My children are grown now so we missed the Elf on a Shelf extravaganza. And, no I am not sorry. Not that we didn’t have our own, certainly less KGB, elf tradition. It began with my father. But really, it began with his five sisters and three brothers on a tobacco farm in 1930s North Carolina. There wasn’t a lot of money in this big family but there was a lot of love. The older children looked out for the younger right down to making sure the magic and mystery of Christmas, elves and all, was never forgotten. They are all gone now; my father was the last. But, they left me with a lasting love of the season and an unshakeable belief in the power of family love.
My sister and I lived on the seventh floor in an elegant building on Central Park West. There was a wood-burning fireplace in the living room and a long foyer covered in big black and white checkerboard tiles. We could roller skate out our apartment door, onto the elevator, through the grand building entrance and right into the park. This is not a real estate ad, just a little background. Both of my parents grew up in rural North Carolina; my mother went to college, my father did not. They came to New York in 1951 to be actors. My mother became a teacher, my father became an executive. We, their urban kids, became their audience.
Growing up in New York City in the sixties and seventies was a study in contrasts. I suppose it still is. Then the only reason you ventured onto Columbus Avenue was to go to the Sloan’s Supermarket, the drycleaners or to make your way, quickly, to Broadway and the World o’ Nuts shop for fruit leather. Then during the Christmas season I spent every evening–and afternoons on Wednesday and Saturday–in the State Theatre dancing (flailing, honestly) in The Nutcracker. No, really, I never could figure out why Mr. Balanchine picked me out of the back row every damn time. At any rate, this was my job for a lot of years. I would take the number ten bus down Central Park West to Lincoln Center clutching a book and a bag of tights, slippers and makeup. My hair was tricked out in ringlets and sprayed hard as rock candy but I had to depend on the kindness of one of the other dancers to paint me up at the theatre because my mother was of the opinion that you never wore stage makeup on the street. “Only an amateur would do that, darling,” she advised me.
Most evenings after the ballet I’d take the number ten back, much of my makeup smeared off with this sort of gelid cream that sat in stained pots all along the dressing room tables. But every now and then my father would meet me at the stage door and we’d walk home. Some nights it snowed and the street lamps were haloed with white light, the park blanketed and the taxis shushing down Central Park West like sleds. We sang Christmas carols as we walked until my father decided that either Broadway classics or the great American songbook standards would be more motivating in the cold.
One year a performance fell on the same evening as a grand party my parents were giving at the apartment. We walked home and into a golden whirl of people in their festive best, glasses sparkling, Noel Coward singing in the background (on the record player, that is) and my mother in the most marvelous black and white checked taffeta skirt that matched our foyer. Everyone applauded when I came in as if I were a prima ballerina instead of a skinny kid. Mom whisked me through the foyer and into her dressing room where she wiped off the rest of the makeup and slipped me into my Christmas finery. She was an excellent seamstress and made all our clothes when my sister and I were little. This time my outfit was a deep blue velvet suit; shorts, jacket, ruffled shirt and white tights, patent Mary Janes. I looked like an idiot. I was infuriated. Well, that’s neither here nor there; it’s just a Christmas memory that popped up. Stay with me, I’ll bring this home, promise.
Back to our elf tradition courtesy of the North Carolina family. It began the week before Christmas. We’d be sitting around doing not terribly much when suddenly my father would freeze facing the window.
“Did you see that?” he’d whisper.
“What?” I was already shivering in anticipation; it had begun.
“An elf, I just saw an elf! He was right there!” My father would point out the window. “Oh, another one!”
It never occurred to me to wonder how an elf got to the seventh floor just as it never occurred to me to question how Santa came down our chimney in a sixteen-story apartment building without shooting off into someone else’s hearth. Nope, I just squealed and hid behind my father while I searched for a glimpse of this creature somehow hovering over the Upper West Side.
Years later, my three children would be welcomed into the wonder by my Dad. We lived in London, which made the idea of elves scrambling along the rooftops of Notting Hill utterly believable to us all, because Peter Pan, right? Dad was just as good at the game as he was when I was little and my kids were just as thrilled as they looked and looked out the tall windows, the old glass wavy with age. It was magic every single year.
Well, then here’s my point. Today, in Cambridge in our little jewelbox house, I have no Elf on a Shelf, nor do I have Dad (or Mom) anymore but I do have this tradition. In the days ahead I will have all three children home and no doubt, at some moment when I am sure everyone is distracted I will say, “Hush, look! Did you see that? An elf!” and they will turn to the window together and laugh.