My latest book, HALLEY, has just been released by NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley
Mama wasn’t a patient woman. I think she got less patient when she learned to drive and got her first long term job at the mill. Getting a television set, a refrigerator, a Warm Morning Heater, and a washing machine all in 1955, made her restless to have the good life she thought everybody else was already enjoying.
“We’re going to have a real Christmas this year,” she announced in early December. “With all the trimmings.”
None of us five children could quite believe it. Some years there had been no presents at all, much less “trimmings.”
“With a tree?” asked my sister Jean. “And colored bulbs?”
“And icicles?” said John.
“Christmas like everybody else has,” Mama repeated.
Mike and Jerry argued about where the tree would be placed. Daddy didn’t say anything. He was headed toward a crisis with alcohol and had to save all his energy for making forty hours a week at the mill before getting fully drunk.
While Mama put presents on layaway, we kids toured the woods around our house and picked a tree. True to her promise, Mama bought decorations a few days before Christmas and we loaded down that tree. It sagged under the load of two strings of lights, several dozen glass bulbs, and about a half dozen packages of icicles. I can still recall the crisp clean smell of those needles.Then Mama arranged the wrapped packages at the base.
“It’s beautiful,” said Jean.
Mama grunted in dissatisfaction. “Don’t look like much for all I spent.”
“It looks good,” I assured her and all three boys agreed.
Mama dropped into her rocker and stared at the tree. “Needs a skirt like the trees on TV.” She found an old chenille spread that served the purpose, and then surveyed the scene again with a dissatisfied frown.
“It’s like everybody else has,” Jean said.
Mama sniffed. “I reckon.”
Over the next two days Mama rearranged packages and ornaments a number of times. Then it was Christmas Eve and Mama could hardly stay away from the tree. Right after lunch, as if answering a request, she suddenly burst out, “I reckon I could let ya’ll open one present today.”
“Let’s wait,” Jean and John said together.
“Christmas is just another day,” Mama said.
“Christmas is the birthday of Jesus,” Jean said.
“Christmas is whenever we say it is,” Mama said, but she wouldn’t meet Jean’s eyes.
Everyone chose a gift and soon wrappings were flying. I opened my box and found a Ban Lon crew neck sweater. I didn’t have a skirt fit to wear it with nor did I own a pair of pants. Maybe I could wear it over a dress?
Mama smiled on all the happiness she had created. “Might as well open the second present and get it over with,” she said.
“What?” I said.
Jean began to cry.” Can’t we wait…” but the boys were already tearing into boxes. My box contained a pair of loafers, which delighted me, until I realized they were a size too small.
“They run big, the man in the Trading Post told me,” Mama said. “And they’ll stretch as you wear them.” All my shoes had to stretch as I wore them. I had big feet.
Mama stood. “Let’s get this stuff cleaned up, and I want this tree mess out of here.”
Late that afternoon while we rolled the bedraggled tree down the hill behind our house, we heard holiday carols from the little church up the road.
“Well, at least we had Christmas this year,” John said.
Jean nodded. “And we had it before everybody else.