By Guest Blogger Andrea Ropko
This is our elf. Yes, he is, in fact, sitting on a shelf, but he is not to be confused with America’s Rascally Holiday Sweetheart: The Elf on the Shelf. You know the one. The little scamp who eats all the cookies in the quiet of the night and leaves milk cartons turned over in kitchens and gets into toilet paper mischief. Our elf is not THE Elf on the Shelf.
Not that you would be confused. As you can see, our elf is straight out of a childhood nightmare experienced by anyone born between the years 1964-1973. The piercing blue peepers that not only don’t follow your gaze, they seem to be intentionally set so you can never make eye contact with him or her. Speaking of him or her, the long lashes and gender neutral yellow pajama-elfin get-up constantly leaves you guessing: Is he…she…they going to kill me in my sleep?
This elf came into my life as a little girl. He was an ornament on my Grandma’s christmas tree. As a matter of fact, she had a least a dozen of them creepily hanging in her tree. At the time they were merely dangling ornaments and not at all associated with a delightful countdown to Christmas and magical, elfin charm. I found their perfectly coifed and impenetrable curls that seductively popped out of their Nissehues worrisome. Their frozen, cherry-lipped grins were not to be trusted. I spent a fair amount of time in imaginary play sitting beside my grandmother’s tree creating story lines that incorporated all the decorations, including these elves. They were always the bad guy. Always up to no good shenanigans. It was not uncommon for Baby Jesus and his donkey to have to intervene when the elves were bullying the snowflakes and angels and blue bulbs that glistened innocently from the tree.
Tragically, many of these elves were victims of the intense heat radiating off the voluminous electric bulbs screwed into the cumbersome cord. Their wide plastic perma-grins were no match for their melted rosey cheeks and charred elf pjs. Even then my Grandmother did not retire them to the basement or the garbage can. They remained on the tree, year after year. Taunting. Giggling. Menacing—as an adjective and a verb.
I eventually inherited one and he quickly became a regular attendee on the Ropko family tree. The elf’s presence was met with mixed emotion. On one hand the elf reminded me of my sweet Grandma and Grandpa and Christmas’s in their Lexington home, conjuring smells of baked ham and sounds of Johnny Mathis’ Calypso Noel. On the other hand, it’s elfin’ creepy, so I stuck him in the WAY back of the tree where he could intentionally NOT look me in the eye and I could honor our Christmas tradition.
Until Christmas 2010. The day a four year old spotted him tucked in some branches.
“We have an Elf on the Shelf!” he screamed, ripping the yellow and white striped mischief-maker from the Balsam Fir.
“No we don’t.” I busied myself by pulling ornaments out of the baby’s mouth and helped my two year old decorate her designated section of the tree. If you’ve had a two year old, you know the spot I am referring to: Ten-twelve ornaments on a single limb. An innumerable count on how many times each item is placed on the branch, removed from the branch, replaced on the branch, removed from the branch, dropped to the floor, tears shed over the broken pieces, and if isn’t shattered and doomed to the ornament graveyard, it is rehooked on the tree. Repeat.
“Yes, we do. Look!” He shoved the the capricious creature in my face. The exaggerated smile on the elf’s mug; the aloof stare in the opposite direction. It all seemed to say, Gotcha!
I stood firm with my belief that if I stayed on the path of denial and semantics, I would escape this perceived, self-imposed holiday torment. “Oh, he’s just a…not THE Elf—“
“It is! Look at him!” He shoved the pointy nose deeper into my cheek. I swear I heard a high-pitched, elfin giggle and I may be misremembering, but I seem to recall it actually pierced my skin. It probably didn’t. But it hurt and my resistance was getting lower by the second.
“But it is not ON a Shelf, see?” I argued and pointed to the elf’s slumped body on the kitchen table.
“Yes, he is. See?” debated the four year old, holding the elf upright.
I surrendered. “I see.”
And that’s how the Ropkos wound up with an elf on a shelf.
Turns out, like most everything else in human existence, it’s as much of a joy or burden as I make it. This tiny being with the impish grin is responsible for daily treats in our Christmas advent countdown. All three kids have rushed to gather around and pull the tiny drawer out to see what this folksy fella has left. Hershey’s Kisses. Quarters. A button. Lint. Nothing. I know those last few sound perhaps a little mean, but they weren’t intentional. We simply forgot. Or overslept. Or forgot. The kids were hardly scarred, though, as the elf would just bring something later in the day. As far as they were concerned the delay was intentionally meant to keep them on their toes. Not at all a sleep-deprived parenting mishap.
