Every time we would go, most of the space our suitcases was taken up with various gifts and goodies for our family. My mother used the excuse of Christmas, but in reality it was a way of sharing our good fortune with family and friends in South America that had much less. Clothing for the women, electronics for the men (which always necessitated a trip to Manhattan to my father's chagrin, to find the proper voltage) and for the children, toys.
What there wasn't room for in our baggage, was for my toys. My mom would say I shouldn't bring my toys since it may be viewed as showing off to my cousins. I didn't want my cousins to feel bad, so I usually agreed. I mean, I had Christmas and my birthday to look forward to.
Christmas in Montevideo was slow torture for a child accustomed to Americanized holiday customs. Christmas, in my Wishy-washy Catholic extended family was neither super religious or highly secular, but certain customs were adhered to. Christmas Eve was the big family dinner followed by watching the telecast of the Pope's midnight Christmas mass and card playing. Christmas Day was a big family lunch/dinner get together.
No gifts were exchanged on either day.
It was explained to me in the simplest terms possible: Jesus didn't get his gifts on Christmas. He had to wait for the Three Kings to show up. So YOU have to wait until Three Kings Day.
Three Kings Day is January 6. That's TWO whole weeks after Christmas. It was a good thing that my birthday was a little before that, otherwise I believe I would have exploded every visit.
It was 1982 when I first became aware of the grueling passage of time that occurred during those two never ending weeks. Since I had not brought any toys with me, I had to make do with whatever was available to me. I learned to make great mudpies, bounce a soccer ball on my knees, and how to play marbles. It didn't help that I had only one cousin my age, and he had his own friends. Don't get me wrong, I had a blast with him, but he wasn't always available to keep me entertained.
My birthday brought with it many pieces of clothing and other nice things, that didn't lend themselves to solo play. My parents assured me I had other presents waiting for me back home, awaiting me in NY. That didn't necessarily endear me to our visit.
Three Kings Day finally came, and I received the same thing from every family member as did every other girl in my family it seemed. I received little match boxes.
Now, I don't mean the little cars, I mean cardboard little boxes that usually house matches you use to light the BBQ or birthday candle. I stood there confused staring at this mountain of boxes as the rest of the girls let out excited squeals.
I didn't get it.
And then the heavens parted.
One of my older cousins took one of my boxes and slid it open. Inside was a tiny doll. The body was cloth filled with beans or sand, the head was plastic, and it had colored stones for eyes. I opened the rest of them, and each was different.
I was told they were Fofoletes from Brazil.
They were a craze and impossible to find during that holiday season, so one of my uncles who ran the neighborhood boliche (small grocery store) with my grandmother had a contact in Brazil who was able to secure a case. Instead of placing them for sale to the public, my uncles and my dad went in on it together and divided them up equally for all the girls in the family.
Every dad and uncle was a hero that year.
I wasn't aware of the work that went into it at the time. I wasn't even aware how popular the dolls were. I was just happy to have small little dolls that could fit in my pocket so I could play with them. Like a sip of water to a thirsty man in a desert, I was elated.
The rest of my time in Montevideo went by quickly. I played with my army of match box dolls, and even traded some with the neighborhood kids that would visit my grandmother's boliche.
I had a handful of little dolls and I was happy. I didn't even remember the gifts awaiting me back home. I didn't need them.
I still have one of my childhood Fofoletes. A red and black one, with blue eyes. She's survived childhood, transcontinental travels, moves, college, marriage and she sits on my entertainment system. And to this day, she still makes me happy.