An Isabelle Christmas

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By Ken Begley


There have been a total of four-and-one-half Isabelles in my life.
I don’t know what it is about the name Isabelle, but most seem to be quite feisty in nature.
This includes my mother and a daughter (both named Mary Isabelle), a family friend (Isabelle Ellery), and an aunt that I’ve rarely talked about but will today.  (Writer’s note:  My mother is not a feisty Isabelle.)
Oh yeah, the one half Isabelle is local library board member Belle Sutton.  She’s not a whole Isabelle, but we share the same birthday and exchange feisty birthday cards each year, so I’m including her to round out the bunch.
My aunt was feisty Aunt Isabelle Lanham.  Wouldn’t life be boring without a feisty aunt in the family?  More about her later in the story.
Christmas time was always my most favorite event of the year as a kid.  Who would this not be true for?  I would be giddy with anticipation in the months leading up to the event, though I have to admit the reason for this was seldom biblical.
Actually, it was the anticipation of Santa’s visit that today stir up the most pleasant of memories rather than the day itself.  Yes sir, I used to spend hours thumbing through the Sears catalog looking at all of the unimaginable gobs of toys and dreaming pleasant dreams.  (Writer’s note to younger people:  The Sears Catalog was the Stone-Age version of the Internet where you could buy most anything.)
I wasn’t a particularly good little boy, but I was and always will be an eternal optimist.  I felt that Santa, being a forgiving soul, would overlook my youthful indiscretions.
Still, I seemed to receive an abundance of underwear in those days, which I took as being on the naughty list.  Then again, it could have been because Santa knew our individual needs best.  He might have seen me that night Mr. Warren told those ghost stories to all the neighborhood kids on his back porch down on Eddleman Court.
You couldn’t waste any of your wishes, either.  Santa didn’t have a very big sleigh back in those days, so he had to carry fewer toys.  Kids had to make every wish count.
Kids today can afford to waste a few wishes.  The reason is because Santa must have traded in his economy ride somewhere over the years and gotten a tractor-trailer.  At least that’s my guess, because this generation of kids seems to be hauling away quite a bit of loot.
In addition, grandparents didn’t buy gifts for their grandkids in my day.  The reason for that is simple.  Families were much larger.  I come from a family that had nine kids, and I have almost 100 first cousins.   I’m not saying they all claim me publicly, mind you, but it explains why gifts from grandparents were out of the question.
But we did have something my cousins didn’t have.  We had Aunt Isabelle.
Aunt Isabelle was a feisty elderly aunt that had no kids.  By the way, I really enjoy feisty elderly people and plan to be one myself.    My kids think I’m already there, though I assure them I’m not.
There was an air of mystery about Aunt Isabelle that my young mind couldn’t comprehend.  My mother would mysteriously disappear for a week every time Aunt Isabelle showed up.
I didn’t understand where Momma went, but figured we must have drove her crazy and she needed some time off.  Equally mystifying was the fact that when my mother showed up a week later, she would have a new baby and appeared to be much slimmer than when she left.  
Some mysteries will never be solved.
Anyway, Aunt Isabelle seemed to take a great liking to us kids over the years.  Every Christmas she would bring a sack of gift-wrapped toys for each and every one of us, naughty or nice.  I think she preferred the naughty ones more.  Don’t forget that I did say she was feisty.
I would shake, rattle and roll that package with my name on it from early morning to late at night for two weeks before Christmas.  I would thumb feverishly through that Sears catalog taking measurements of all the toys and comparing it to the box.
I got a toy top the first Christmas.  You would crank it up and down on the handle and it would spin wildly on our floor.  Not bad, I thought, and played with it a bunch.  I thanked her profusely.
Everything was repeated next Christmas and that year I got a ... bigger TOP.
To be honest, I was disappointed and immediately began waiting for next Christmas.
The third year I got a bigger box and an even bigger top.
The fourth year I got an even  bigger box and a top that would make a whistling sound as it spun around.
I was not pleased.
“Does that woman think I’ve got an obsession with tops or what?” I fumed.
The whole family began to gather around my gift opening every year after that, and in the fifth year, surprise, I got an even bigger top.
My brother, Tony, looked down at it and said, “Dang Kenny, at this rate you’ll have one big enough that you’ll be able to sit on as it spins around.”
I kicked him in the shins and ran away in tears.
Aunt Isabelle never gave me any gifts other than tops during her entire gift-giving tenure.
My brothers and sisters kid me about those tops to this day.  Occasionally, I’ll get a top as a gift from someone in the family in on this 50-year running joke.
But you know what?
Aunt Isabelle did give me a gift that never dies.
It’s a story that still makes me laugh every Christmas when I think about it.
I miss you, Aunt Isabelle.