Defending Rudolph

rudolph oneWhen I was four, we lived in an apartment complex that divided a gingerbread house neighborhood and a ramshackle, riverbank neighborhood – one with neat little blocks of brick and garden, the other with litter strewn yards, debris from basements flooded every spring. Our buildings stood in between, a corridor of indecision for renters on their way one direction or the other, living in not quite a tenement, not quite a house.

We would eventually move to suburbia, our faces turned toward the light of the middle-class sun just a few streets away. But for a time we too straddled, my parents reaching beyond their marginalized backgrounds, counting on the American dream of ingenuity and effort to change their circumstances. They had worked hard to get this far, this nice arrangement of buildings, each with a tended square of grass in front. Our two bedroom apartment was a step up and they had their backs to the river.

I remember one day playing in front of our building as my mom sat on the stoop, reading Ladies Home Journal or maybe Alfred Hitchcock Mysteries. I played on the sidewalk, scooting along on a Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer riding toy. 

Rudolph was plastic, with molded tufts of fur on his neck and tail, big Egyptian eyes painted Bambi blue, small green wheels under each hoof and a red painted saddle where I sat perfectly tall. I could push on the cement with my sneakers and then fling my legs wide, coasting away in a story. His horns were detachable, rounded handles; I held the top prongs or the lower, adjusting the height by sliding them up or down in the notch at the top of his head. I leaned over and whispered in his ear; he listened with his cartoon face, kind and spunky, just like on the TV show.

This particular day there were other children who spilled outside. Mikey was younger than I was and Michelle a little older. They lived upstairs. Their mother did not sit but followed them around watching closely, speaking in a voice slightly too loud, narrating as her children asked questions or made funny noises or rolled somersaults. She praised them and petted them the same way that I petted my Rudolph.

Then Mikey decided that he wanted to ride on Rudolph. He grabbed at Rudolph’s horns and yelled in my face, demanding that I let him have the toy. I said, “No! Rudolph is mine!” I stuttered noticeably as a child, yet at this age was only somewhat aware of the broken words as they came out of my mouth. I heard them amplified, however, in Mikey’s response.

“Nanananana – RuRuRuRu – dadadada – meemeemee,” Mikey laughed and pointed, “You talk like a baby!” Mikey’s mother looked nervous, concerned for her child. “Now, now,” she said to me slowly as if talking to someone unpredictable. “Just relax, don’t get so excited, Mikey just wants to ride on your reindeer. You can share.” I shook my head again, “Rudolph is mine!” Mikey yanked the deer away from me and repeating consonants like a motor, rode out of reach. Mikey’s mother clapped, “See! Look how fast Mikey can go!”

I ran to my mother who looked up from her magazine. I was crying. “Mikey has Rudolph and he was copying me, making the words go over and over, and he took Rudolph and laughed at me.” My mother saw the other mother crowing over her son and frowned; her eyes, not unlike Rudolph’s in their size and shape, looked fierce. But she did not get up. “You need to fight back,” she said. “No one is going to fight your battles for you. If you want your deer back, you go get it. If I go over there, you will never learn.” “But Mikey is bigger than me,” I worried. She shook her head, “Call him a name or something. He is just a whiney little momma’s boy, you can get that toy back on your own.”

I ran back to Mikey and Rudolph. Mikey had gotten off the deer but held it behind him as I approached. “You can’t have it back, baby talk, nanananna.” I pushed him aside and grabbed at the deer. There was a brief tug of war. Mikey’s mother began to move quickly saying, “Now children. Children!” I wrenched the deer away and, with both hands, lifted Rudolph in the air, swinging it over my head and down on Mikey’s, gravity and shifting antlers adding velocity to the hard plastic arc and subsequent crack. Mikey and his mother screamed at the same time. Holding on tight, I set the deer back on the ground, climbed on the bright red saddle, and rode toward my mother.

I heard the other mother trying to comfort her sobbing son. Out of the corner of my eye I watched her pick up Mikey and stride purposefully passed me to where my mother was still sitting. Mikey’s mother bellowed a string of incriminations; my mother shrugged, said something like: “The kid had it coming.” She opened the magazine again and continued reading. Mikey’s mother screamed for Michelle, who had been practicing Cartwheels, to “get upstairs and away from these people.” My mother got up and called me inside after the door slammed. She said, “Good girl. You have to stand up for yourself or people will walk all over you.” And that was the end of it. Mikey never played outside again, at least not when we were there.

