My Rosebud: A Christmas Memory

Glancing down at the Christmas decorations around my front door, the Amazon delivery driver momentarily froze.  “Rosebud,” he said, focusing on the old sled I haul out every year and carefully position amid the greenery and ornaments. 

I appreciated the faded pop-culture reference in the middle of his rush to deliver packages, and it made me reflect for a moment on the deeper meaning of my battered sled. Of course, “Rosebud” is the most famous sled ever. It was the trade name of the cheap little sled in the movie Citizen Kane, and the mysterious last word said by mogul Charles Foster Kane before he died, triggering a reporter’s search for its meaning.

Kane was playing on the sled the day he was taken away from his home and his mother. Movie historians say the sled represents the simplicity and comfort of his childhood – and his mother’s love. 

My sled, a Christmas gift for me and my sister Claudia that dates to around 1957, is so old and worn that you can no longer see the trade name.  But from a Google search I’m certain it is a Flexible Flyer metal runner sled. Unlike Kane, my sled reminds me not of my mother, but of my father.

Winter meant my dad would bundle up the kids and head to Detroit’s Rouge Park, where we hit the sledding hills, toboggan runs and ice-skating pond, often under the lights at night.  We’d jump on the four-seat toboggan and make the terrifying run along the icy surface, screaming all the way.  Getting a running start and flopping belly-first on the Flexible Flyer was the preferred method for a one-person ride down the hill.

We took special pride in the ice-skating pond, where my dad – clad in the only sweater he owned, a red wool pullover with black reindeer – would show off. Wearing black hockey skates, he would dart and whiz among the skaters, spinning and skating backwards. I enjoyed watching him, freed from his responsibilities as a Detroit cop and a family man. 

But I must have been a terrible disappointment to him: my ankles caved in, as I barely was able to stand in my white figure skates. He knew my favorite part of the day was retreating to the warming shed, where we’d drink hot chocolate out of a red plaid thermos. 

It’s been decades since then and dozens of personal moves, but I never let go of the sled. My Rosebud mystery is how the sled survived my childhood, since my mother was notoriously unsentimental and was known for getting rid of any nostalgic items, from baseball cards to Barbie dolls.

 And yet someone made sure a few iconic things from my childhood survived. Among them: the sled and the wooden stable made by my maternal grandfather during the Great Depression as a humble Christmas crèche. The stable was under every Christmas tree in my childhood, whether it was a fresh evergreen or an aluminum one, decked in cerise-colored bulbs and lit with a rotating light. 

Not too long ago, my sister came across some old childhood photos that she shared with me. While I don’t recall my mother skating with us or jumping on the toboggan, she was the one who photographed her children playing happily in the snow. I treasure one picture of me clad in a snowsuit, making a snowball and smiling in the indigo light of a late December. As a result, I’ve decided to rewrite some personal history. Today, I believe my mother was as fussy as a museum curator in preserving her children’s past. Like Citizen Kane, my Rosebud also represents a mother’s love. 

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