There are a few of my childhood Christmases that are memorable to me. Most are lost to time now; I know my parents and particularly, my mother struggled to give us as pleasant a holiday as she could every year but when you are poor, you know there’s probably not going to be anything spectacular under the tree. I remember when I was around 4 and Papa earned a good paycheck or bonus (not sure, I was 4 at the time) I received a toy Lassie dog from ