burp.
It was a really healthy burp too.
Like most of her toys, Mary quickly tired of Pattaburp and tossed her aside like an old shoe. But do you think she’d let me play with her?
But Christmas was coming.
As with most youngsters, I had no concept of money and didn’t realize that our family lived paycheck to paycheck. I also didn’t realize that Santa’s gifts came from those paychecks. When I found the doll of my dreams in a catalog, Mom gently informed me that Pattaburp was rather expensive; seven dollars. Santa might not be able to afford her.
At first I was crushed.
I suddenly remembered that Santa had workshop where elves made toys. He didn’t have to go the store and spend money, so maybe he could afford to give me a Pattaburp doll after all. Hoping to seal the deal, I sent a letter to the North Pole with my request as well as reminding Santa that I’d been a very good girl.
Then I waited. And waited, and waited.
I tried so hard to believe that the bearded man in the red suit wouldn’t let me down. But as the big day approached, my resolve began to crumble. I’d never wanted anything more than that doll. I simply couldn’t bear it if Santa didn’t bring her to me.
On Christmas morning I realized that dreams really can come true. Pattaburp (forevermore known as Patty) was patiently waiting for her new mommy under the tree. I was so relieved that I burst into tears.
In the years that followed I received many other dolls from family and friends. They should have saved their money. I only wanted Patty.
Eventually my constant companion began looking a bit rough around the edges, as beloved toys often do. But I didn’t mind a little dirt. Patty was a part of me. She was always there when I needed her. She listened to my troubles, her cheeks were peppered with my childish kisses, and I cradled her in my arms as I slept.
Inevitably all girls grow up and stop playing with dolls on their journey to womanhood. I was no exception. Yet every morning before I got ready for work, I’d regress for a moment, hug my precious Patty and breathe in the fading scent of my childhood. Then she’d lie against the fluffy pillows of my bed; a place of honor for a cherished friend.
Years later when Grandma Helen passed away, Mom finally told me that it was Grandma who gave me the doll.
What was even sweeter was why she did it.
Mom said that one of Grandma’s playmates told her all about their family’s Christmas Eve tradition. They’d dress in their finest clothes and wait for their father to bring home a beautiful fir tree. Then everyone would drape it with lovely ornaments, light the candles on each bough, sing carols and then dive into delicious food.
It sounded magical; especially the Christmas tree. But because Grandma Helen was so young, she didn’t realize that her family had little money for anything other than the essentials. Christmas trees were expensive.
On December 24th, Grandma’s papa was met at the door by his eager five year old daughter dressed in her Sunday best, expecting a Christmas tree that he didn’t anticipate purchasing and couldn’t afford if he had.
Just then her grandpa came in the back door with firewood as the bitterly disappointed child began wailing. As he listened to her heartbreak between gulps, hiccups and tears he knew what needed to be done.
“If that’s all it takes to make my little girl happy, I’ll get her a Christmas tree” he muttered as he stomped back outside.
It was a raw icy northern Indiana day where the temperature outside hovered around zero. Yet in spite of the slippery conditions, the determined old man propped a ladder against a tall pine behind the kitchen. He gingerly climbed to the top, cut off a limb and brought it in to a very excited youngster who had thought all hope was lost. The limb wasn’t big, but it was full. When decorated with odds and ends of lace, beads and bows, it was lovely, and Grandma Helen was convinced that it was the prettiest tree in the whole world.
Years later when I yearned for a doll that my family couldn’t afford to buy, Grandma remembered how important that first Christmas tree had been to her.
“For Pete’s sake, if that’s all it takes to make her happy, Shelly’s going to have that doll” she declared, just as her own grandpa did so long ago.
And that simple act of love brightened my world.
I thought of Patty each Christmas Eve as I watched my nieces and nephews tear the paper from their vast array of gifts. It usually took them about ten minutes. Months of lay-away payments, and weeks of preparation was wiped out in the time it took to eat a sandwich.
After the grand unveiling, the floor was knee deep in wrapping paper which was promptly stuffed into a trash bag. All clues of who had given what to whom disappeared.
Grandma Helen used to say “It’s harder to get excited about something that’s too easy to get.”
She was right. Most of the gifts I’ve received in recent years are a blur of boxes and thank you notes.
Yet special presents given during leaner times are rarely forgotten. Like Grandma’s first Christmas tree.
And I’ll never forget the best Christmas gift of my young life.
I’ll always remember Pattaburp.
Michelle Close Mills ©