At Christmas time all my friends seemed happy, friendly and excited for the big day when Santa Claus would deliver presents to their house. My father was Jewish and my mother gentile which was why when I was growing up Christmas was more of a celebration of family getting together, eating, drinking, and exchanging presents, than of a religious holiday. As a child I didn’t know the difference, I just knew I loved that time of year, near the end of December. My father was ill for years with heart failure, (he had had several heart attacks) and my mother worked as a hairdresser to support us. We did not have much money and even necessities were given to us by our Aunt Letha and Uncle Wally. Life was a struggle and alcohol didn’t make it easier, but once a year, we were allowed the pleasure of dreaming of what Santa might bring. We could visualize without being put down for our desires. Of course it was understood that you had to be good, for if you were bad Santa wouldn’t stop at your address. I worked hard at being good!

Decorating the artificial tree was fun because it was the only activity I ever did with my mother. It was wonderful to be able to help her un-wrap the brilliant bulbs and the colorful bubbly amber lights shaped like candles. Each bauble was surrounded with tissue paper which was used over and over, year after year. I actually enjoyed the slightly moldy smelling tissue. We carefully would place each piece of tinsel over a limb one at a time. When my brother would throw big gobs of tinsel all at once it was sure to cause a fight. I was tightly wired and if I couldn’t control the flow of the decorating I went berserk. Fortunately, John didn’t like to put the ornaments on the tree; he thought it was too much work. We would spread a thin cotton skirt at the base when we were finished. I loved looking at the flickering candle lights bouncing off the dazzling colored balls. This is when I would dream of what I wanted for Christmas.

My eighth year, 1949, I was dreaming BIG TIME! I wanted a Madame Alexander doll. This composition doll with painted features and sleep eyes was my vision for a companion in lieu of an invisible friend. I longed to have a doll to play with and I prayed with all my might that Santa would answer my prayers. That year several presents, without any tags, were placed under the tree a week before December 25th. I took every opportunity to pick up the packages and rattle them to see if I could figure out what was inside. I did see a box large enough to hold a doll and I was fixated on that rectangular gift. It was way in the back partially covered by the cotton cloth. I would close my eyes and almost go into a trance imagining a beautiful Madame Alexander with a thick stock of curly hair.

We were told to go to bed early on Christmas eve and sleep fast so that Santa wouldn’t see us. My mother said, “If you see Santa Claus and look him in the eye, he won’t leave presents.” I believed her. She added, “The quicker you go to bed the sooner Christmas Day will be here.” We always did two things before we went to our room: we hung our stockings on a coat hook, (we didn’t have a fireplace) and we left cookies and milk for Santa. I took cat naps all night long for I was busy listening to any sounds the wind made and was sure I heard Santa in our house. I always wondered how he made it inside. But, I really didn’t care because I knew he was magical and had the same power as fairies, angels and maybe even God.

John and I would be ready to get up around 5:00 am but we needed to wait for Aunt Letha and Uncle Wally to come over, for they loved being with us when we opened gifts. I heard my mother say, “You had better get here quick. I hear the kids pacing in their room.” As soon as the front door opened we bolted to the living room and saw layers of packages all around the tree. Santa had been quite generous and also had filled our felt stockings with fruit and candy.

It was a tradition for one person to “play” Santa and hand out one gift at a time to each person in the room. This delayed the pleasure and also allowed us to appreciate everyone else’s presents. One by one we would tear into the paper. I received socks, underwear, pajamas inscribed with polar bears, and a wonderful multi-colored knit scarf. My mother and aunt always gave each other a Vanity Fair robe. To me it always seemed that items for girls and women were more vibrant. I can’t remember what my brother, dad or uncle received. As the torn wrapping paper and ribbons filled the room I almost forgot about that large rectangular box. When my aunt began cleaning up all the empty boxes and paper I heard my mother say, “There is one gift left. Let’s see whose name is on it? Kay.” There it was the box I had been studying for two weeks, with my name on it. “This is from all of us Kay, Merry Christmas.” My hands were shaking as I un-wrapped the package. I lifted the lid, turned back the tissue, and there she was Madame Alexander dressed in a red velvet cape with a matching beret! I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Aunt Letha then handed me a burgundy velvet drawstring bag. Inside there were incredible hand made clothes my mother had sewn for the Madame. Keep in mind, Barbie Dolls had not been created yet. Dolls, even the caliber of Madame Alexander didn’t come with a wardrobe. My mother had lovingly designed bras, panties, slips, blouses, skirts, and even an evening gown all for this tiny doll. Wow, I had never experienced anything quite as special in my life. It was one of the few times I felt genuine love and caring from my mom.