For my mother this episode was a mundane interaction, daily proof that the world required vigilant self-reliance. She grew up fighting for her place in a town where Sicilian immigrants were still called WOPs. She married a boy who had hitchhiked his way from the poorest side of the tracks. They learned to survive, moving hungrily from job to apartment to house, then to a better house, a better neighborhood, a better status, propelled by a tenacious belief that good fortune had nothing to do with it.

My memory spans my parents’ progress from scrappy to privileged. I echo the syllables of their past and it never occurs to me to look up or around for rescue and explanation. I think of Mikey’s mother and sometimes long for a life protected by benevolent authority or intervened by God or woven by the delicate fingers of fate but as my mother’s daughter, this seems fanciful, even weak.

There are many Polaroids of myself and my mother during the time of the reindeer riding toy. We are almost always photographed together, dressed in similar clothes, a strikingly exotic woman in her intricate beehive hairdo and a small, skinny child with pixie bangs, awkwardly posing as tough and true as her mom. Beyond these pictures is a square of grass, many afternoons and a lifetime leaning into the wind, riding on Rudolph, determining my speed with each shove of my foot on the ground.


This essay was previously posted under the pseudonym Ramona Wengler. 




Pandora spends most of her time tinkering with bits of words, fabric and yarn. She lives in Chicago with her husband and a pug. She has two grown up sons who have many adventures.

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8 Responses

  1. Anarene Holt Yim says:

    Pandora, This is incredibly amazing and so cleverly-written. The scene of triumph should have the Rocky theme playing!

    I grew up running away and hiding from things that bothered me, and it’s taken until middle age to start learning to stand up for myself outside of my house. (It feels so great to finally say what I really think when the occasion calls for it.) Luckily one of my kids didn’t get my wimpy genes, and I remember with fondness how, as a Sunbeam, she would load up a little purse with her heavy Book of Mormon so she could repel the boy who annoyed her with a smack upside the head. A new use for the scriptures!

    Anyway, this was so enjoyable and thoughtful. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Corrina says:

    I love this, Pandora. What an enjoyable read, and the message is very powerful. Thank you.

  3. Caroline says:

    So beautifully written, Pandora. Your last line gave me chills, it was so perfect.

    “Beyond these pictures is a square of grass, many afternoons and a lifetime leaning into the wind, riding on Rudolph, determining my speed with each shove of my foot on the ground.”

  4. MargaretOH says:

    Wonderful, Pandora. The culture of parenting is particularly striking to me here. I’m guessing that for many readers who grew up in different circumstances, including myself, your mother’s advice to you is startling. I live in a section of an old east coast city that was mainly Polish immigrants, then had a big influx of Hispanics in the last generation, and is now gentrifying and attracting young, affluent, highly-educated parents who grew up in the white suburbs but think it’s hip to raise kids in the city. The playground is a fascinating mix of cultures and it’s interesting to watch parents alternately roll their eyes or glare at other parents who are helicopter parenting, sitting on the benches smoking, ignoring or yelling at their kids, lecturing toddlers on sharing, or encouraging their boys to “be a man.”

    So I’m curious: did your scrappy childhood affect your own parenting? Or had you adopted a more suburban approach to life by adulthood? As your parents gained more economic security, did your mother see life as less of a fight?

    • Pandora says:

      I am so glad you asked. For me, this memory represents the very complexities in parenting that you acknowledge. On one hand, my mother’s force-of-nature personality kept my small, stuttering, too smart, bespectacled, always the-new-kid self relatively intact despite relentless teasing from other children. Yet, I was also educated by folk music and literature which engendered a decidedly less violent approach to conflict. So my own parenting has been a mix. My children were not encouraged to “fight” – especially physically. But I do think I was less likely to interfere than my counterparts. I had conversations with the boys about when I would jump in no matter what, when we could discuss the approach together and when I felt it was theirs to sort out. In one case my son and I did not agree. I felt he was being maligned and wanted to bonk the principle over the head with a riding toy. He wanted me to stay out of it. We compromised. I had to wait until the day after he graduated from high school, then made the appointment, and expressed my point of view on the injustice I had observed in rather direct terms. Ha. My mother’s daughter.

      And my mother? Her evil eye is as powerful as ever.

  5. Heather says:

    I love your writing. I love your mom. Don’t mess with a Sicilian mama bear!

  6. Hedgehog says:

    Oh gosh. My immediate thought was – what! Teaching your own kids to share their own stuff is one thing, lecturing someone else’s kids to share their stuff with your kids is… Well… Up to that kid’s parents should they feel it necessary. Her kid snatched rudolph, and you got the lecture! I guess that exposes my attitude. I was rooting for you on clobbering him.

  7. Alisa says:

    As someone who was taught to always be nice, I am still learning this vital lesson your mom taught you. I needed this lesson today.

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