Defending Rudolph

When I was four, we lived in an apartment complex that divided a gingerbread house neighborhood and a ramshackle, riverbank neighborhood – one with neat little blocks of brick and garden, the other with litter strewn yards, debris from basements flooded every spring. Our buildings stood in between, a corridor of indecision for renters on their way one direction or the other, living in not quite a tenement, not quite a house.

We would eventually move to suburbia, our faces turned toward the light of the middle-class sun just a few streets away. But for a time we too straddled, my parents reaching beyond their marginalized backgrounds, banking on the American dream of ingenuity and effort to change their circumstances. They had worked hard to get this far, this nice arrangement of buildings, each with a tended square of grass in front. Our two bedroom apartment was a step up and they had their backs to the river.

I remember one day playing in front of our building as my mom sat on the stoop, reading Ladies Home Journal or maybe Alfred Hitchcock Mysteries. I played on the sidewalk, scooting along on a Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer riding toy.

Rudolph was plastic, with molded tufts of fur on his neck and tail, big Egyptian eyes painted Bambi blue, small green wheels under each hoof and a red painted saddle where I sat perfectly tall. I could push on the cement with my sneakers and then fling my legs wide, coasting away in a story. His horns were detachable, rounded handles; I held the top prongs or the lower, adjusting the height by sliding them up or down in the notch at the top of his head. I leaned over and whispered in his ear; he listened with his cartoon face, kind and spunky, just like on the TV show.

This particular day there were other children who spilled outside. Mikey was younger than I was and Michelle a little older. They lived upstairs. Their mother did not sit but followed them around watching closely, speaking in a voice slightly too loud, narrating as her children asked questions or made funny noises or rolled somersaults. She praised them and petted them the same way that I petted my Rudolph.

Then Mikey decided that he wanted to ride on Rudolph. He grabbed at Rudolph’s horns and yelled in my face, demanding that I let him have the toy. I said, “No! Rudolph is mine!” I stuttered noticeably as a child, yet at this age was only somewhat aware of the broken words as they came out of my mouth. I heard them amplified, however, in Mikey’s response.

“Nanananana – RuRuRuRu – dadadada – meemeemee,” Mikey laughed and pointed, “You talk like a baby!” Mikey’s mother looked nervous, concerned for her child. “Now, now,” she said to me slowly as if talking to someone unpredictable. “Just relax, don’t get so excited, Mikey just wants to ride on your reindeer. You can share.” I shook my head again, “Rudolph is mine!” Mikey yanked the deer away from me and repeating consonants like a motor, rode out of reach. Mikey’s mother clapped, “See! Look how fast Mikey can go!”

I went to my mother who looked up from her magazine. I was crying. “Mikey has Rudolph and he was copying me, making the words go over and over, and he took Rudolph and laughed at me.” My mother saw the other mother crowing over her son and frowned; her eyes, not unlike Rudolph’s in their size and shape, looked fierce. But she did not get up. “You need to fight back,” she said. “No one is going to fight your battles for you. If you want your deer back, you go get it. If I go over there, you will never learn.” “But Mikey is bigger than me,” I worried. She shook her head, “Call him a name or something. He is just a whiney little momma’s boy, you can get that toy back on your own.”

I ran back to Mikey and Rudolph. Mikey had gotten off the deer but held it behind him as I approached. “You can’t have it back, baby talk, nanananna.” I pushed him aside and grabbed at the deer. There was a brief tug of war. Mikey’s mother began to move quickly saying, “Now children. Children!” I wrenched the deer away and, with both hands, lifted Rudolph in the air, swinging it over my head and down on Mikey’s, gravity and shifting antlers adding velocity to the hard plastic arc and subsequent crack. Mikey and his mother screamed at the same time. Holding on tight, I set the deer back on the ground, climbed on the bright red saddle, and rode toward my mother.

I heard the other mother trying to comfort her sobbing son. Out of the corner of my eye I watched her pick up Mikey and stride purposefully passed me to where my mother was still sitting. Mikey’s mother bellowed a string of incriminations; my mother shrugged, said something like: “The kid had it coming.” She opened the magazine again and continued reading. Mikey’s mother screamed for Michelle, who had been practicing Cartwheels, to “get upstairs and away from these people.” My mother got up and called me inside after the door slammed. She said, “Good girl. You have to fight back or people will walk all over you.” And that was the end of it. Mikey never played outside again, at least when we were there.

