Christmas is as the song says the most wonderful time of the year. Is it though? Our memories of past Christmases in truth are filled with moments of sadness.
I must have been about 6 years old when we lived in the little red house on the corner of Pine Drive in Circle Pines minnesota. Our family was renting the little place after my Dad had been discharged from the Army.
We had been living in the south for most of my life up until this point and now we were going to be home near my Dad’s family and my Mom’s mother.
Somewhere in my memory I think I knew we didn’t have a lot of money. We didn’t have all the best toys. My clothes were hand me downs and usually very worn. My doll clothes weren’t the ones I saw in the Ben Franklin store they were made by my grandma with little bits of extra embellishment so they would be extra special. Now I know that I didn’t know how broke we were.
This was the end of the 1970’s. The start of what would become the recession of the 1980’s. Jobs were hard to come by and my father fresh out of the military was at the beginning of his career path.
In spite of our finances being tight, I remember being happy. Now, I look back with an adult eye and I know the stress must have been eating away at my parents. Even though they never let it show.
In fact, I remember the Christmas of that year with Crystal clarity. It was the best Christmas as a kid I could remember. Imagine my surprise when I remembered this Christmas to my mom as my favorite memory only to be told that it was the worst Christmas she could remember.
There are several things that made this Christmas so memorable to me. Some are so small that I’m sure they only mattered to me but they did cement this Christmas in my memory for having been there.
The first and the smallest of all the memories was my mother lovingly and painstakingly curled my hair in those little pink foam rollers on Christmas Eve. I was so excited to have curly cue hair that day. I can still remember waking up and pulling all those rollers out. With each release I uttered, “Boing! Boing! Boing!”
The second was the gifts waiting under the tree. This is the memory that pained my mother most and the one that I remembered in joy. There were two gifts for each of us. The first was a cheap plastic sled from the local Ben Franklin store. Bright orange if I remember correctly.
The second gift was a black and gold tin. About the size of a standard sheet of typing paper and about an inch thick. It was full of orange slice candies that probably cost a dollar then (they only $3 some 40 years later). The gummy oranges that are covered in sugar. Like gum drops only in orange slice form.
Mom disclosed years later that we were so poor that she could barely afford those paultry gifts. She was counting on my Grandmother coming to town so that there would be more gifts under the tree for us on Christmas day.
But we live in Minnesota and the weather plays a huge role in our day to day life in the winter. This year a snow storm kept grandma at home because she lived over a hundred miles from us and it just wasn’t safe to travel those long country roads alone. That was before cell phones made that kind of travel less scary.
Mom had been devastated when Grandma called. I remembered the phone call and mom uttering, “oh mom.” before breaking down into tears. In my naive child’s mind, I thought she just missed her mom on Christmas because I would miss my Mom on Christmas.
I was shocked by all the revelations. Not that we were poor. On some level I had always known that. No, what surprised me was that mom was so broken-hearted about it and still was to that day.
I told her it’s one of my favorite memories because I didn’t have to share my candy with my sister. She laughed through her tears. I’m sure because it seems ridiculous that for a child the only thing it would take to make a Christmas the best Christmas ever was that I didn’t have to share. But it was true.
To this point in my life I had always shared everything with my sister. Every piece of candy, every bottle of soda was a shared endeavor. To have a treat that was all mine was a dream come true and a very special occasion.
I don’t know what I asked Santa for that year. Probably a Barbie since all my toy memories revolve around wanting and playing with Barbie. I’m sure it wasn’t candy but my list didn’t seem to matter then and it doesn’t now.
The only thing that matters is the care and love we show each other. The time my mom spent gently rolling my hair on Christmas even stands out to me today, even more than the candy. She made Christmas special no matter how small our budget.