It is extremely sad to me that alcohol stole my mother and father and drugs robbed me of my brother. What potential there was for us to have had a happy family without addiction? I treasured that special doll for years and even took it to college with me. Unfortunately it was in a box of sweaters that was stolen from my dorm when I was moving at the end of my freshman year. I put the image of the doll out of my mind and didn’t think about it for many years.

The first job Joey got when we moved to San Francisco was managing a beautiful 40 unit apartment building, with an elegant marble entry, at the Foot of Nob Hill. He did the work of manager and part-time maintenance man in exchange for rent. I hadn’t been able to find a teaching position coming from Boston but I needed the work and was willing to do most anything. I was fortunate to find employment with a cleaning service that cleaned offices in the Financial District downtown in the evenings.

As the Christmas season was approaching I wanted to make our tree unusual. Joey and I had just married and we had never decorated for Christmas together. Considering the fact we didn’t have much money we decided to make ornaments by hand. We spent several hours a day constructing papier-mâché stars, moons, and balls. He and I worked together in an art studio we were allowed to use in the basement. We chose to use the cast iron stove we had brought from Massachusetts, (see CODEPENDENCE DAY) as the base for our tree. While we were working on the decorations I told Joey the story of the Madame Alexander doll. He didn’t say much but listened intently. After a few weeks of work we drove to a tree lot in the woods and cut down our own tree. It was romantic and I was looking forward to a preparing a Christmas feast for two. I knew this was going to be a good holiday.

I needed to clean offices on the 23rd. I usually would arrive home around midnight. That evening it was closer to 1:00 am because several businesses had parties and there was more work involved. As I walked down busy Pine St. I enjoyed looking at lights strung everywhere. It was lovely. I did notice that night it seemed more quiet than usual. I couldn’t wait to get to our apartment because I was tired and wanted to get to bed. I was looking forward to my first Christmas in California.

When I opened the heavy glass floor to ceiling double doors I noticed that the limestone floor was wet. In fact, it was so drenched I almost slipped. My mind was racing. Why hadn’t Joey cleaned this up? How did it get there? What on earth had happened? As with so many other events, something always seemed to go awry. I tiptoed over the flooded floor and opened the first door to my right which was our apartment. Joey was passed out on the floor and the rooms were filled with smoke. I ran to the small kitchenette and found all four gas burners flaming several inches high. I was angry and also scared! The apartment could have easily caught on fire. (In our years together the fire department had to come many times when Joey would try to light his cigarette with the burners from the stove. He actually never caused a fire but came extremely close.) I forced him to get up. “What happened?” I demanded to know.

“I vomited coming in the front door and I tried to clean it up,” he said with great remorse.

I had kept his drinking such a secret from everyone and I wasn’t about to let it out now. I took a bucket and a mop and cleaned up the mess. As I was working an elegant gentleman who lived upstairs came through the entry and asked me what was wrong. I lied and said someone in the building was sick after a party. He said, “Too bad.”

The next day Joey and I barely spoke. The reality of his drinking and our exhausting life together hit me hard. He tried to pretend like nothing had happened but we both knew we were in trouble. This was like so many holidays of my youth. He asked me to pose for a picture in front of the tree with our ornaments. I did so with disappointment. He handed me a beautifully wrapped package and said, “Merry Christmas.”

“I thought we weren’t exchanging gifts? What is it Joey?”

“Open it and see.”

First I untied the lace ribbon. Then I slowly opened the rectangular box trying not to tear the paper because it was stunning. As I lifted the tissue paper I gasped. Inside was a Madame Alexander doll dressed in a red velvet gown. I cried because of this enchanting sentiment. Of course I thanked him profusely but all the while I was confused in my heart because of the incident the night before. This was reminiscent of my past. Alcohol had come between a loved one and me, had cheated us both of happiness, although at the time I didn’t understand what was happening. I tried to give Joey a hug but he wasn’t able to respond. The next thing I knew, he got up, left the house and didn’t come home for days. I spent Christmas alone that year. It wasn’t the first or the last time he walked out when confronted with embarrassment.

