Christmas surprises aren’t always under the tree

Found in a rummage sale lot, a used Fisher Price garage was more appealing than the new toys

I grew up with many sisters.

It’s not that we were immersed in a world of Barbie dolls and ballet slippers – we weren’t – but nor did our Christmas stockings come stuffed with Hot Wheels and Tonka trucks. If I’d asked for a holster and a couple of cap guns, I’m sure my parents would have acquiesced, but I never did so they never had to face down the idea of their wee daughter rampaging through the neighbourhood, guns ablazin’.

When the fireworks of a present frenzy have finally settled, no matter how careful your planning or predictable your child, there will always be surprises. The much-begged for gift sitting idly by as some dollar store widget captures everyone’s attention, the leather jacket making the newly vegan cry, and the perplexed parent who mixed up Star Wars and Star Trek. I recall my own mother’s endless lists and plans, all ready to receive a spanner to the gears when one of us randomly changed our minds.

When I was a kid, my mom used to organize an annual local church rummage sale. For three months leading up to early December, people would drop off their unwanted, gently used and sometimes bewildering castoffs. The church ladies would sort and organize, but not before I got there first. In the chill of that unheated garage, I’d go treasure hunting.

I was probably 7 or 8 when I found the perfect Christmas gift amidst the boxes of dead people’s clothes and musty books. The Fisher Price Action Garage might have been on the market only a couple of years, but the one I found looked like it had been through the wars. None of the pieces – small bobble-headed people, tiny perfect cars – were intact. The “three-storey” toy had a crank elevator, a kid-controlled gate at the bottom and an obnoxious bell that signalled a car had arrived. Or left. I can’t remember, only that that bell got on my mother’s nerves; didn’t I know she had a headache?


The stickers were peeling off, and somebody had spilled something on the outside ramp. I didn’t care. I had a fake Hot Wheels car that had come in a cereal box, a Batmobile and a 1960s era red convertible I’d stolen from Mark, the boy next door. This was my fleet. Up they’d go in the elevator, bing went the bell, then they’d have a pileup waiting for the arm to lift so they could go on their way. I released marbles down the ramp and put plastic army men on guard on the roof. I pumped fake gas into pretend gas tanks. My mother told me to put the toy garage back in the real garage. I told her I wanted to keep it.

If we wanted to keep something, my mom would put money for it into the kitty. This usually meant books, or sometimes my Dad would find some weird tool that somebody else had deemed too useless to hang on to. Mom looked at the Fisher Price garage, battered and looking like a dog had peed on it, and sighed. I knew she wanted it out of her house. I clanged the bell with the Batmobile to help change her mind.

My mother shopped very carefully for Christmas gifts. Money was always tight and she would spend a year getting ready for a day, yet as I learned early and often from that rummage sale, another kid’s castoff toys were infinitely more exciting than new ones of my own. My father worked for Dofasco, and every year at their massive family Christmas party, employee’s children were taken to a huge warehouse and allowed to choose a gift. You had tickets that said, “Girl, 7” and that was the booth you went to. My mom asked one year if I could choose from the Boy booth. This was a reaction they were unprepared for so I dutifully went home with another Spirograph or a life sized teddy bear or an Easy Bake Oven or whatever else wasn’t a Hot Wheels track or a slingshot.

The Fisher Price Garage became part of our playtime streetscape alongside a Barbie dream house and anything else we carved from shoeboxes. It sat in the cupboard in the rec room long after I’d grown up and moved out, until my own sons discovered it. They, of course, had a box of toy cars at Grandma’s house, and plastic dinosaurs joined the army men guarding the roof. They looped sections of track around the garage, up over counters and across stacked piles of books. The garage was joined by supersonic boosters and fancier cars, all play involving the chasing down of batteries at some point – except for the garage itself.

The last I can recall of that grubby garage my sons were encouraging a hamster named Cookie to go in the elevator; Cookie was buried in the garden nearly two decades ago. I see people on eBay selling toys new in boxes, to protect their value. I consider how much play I, and then my sons, got from that toy and wonder if people know what toys are for.

A toy’s value is in the imagination of the child holding it.

And parking a red Corvair next to the Batmobile.

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One response to Christmas surprises aren’t always under the tree

  1. Pat says:

    Great piece. My favourite toys were boxes from new appliances. I would make a fort, with windows and play with it until it fell apart. We never got toys for Christmas, because my folks didn’t have the money, and we didn’t play inside much. Instead, Dad would by an old bike and fix it up like new. Or, “new” skates and a hockey stick. One year Mom bought me “poster paints” hoping to ignite my artistic side. I used the paints to draw red and blue lines on our back yard rink. What?

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