We were poor. I mean, not ‘no shoes on our feet’ poor, but definitely ‘where’s our next meal coming from’ poor. We never went hungry though. I can’t recall missing a single meal. Ever. Mom always found a way. Always. Even the Christmas when I thought she’d given up.
Now, money was always tight, but this one holiday season it was truly bad. I was a kid so I have no idea why. I just know I saw the burden on Mom’s shoulders. I can still see her now, hunched over, staring helplessly into her hands. The phone was on the nightstand. I’m sure she’d called everyone she could think of, every single person she’d ever borrowed ten cents from. Otherwise that damned phone would not have been on its perch. Mom would have had it pressed to her ear, praying to find someone – anyone! – that could help.
It was Christmas Eve. No one had a dime.
There was no tree. There were no presents. There was no food. Yet, what I remember most about that day is Mom sitting at the edge of her mattress, hunched over and staring into her hands, covered in a funk the way a parent might be when confronted with the possibility that they can’t take care of their children. That, God forbid, they’d failed as a provider.
A week before, the only man I had ever thought of as a father, a man who had been in and out of Mom’s life my entire life, had given me and each of my siblings a five dollar bill, practically a fortune. He told us to use that money to buy our mother something for Christmas. So we did. It would be the first time we’d given her gifts bought from a store! We giddily hid the presents, filled with that child-joy, anticipating the look on Mom’s face that bright holiday morning.
Seeing my mother now, on Christmas Eve, so down on her luck, I decided there was a way to bring her spirits up. I gathered my siblings and unveiled my plan. They agreed. If it helped Mom feel better, we had to do it. So we gathered our gifts. She’d been sitting in that spot for hours but, as we surrounded her, Mom lifted her head. The presentation of the gifts – variations of perfumes and soaps (Hey!, don’t judge; the oldest of us may have been ten and the corner pharmacy was the furthest we could go.) – made her smile, but, still, there was a deep sadness in her eyes, at the corners of her mouth.
And then she cried.
I didn’t understand this at all. My ingenious plan (and they’re all ingenious!) was we’d give Mom the gifts early and, BLAM!, fill her with the Spirit of Christmas.
What went wrong?
She placed her face in her hands and bawled.
She composed herself after a few minutes. Only for us. I believe if we weren’t staring at her with such shock, Mom might’ve gone on for hours. We sat in silence for a time. She asked us to leave her be, that she needed to think. So we did.
I sat in the living room with no lights, which was as close as I could be to her without actually entering the bedroom.
At some point, Mom left the house abruptly. All I saw was Mom in her thinning winter coat heading for the door. She left the apartment without saying a word. Of the four children, none of us was worried. I know I wasn’t. My mother had all the strength any of us ever needed. Not knowing where she went or what she planned didn’t strike us as anything to worry about.
I probably spent the remainder of the evening reading comic books or drawing. Those were my pastimes. I do recall the house was relatively quiet. Unusual, especially on Christmas Eve. But my siblings and I weren’t necessarily looking forward to a visit from Santa…
When the door opened though, many hours later, I did run to it. I remember that much. It had to be close to midnight. Or felt like it for a little kid. Mom entered first. She was struggling with any number of shopping bags. Behind her was that only man I ever considered a father. The same man who had given each of us five dollars to buy Mom a gift. He was carrying a few bags himself, in one hand. He used the other to support the Christmas tree on his shoulder.
There was a turkey. There was stuffing. Potato salad. There were toys. There was excitement.
We decorated that tree straight away. Once it was done, Mom went into the kitchen and started cooking. Bucking tradition, the presents weren’t withheld until Christmas morning. They were given to us immediately, so we were up into the late hours of the morning. My gift was a Major Matt Mason. With parachute action. It talked too. Throw it in the air and it came down talking as the so-called parachute fluttered ridiculously. And to this day it is the most precious toy I have ever received. Yet, even though I was a child, it wasn’t because it was Christmas and I got something. It was because I knew even then how much it must have meant to my mother that she was able to provide for her children. To give us the basics, a good meal, and to know we’d wake up like most kids that holiday morning, happy.
As a parent myself now, I know how Mom felt.
Thank you, Mom, for your strength. Thank you for your love. Thank you for it all.
Merry Christmas to you all.