For my mother this episode was a mundane interaction, daily proof that the world required vigilant self-reliance. She grew up fighting for her place in a town where Italians were still called WOPs. She married a boy who had hitchhiked his way from the poorest side of the tracks. They learned to survive, moving hungrily from job to apartment to house, then to a better house, a better neighborhood, a better status, propelled by a tenacious belief that good fortune had nothing to do with it.

My memory spans my parents’ progress from scrappy to privileged. I echo the syllables of their past and it never occurs to me to look up or around for rescue and explanation. I think of Mikey’s mother and sometimes long for a life protected by benevolent authority or divined by God or woven by the delicate fingers of fate but it seems fanciful, even weak. 

There are many Polaroids of myself and my mother during the time of the reindeer riding toy. We are almost always photographed together, dressed in similar clothes, a strikingly exotic woman in her intricate beehive hairdo and a small, skinny child with pixie bangs, awkwardly posing as tough and true as her mom. Beyond the picture is a square of grass, many afternoons and a lifetime leaning into the wind, riding on Rudolph, determining my speed with each shove of my foot on the ground.

14 responses to “Defending Rudolph”

  1. Dave says:

    Nice début, Ramona.

  2. Dave says:

    Aaaaaand, no other comments yet.

    Regarding the substance of the piece, I was pretty shocked by your mom’s behavior, which was very different from anything my mom would have said or done. It wasn’t that my parents would step in to childhood squabbles — far from it — but they valued niceness in interpersonal interactions above all else. I myself am still tremendously conflict-averse. But you sketched out very effectively a reason for why your mom wanted you to learn to be tough, and I suspect the lesson has served you well.

  3. Scotty says:

    Great story! The title, though made my heart skip a beat. I was all, “Now I gotta read a post about the merits of Giuliani?!” Okay, I didn’t really say it out loud, but I thought it.

    But seriously, welcome to the Whatsit.

    My mom was (and still is) a scrappy little cuss. Maybe it’s the whole Catholic thing. Has yours ever threatened to rip someone’s eyes out?

    Mine neither.

  4. ramona says:

    Scotty – no ripping but lots of the “evil eye.”
    Dave – her reasons aside, there is ambivelence. As for comments, I am the new kid after all. I just have to get me a good baggie story.

  5. Tim says:

    Welcome, Ramona! Great story and well told. I particularly liked your use of imagery like “our faces turned toward the light of the middle-class sun just a few streets away.”

    Like Dave’s, my parents would never have trucked my hitting another kid, but it sure did the trick in this case. He was bullying you. You nailed him on the head. He stopped. My parents probably would have counseled me to talk to Mikey and explain that if he wanted to borrow my toys he should ask nicely, etc. It would have been the nice, liberal thing to do, and it probably wouldn’t have worked. Sometimes bullies have to learn lessons the hard way.

  6. AW says:

    A new writer! Great. A favorite line, “She praised them and petted them the same way that I petted my Rudolph”–and others like it–capture the distinctions you make about class, privilege, and parental responsiblity throughout the piece. I also relate to your–and other–comments about ambivalence: I am sure your ability to stick up for yourself has made your life easier in some ways, but like many strengths, these skills were not necessarily easy to gain..

    Hope you keep writing.

  7. LP says:

    Ramona, I concur with the other commenters! This was a great read, beautifully constructed and observed. Welcome, and I look forward to more!

  8. Your last line made me shiver and grin. An odd combination, but it always means good writing.

  9. lane says:


    “a good baggie story” . . .?

    . . . please, do tell.

  10. Natasha says:

    Totally cool post Ramona! Most of us, raised by European parents, learned to stand up to mean kids and definitely hit back. It’s interesting that the American way of raising children is completely the opposite from the European one. I am sure the Pilgrims still thought their kids name calling. I wonder, when did it all change?

  11. Natasha says:

    Sorry, I meant, they used to teach their kids namecalling

  12. I’ve had a couple crazy days and haven’t had a chance yet to say how much I enjoyed this. Woo-hoo Ramona! Thanks for putting it out there for us.

  13. slade says:

    I browsed by a new literary bookstore and private press in my neighborhood today. They had on display a quote that stuck with me and reading your story this evening makes me think of it again:
    “If you act like sheep, you’ll be eaten by wolves.” — Einstein

  14. lane says:

    All I have to say is. . .

    HOW ‘BOUT THEM GIANTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!