I grew up as the youngest of five children in a Polish household. My parents are both from Poland and emigrated here to the US in the early 1960s. The Polish holiday traditions were very strong in my house, as was being Roman Catholic. I grew up listening to Polish being spoken; though by the time I was born my parents spoke more English at home—but my oldest sister went to school with very few English words in her vocabulary. As a result, a lot of the American holiday traditions fell by the wayside. For example, I knew the story about Santa Claus. But I was never led to believe that an obese man actually shoved his way down our chimney to bring us presents. I knew the presents were from Mom and Dad, and my brothers and sisters and my aunts and uncles. Christmas was about the birth of Jesus, not about Santa.

We didn’t do the American Christmas morning, where the family gathered around the tree to see what Santa had brought. Instead we celebrated on Christmas Eve, then on Christmas Day we went to church. There was one Christmas Eve I remember from when I was five. We went to my Aunt Jessie and Uncle George’s house. They live in this gorgeous old Victorian house, that was a little drafty back then--as old houses are. I remember running up the L shaped staircase with my cousin Joanna, and we saw a wasp crawling around in the shag carpeting upstairs. It probably came in through a crack from the attic, and was probably pissed off that it was cold outside. We both ran back down the stairs after spotting the wasp, and instead climbed back onto their enormous coffee table to pretend we were ice skating.

After a few minutes of coffee table Ice Capades, I felt something tickling my shin, like something was crawling on it. I stepped down off the table and pulled up my pant leg. I didn’t see anything, gave my shin a scratch, and then lowered my pant leg. Right after I patted the pant leg into place I felt the sting on the front of my knee. I screamed, pulled my pant leg up and watched a wasp fly out of my pant leg. I clawed at the site of the sting and broke the skin.

My Mom and Aunt Jessie came into see what I was screaming about. I vaguely remember one of them scooping me up and carrying me into the half bath just off the kitchen. Out came first aid supplies, and tissues, and that was the last thing I remember about being at Aunt Jessie and Uncle George’s house at Christmas. I suspect Aunt Jessie gave me a Benadryl in case of swelling around the sting, and I probably passed out on the couch as a result. And the Benadryl knocked me out like a roofie.

My sister Margaret was 19 at the time, and she drove me home after Christmas Eve dinner while the rest of my family went to Midnight Mass. It was just the two of us in her Chevy Monza, the snow scape in the moonlight went by in a bluish haze. Normally I’d be thrilled at having alone time with my cool oldest sister. She was in college and largely subsisted on Virginia Slims and coffee, and there was a cloud of smoke in the car, because back then nobody cared about second hand smoke. I am sure she was listening to The Stones on the radio, which I also loved because I wanted to be just like her. But I don’t remember much of that ride. We got back into the house, and I was still so groggy from being, presumably, doped up at Aunt Jessie and Uncle George’s house. She reached under our Christmas tree and pulled out the gift she’d gotten for me.

I ripped open the wrapping paper, and on the box was a picture of a coffee percolator. I tried very hard not to be disappointed. But I stared at the box and wondered what I, as a five-year-old, would do with a coffee pot. I supposed I could put it on the counter so my parents could use it, right?

“BJ, open the box,” she said to me. I snapped my head up from looking at the picture that promised me the perfect cup of coffee. She helped my clumsy hands peel back the tape. Wedged inside the box was a black and white stuffed dog, a beagle sized St. Bernard. It was the one that would eventually sleep with me every night, and go everywhere with me. I named him Bernard, and I used to chew on his nose. A year later my brother would yank the nose out of my mouth to keep me from ruining it, and my first tooth would come out with it.

I hugged it close to me and thanked her. She led me to my bed and got me into my pajamas, and I fell back into my hazy sleep.

BJ Knapp is the author of Beside the Music, available for purchase here. Please sign up for the Backstage with BJ Knapp mailing list to get updates on events, signings, dog pictures and so much more.

BJ Knapp is the author of Beside the Music, available for purchase here. Please sign up for the Backstage with BJ Knapp mailing list to get updates on events, signings, dog pictures and so much more.