"I write so that my handful of pebbles, cast into still waters, will create a ripple."

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Hard Christmas

Here's a Christmas story that helps me remember the power of a mother's love. I'm sharing it as my gift to the Universe with my best Season's Greetings.  
Yesterday, I heard my first Christmas carol, "Silver Bells," on the car radio, coming home from Thanksgiving at my daughter’s. There’s a line in the song that grabs me every time— “Children laughing, people passing, meeting smile after smile…” It recalls the pure joy of Christmas shopping and furtive watching for my sisters while a shopping clerk takes forever to stow their unwrapped present in a plastic bag.
Holiday shopping will always be my favorite, a hangover from childhood when we would pile into our station wagon and head for town with our fistful of savings, and trudge through Cornet and Sprouse Reitz looking for the perfect gifts. A hardbound copy of Black Beauty cost fifty-nine cents, I remember because I spent long minutes considering the purchase.
A tube of Tangee Natural lipstick for my mother, going halfsies with my sisters for a foil sack of pipe tobacco for my father.

The three sweater girls and my brother
(I'm on the right.)

But there was a year that put everything into focus for later. Maybe everyone has one like that—the year when father was missing in action, or the crop failed, or mother lost her job at the cannery. Some of us are in those years now. Maybe the best we can do is to remind ourselves, this too, will pass.     
In 1959 we had just moved to Shandon, our family of nine squeezed into a tiny farmhouse on a frigid plain with half of our household possessions still piled under tarps in the yard. My father had left his steady job and bought a farm in late October, and any leftover cash was earmarked to feed us until the first crops came in.
The winter was hard. Ice crusted the water puddles and made our bare legs ache as we walked the quarter mile to the school bus. We were lonely and scared. That was the year I learned that poverty means you don’t even dare to want because you're afraid the desire might show in your face and it would hurt too much to have anyone know. My teacher read the “Gift of the Magi” that year in English, and I totally understood it  
Blessings were abundant that first winter, pots of soup and lamb stew and a square, squat propane heater that threw out enough heat to warm the living room, and a wood stove that took care of the kitchen. Fifty years later, the feeling of heat still engenders memories of coming out of frigid December wind and feeling love and safety as the door shut behind me.
I was eleven, in sixth grade. I wanted to be tall and thin, and shave my legs like the other girls, but I wanted my mother to know without my having to ask. We shared that special relationship that oldest daughters often do, and I was sure her warnings of a slim Christmas were exaggerations.   
Christmas morning I waited for my “big” present. When it was handed to me, the gift I opened brought a lump of disappointment I couldn’t disguise. It was a cheap J.C. Penney bulky knit cardigan to replace the one I was outgrowing, also white. I wanted a guitar and a pink poodle skirt, not a thick $2.99 sale sweater exactly like my sisters got. I remember holding it up to hide the tears from my mother, who was watching me. The sorrow in her eyes made it possible for me to fold the sweater with small, trembling passes and, finally, to look up and manage the brave smile. Later I tried my best to sound appreciative, but I knew I didn’t fool her. 
We made it through that Christmas. Mercifully, that ugly sweater wore out with repeated washings. The following school year I got a new car coat with our alfalfa money.
I have a soft spot for the “Coats for Kids” campaign in our town and each December I’m happy that kids get a new warm coat they can be proud of. But I’m even happier that “Toys for Tots” gives them something to play with, a reminder that they are children. That’s what grown-ups are for—to provide a promise that times will get better.
There were better Christmases for me—every one since has topped that bleak winter of 1959. Still, the memories of disappointment are softened by those of Mama making magic with a bottle of Karo syrup and a five-pound bag of C&S sugar from which she made popcorn balls and caramels—and divinity if it didn’t rain, Mexican orange candy if it did.
 What I remember most about that year is that Mama offered us a promise with every caramel walnut that came from her pan. 
 I now wear very warm coats. Thanks for donating to charities this season.
What’s the Christmas memory that keeps things in perspective for you?