The December of my fifth grade year was going to be full of awesome.
After a year spent in the wilds of Knox County, we were finally back home in northern Kentucky where I could get good pizza and cheese coneys any old time I wanted to. I was a hot-shot fifth-grader ruling the roost with my best friends in our last year of elementary school, and after much cajoling, I finally had 80s hair; my mother had given up the fight and my hair was cut from the "Dorothy Hamill" I'd had since I was 3 into a short feathery bob that tried to be Courtney Cox in the "Dancing In the Dark" video and some days actually reached that mark.
Because the previous Christmas had been so lonely, and we'd had so little money, my mother and sister were making up for it by organizing a steady stream of big-ticket family activities every weekend between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. Our little family, very Hobbit-like in general and not inclined to adventures when there were naps to be taken, actually had plans. Plans that went beyond going to Florence Mall or throwing pennies into the indoor fountains at the deserted shopping center beside McAlpins. It was an exciting time to be one of us.
And yet, as it so often wasn't, luck was not on our side.
The first blow to our schedule was completely Dolly Parton's fault.
My mother had always loved Ms. Parton and related to both her humble Appalachian upbringing and her obsession with big hair. So when we heard the news that Dolly was going on tour with "Islands In the Stream" partner Kenny Rogers, well...how were we supposed to say no to that? One of their winter stops was in Rupp Arena, a shrine in the minds of most Kentuckians and a place Mom and I had never been to before. Tickets were purchased and the countdown begun.
Honestly, I did not care about Kenny and Dolly. I was in it for Boy George.
In a gesture that would continue for years after, and one that I continue with Ainsley to this day, I received an early gift of one stylish and showy outfit that would be my uniform for all dress-up events that holiday season. Mom's taste was not as trendy as I would have liked for these outfits, but in 1984, she totally nailed it.
She bought me an off-the-shoulder oversized silky white tee with a multi-colored, be-glittered likeness of the one and only Boy George. (It was only later that she realized the face on the shirt was male and the lead singer of the group that sang "Karma Chameleon"; she thought it was a woman's face in a really kick-ass art-deco style.) His eye shadow was represented on the shirt in purple glitter, and the eyebrows, blush, and lips were airbrushed in charcoal and pastel pinks.
Be still, my beating heart.
Pair that baby with new zipper-leg ankle-length jeans and the off-brand pale gray penny loafers Mom found, and I was ready to rock the Arena. I even had a mesh head scarf that could be tied in a bow the size of Texas to hold back my newly feathered hair.
Look out, Dolly. This kid was totally going to steal your spotlight.
And then Dolly got sick. She fell ill with pneumonia and cancelled several tour stops. Rupp Arena was not rescheduled. There was nothing I could do but look longingly at Boy George hanging forlorn in my closet. And listen to my brother-in-law ask, over and over again, if Dolly Parton with a chest cold was worse than a giraffe with a sore throat.
But then my mom gave me permission to wear George to our fifth-grade Christmas program. I had a small poem to read (with two other girls, but still) and a place on the first row of the risers for our group choral numbers. I couldn't wait to be seen.
"Who's that charming young lady with the great hair and the totally rad Boy George shirt?"
"I don't know, but baby, she's gonna be a star!"
Alas, on the day of in-school dress rehearsals, the intense sore throat and body aches I'd woken up with that morning, but hadn't told my mom about (the show must go on and all that), caused me to make a sudden exit during "Silent Night" to rid my stomach of my breakfast and huddle shivering in the bathroom until the school secretary could check on me. I had my first and only case of strep throat. I had to drop out of that evening's sole performance.
Boy George and I were devastated.
Our family had one more chance at fun, and Boy George just one more chance to come out of the closet. (My closet, I mean.) On the evening of my last day of school before Christmas break, we had tickets to see our beloved Kentucky Wildcats play. I was going to get to see Rupp Arena, after all. Though everyone else was going to wear blue and white, I was by-God going to wear my new shirt, which still had the tags on it. It was all I could think about all day, even though we were going to be racing scooters in gym class, which was every 5th-grader's favorite thing to do. That and pulling bra straps.
When it was my turn to race, I was so focused on the evening ahead that I was in my own world. I was a distracted driver who couldn't be bothered to focus further than the blue plastic handles on the sides of the scooter.
I went out of my lane and into another student and landed on top of a scooter handle. With my face.
My eye bruised and puffed immediately and blood trickled from a cut above my lip. Our gym teacher led me aside to clean me up and ice my eye. I was inconsolable.
"They won't take me now!"
"Who won't take you where?" (I'm sure she thought I had a concussion. And given that I saw stars and talked nonsense for 5 minutes, I may have.)
"My family! They won't take me to see UK and eat at Joe Bologna's and I won't get to wear Boy George because my eye is swollen and I have a busted lip and they won't want me out in public!"
The gym teacher sighed as only an annoyed teacher trying to be patient can.
"Your eye will be fine. Your lip will be fine. I don't see any reason why you can't go to the game. Now go sit down before you hurt yourself."
We did go to the game. But I was defeated. I decided I should not wear a shirt featuring a face with purple eye shadow and voluptuous pink lips when I also was sporting an accidental purple eye and a very pink lip. For once, I wanted to fade into the crowd. I wore a UK sweatshirt and allowed my feathery hair to partially conceal the damage to my face. It was fun. But it's hard to see a game through a painful and partially shut eye.
I did finally get to wear Boy George when a boy in my class (named George, and I swear I'm not making that up) asked me to go see a movie with him over Christmas break. It was magical in a way that Dolly & Kenny, my school Christmas program, and even the UK game could not have been. For it turns out that my "date" was a huge Culture Club fan. Unlike my mother, he knew exactly whose face was on my shirt. And gave me the first compliment I ever got from a boy:
"I like your shirt."
It was an innocent date, of course, chaperoned by his parents and discussed over the phone with mine. It was spontaneous, born of two friends with nothing to do on a snowy Sunday afternoon after our Christmas presents had been thoroughly explored and were beginning to get boring. It wasn't a dramatic scheduled thing like a concert, or a basketball game, or a Christmas program. I had built the expectations for these things up so much in my head that when they didn't go as planned, I was disappointed and disillusioned. I had no expectations for my trip to the movies, except that the movie keep me awake and provide more entertainment than watching my father watch football. It did not disappoint.
At Christmas, we tend to over-schedule, over-plan, over-think. We raise our expectations for magic so high that we are bound to go out of our lane and fall face-first into disappointment.
It's not the big things at the holidays that create the magic. It's the little spontaneous moments that make the joy.
That, and fabulous t-shirts.