Today, I am living the dream I always kept in my heart for Santa, (see I AM HEALTHY.) My Alexander doll is a beautiful girl named Mariah. Our daughter is ten years old now and she feels she is one of the only people in the world to see the “real” Santa Claus. Just the other day she said to me, “You know Mommy I will always believe in Santa, even when I grow up because I SAW HIM! Some of my friends don’t believe but they have only seen all the helpers of Santa dressed like him at the malls.”

When Mariah was six we spent the holidays near the Chicago area where Bryan’s mother and sisters live. Traveling to see our family where we have seven nieces and nephews all close to Mariah’s age is thrilling in the winter especially when it snows. That year Grandpa Joe and Grandma Sharon had transformed their basement (a suburban walk-up) to a magnificent family room with a wall of glass bordering Grandma’s charming garden. It had snowed heavily before we arrived which created breathtaking visuals of the trees and shrubbery outside. It was bitterly cold forming icicles dangling from the roof. Several stockings were hanging on the mantel and a roaring fire was in the fireplace. The children were playing games and several of the aunts and uncles were conversing. A garland of lights flickered outside illuminating the magnificent Christmas Eve scene. All of a sudden Grandma shrieked, “Look outside!” There must have been 15 heads that turned in unison and also screamed. One of the kids said, “It is Santa, it is Santa.” Santa Claus paused for a moment and looked right into the cozy warm room. As he turned the corner and went around a large bush, a wiggly brown tail was spotted. We all were sure it was a reindeer. One of the children yelled, “Uh oh! We have to get to bed. If Santa sees us he may not come to our house.” All the cousins who were staying at Grandma’s that night raced up the stairs so fast it seemed like a flash. The oldest boy had the covers over his head and didn’t want to get up to brush his teeth. What an exciting experience for all of us to have seen the real Santa Claus! We were in awe.

One of the reasons I feel like I survived the family disease of alcoholism-codependency is because I BELIEVE. I believe in Santa Claus, fairies, angels, miracles, and the innate goodness of human beings. I have confidence in the truth. I believe in Magic. What about you?

Author's Bio: 

Kay Kopit, accomplished artist, actor, writer, speaker and gifted teacher.

Kay Kopit grew up in the Midwest town of Clayton, Missouri. At the age of sixteen she choreographed as well as designed and made costumes for several high school productions. Here she found her passion for art and theatre.

She attended the University of Missouri where she received a B.S. in Art Education and M.A. in Painting and Ceramics. While in college she continued her interest in theater production succeeding in choreography and costume design for several major productions, including “Carnival” and “Once Upon a Mattress.” After graduate school she taught Life Drawing, Design, and Ceramics at the very prestigious Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri.

In 1969 Kay was inspired to move to the East or West Coast. By the flip of a coin (literally) she decided to move to the East Coast where she made Boston, Massachusetts her home. She was immediately offered a position teaching art at Lexington High School. After several successful years teaching Kay was determined to pursue a career in the arts and theatre and moved to California.

Kay moved to San Francisco where she trained with Wendell Phillips of the well-known Stagegroup Theatre. For several years she studied acting, dance, public speaking, and playwriting with reputable names such as Elizabeth Huddle of A.C.T., Peter Layton of The Drama Studio of London at Berkeley, and Sue Walden of the Improvisational Workshop.

Kay had continued success in her acting and modeling career. She appeared in many national commercials including: Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream, Hunt Wesson Foods, Totino’s Pizza, Shaklee, and many more. She acted as the principal spokesperson for several Industrial Films including: Chevron, Fireman’s Fund, Zenger Miller Productions and American Protective Services. Her print work was extensive including: Ketchum Advertising, Safeway, and Emporium-Capwell.

She has written and produced a documentary of her life story, “I Survived: One Woman’s Journey of Self-Healing and Transformation” which covers 15 years of living with an alcoholic. Although Kay was successful in her life, behind closed doors she endured pain, shame and emotional maiming. Her story is being told to help others overcome the debilitating disease of codependency.

Kay is now living an amazing life with her husband Bryan of 17 years (who just happens to be 19 years her junior.) To complete their family they adopted a daughter at birth when Kay was 54 years of age. Besides being a mother and wife she continues with her love of painting, writing, teaching and speaking on the subject of codependency. Her passion is not only the arts but to help people through her inspirational story. Her courage, stamina, and faith have given her direction and the gift of helping give others hope. Kay has several published articles and writing a monthly column for Recovery Times, that has a readership of over 16,000 per month, has several published articles, lecturing and doing workshops for The Mandana Center in Oakland, CA.