A Christmas story
With no money for gifts, determination found a way
Everyone of a Certain Age has a holiday story; the older we get, the more they accumulate. This time of year brings them all back with the wistfulness and longing of memory.
Here is a story of the Christmas that has stayed with me for nearly five decades.
It was 1976 and I, the youngest of six, attended Buffalo State College, just a two-mile bike ride down Elmwood Avenue from my home. When not attending classes I worked. All my brothers and sisters worked. We did so, in part, to help with the household expenses. Mom had divorced my dad a few years before and alimony and child support never added up to anything much. Her worsening heart disease made it impossible for her to hold down a job. Her enlarged heart was slowly draining her energy and taking its toll. In my teenage cluelessness, I didn’t notice.
I thought it was normal for her to get out of breath walking from one room to the next, and Mom was a good actress, always downplaying the symptoms.
Dad realized too late the wreck his drinking had made of our parents’ marriage and our family life With real regret, he often covered more household expenses than the court forced upon him. But this Christmas, he told Mom that he could only give her $10 for presents for each of us.
It wasn’t enough.
Even with everyone contributing something, even with alimony and Mom’s careful juggling of finances, the bills just piled up. That month Mom had to use Christmas money to help pay for heat in our large, uninsulated house, buffeted by relentless lake-effect wind and chill.
She didn’t tell anyone.
Our family had a tradition of putting presents on the mantel over the fireplace, so in the days before Christmas we could admire the wrapping, the ribbons, and speculate what was in each box. Only when we ran out of space would we put presents under the tree, and that was rare. My brothers and sisters and I each wrapped presents and put them on the crowded mantel. Soon we couldn’t help but notice that there was nothing from Mom.
She must be waiting until the last minute, I thought.
We usually opened the presents on Christmas Eve, before attending midnight Mass at the cathedral two blocks away. So Christmas Eve night, as we began to pour the eggnog and listen to Handel’s Messiah on the radio, the time approached to open presents.
And still, Mom had put no gifts on the mantel.
She excused herself and went to her bedroom, where I heard her cutting paper and wrapping gifts.
She must have gotten us something really special this year, I thought, with growing excitement.
And she had. But not what I expected.
When the time came to open the presents our mother had so carefully wrapped, the room grew quiet. Faced with the prospect of not being able to buy us anything from department stores, Mom had wrapped up her own small possessions, things that she loved, to give away.
My sister Ellen got a piece of art of Mom’s that she had admired. Mom gave me a beautiful, marble bust she had purchased once from an antique store years before. In her privation, our mother gave each one of us something of her own.
I loved her for it, even as it broke my heart.
The following year we all made sure that she had enough money to do real Christmas shopping in the gleaming department stores, where she had longed to buy us gifts the previous year. It was a joyous Christmas. It was the last one she would see.
But the fact is, I don’t remember what I got for Christmas that year, or during other years, for that matter. Those department store gifts? They have long since faded or have been forgotten altogether.
Yet the little marble bust that Mom gave me has been my constant companion. It was perched on my desk as I worked on deadline for four newspapers. It has accompanied me through four moves in three states. The small statue has kept me company through writing thousands of articles, writing a memoir every day of the pandemic and even today, it smiles at me as I write this.
The marble bust has become a symbol, to me, of love everlasting and a mother’s determination to give her children Christmas joy - no matter what.
(I would love to hear any of your memories of the holidays. Feel free to add them in the comments!)
Merry Christmas! I hope you become a free or paid subscriber.