Putty in my hands: Most precious gift goes awry

There's a scene in Miracle on 34th Street where Natalie Wood is feeling glum because Santa Claus didn't bring her what she really wanted: a house.

On the way to visit Mr. Kringle in the old-folks home for Christmas dinner, Natalie's looking out the car window when she sees it: her house!

She leaps out of the car, runs inside, and lo and behold, it's vacant, for sale, and Mr. Kringle has left his cane by the fireplace, so we all know it really is meant to be the cozy nest she's been craving while living in a New York high-rise.

Many years ago, I had a similar experience, but the outcome wasn't anywhere near as rosy.

A girl in my second-grade class brought her Silly Putty in for show and tell. She demonstrated how you could press the shiny, beige substance onto a portion of a Mutt and Jeff colored cartoon from the Sunday paper, and when you peeled it off– like a miracle– the cartoon would be reproduced, backward, on that gorgeous putty.

You could then stretch the putty and control the height and breadth of Mutt and Jeff. Like God Himself, you could reverse roles, and make Mutt short and squat, and Jeff tall and slender. You could be master of the Silly Putty universe.

To call it a mere "toy" is to undervalue the phenomenon. Silly Putty was a passageway to another level of reality.

So, when December rolled around, Silly Putty was high on the list that I mailed off to the North Pole. Come Christmas morning, Santa Claus had, as usual, been ridiculously generous with me. The living room couch was covered with toys– among them, Tinker Toys and a Tiny Tears doll with layette. But no Silly Putty.

I unhooked my stocking from the nail at the top of our bookcase, dumped out the Hershey's kisses, the miniature candy bars and jacks, but­ surely there was some mistake!­ no Silly Putty. I stuck my hand between the couch cushions, even looked underneath, but apart from some coins and crumbs, I came up empty.

As was our tradition, we went to Mass, then spent the rest of the day making the rounds to relatives' houses. By sunset, we were at the home of my wild cousins, the four Cassidy boys.

They got the kind of toys I would never want to play with. Nothing but guns and cars on racing tracks, that kind of thing. These guys had little appreciation for what Santa Claus brought them, and every year, by the time we got there, they would have broken most of their new stuff.

I was sprawled on their living room floor, sighing, yearning to get back to my own house, my own toys, and escape from these noisy, brawling Cassidys, when my gaze fell upon something under their couch. It was blue and round­ could it be?­ I thrust my arm under the couch and felt that egg-shaped smoothness. It was Silly Putty! Oh Santa Claus, you didn't forget! You got the wrong house, that's all.

Suddenly, I was Natalie Wood– I had my own drama with a happy ending! Unlike Natalie, though, I thought it best not to share my excellent news with anyone. They might not understand. I sat up, hiked my pant leg, and slipped the blue egg deep into my knee-hi sock.

Back home, by the hallway light that fell across my bed, I popped open the egg. Inside was the glistening, pristine putty. Not so much as a fingerprint on it. I marveled at the smoothness, the foreignness of this substance. Obviously, Santa Claus had made a simple mistake: he'd left my gift at my cousins' house. Understandable, what with all those deliveries to make in such a tiny amount of time.

And none of the Cassidy boys had even opened the egg– proof positive that they cared not one whit about this precious gift. It would have been totally wasted on them. I didn't touch the putty, either, preferring to keep it untainted until I could direct my full attention to it.

I rolled it under the bed, and was settling back into my pillow, imagining myself stretching and kneading the putty, merrily distorting the faces of Uncle Scrooge and Casper, when my mother came in and sat on the edge of my bed.

Was there anything I wanted to talk about? Uh, no. And I knew, didn't I, that stealing is a sin? Oh, man.

Feeling horrendously misunderstood, I hung over the edge of the bed and reached way under for the Silly Putty. I handed it to Mum. It belonged (or so everyone apparently thought) to my cousin Gary, and she would return it to him. And by the way, Janis, Santa Claus doesn't make mistakes like that. He knows who gets what.

I knew it: I should have locked myself in the bathroom with a stack of comic books and the putty. At least then I would have some memories to cling to.

Maybe it's because I forgot about it, but I never did get my own Silly Putty. And, to this day, I don't know why Santa Claus would have set me up like that.