And the lint/button fiasco that began with the children catching me opening the 14th day drawer, actually turned out to work in my favor due to a delightfully unexpected turn of events. It happened like this:
One morning in my attempt to beat the familiar sounds of footie pajamas bounding down the stairs, I grabbed some peppermints to quickly place inside the December 14 drawer. It was the third day in a row that I was treating them with Generically-Branded peppermints on behalf of our elf. Mom-guilt in the moment spoke to me and said, “These aren’t even Starlight Brach’s mints. They’re bottom of the car floorboard take-out Chinese restaurant mints. I suck.” In a flash of whimsical, elf-inspired creativity, I noted something on the counter beside the calendar.
“A button! A random button! Yes! I can place three chewy, tasteless, crappy peppermints in the drawer and add three other random items, including the button! I don’t have to know what they mean right now. I can figure it out after I have a cup of coffee or four. I know! I can let them figure out what they mean. Each item is a clue! To what?! I don’t know! I don’t have to know!! They will figure it out!!! We will make a whole damn day of it!!!”
In my enthusiasm, I totally missed the sound of my noisy crew barreling into the kitchen. Just as I dropped the button in, I heard a shriek of horror.
Panicked, I clutched the mints in my hand and came up with the perfect line.
“I was just checking for you…nothing yet,” I said, cheerfully. But I know my kids. Moving on would not happen.
Always needing to see and do and experience for himself, my six year old said, “Let me have a look.”
It was clear who lead this threesome, even though he was the last one to arrive to check out Day 14 Drawer. The youngest toddled, wobbled, and climbed up onto a chair to get a better vantage point. He was the first to arrive, but he didn’t dare open the box. The middle child, and the only lady of the group, leapt in a single, effortless jump onto a chair beside the baby. Even though the littlest was clearly not touching the drawer, the Little Misses found it necessary to remind him that he needed to wait for their trusted leader.
The biggest boy finally arrived to open the drawer to investigate.
He carefully held up the button for the others to see. They oohed and ahhed. I wasn’t sure what direction this was all going to go until he reached in the drawer one more time. I was still clutching the mints, so I assumed we were all done with the big reveal until he pulled out one more hidden item.
The boy raised his hand high in the air to show the secret item that was a surprise even to me.
“A piece of wint!” the tiny girl exclaimed, and because the babiest of the boys believed in her so wholeheartedly, he began to cheer and chant along with her without question.
“A piece of wint! A piece of wint!”
Until their leader held up his all-knowing hand and spoke.
“I have heard about this. A piece of lint is not good.”
The chanting and cheering stopped and waited for further instructions.
The big brother continued. “The elf does this when Santa says we are not being good.”
The sister and the baby brother hung their heads in shame.
“Forest and Stella,” he implored. “We have to be good.”
They all nodded in agreement and took a moment of silence to solidify their commitment to good behavior, and ultimately, treats from the elf that are not buttons or wint.
You might be wondering if they were good for the rest of that holiday? I think it’s safe to say, no. No, they were not good. They were, however, perfectly six, four, and 15 months.
Our creepy Elf is still part of our life this holiday season. The elf gets moved. Sometimes. Treats are left. Sometimes. It is not uncommon for me to find my husband in the middle of the living room, mumbling, “Where the hell did I put that damn thing?”
And the elf found himself face down on a light bulb just a few days ago. Forest, the eight year old baby, expressed concern that Mark’s moving him off the burning bulb may make the elfin powers disappear. Heath doesn’t mind eating the chocolate left in the drawer, but has nothing to say one way or the other about who is responsible for the treat.
Stella occasionally advises, “Mom, I don’t think that elf has moved for a couple of days.”
I suppose it won’t be long before the crafty (or not so crafty) sprite will find himself back on an evergreen limb, his days of chicanery long gone. No matter what, the little scamp is still smiling. I will try to remember that when his moments of treats and trickery are over. The least I can do is put the beloved elf on the front of our tree when that time arrives. Of course, he will avoid eye contact with me. But in my heart, I will know what we once shared.
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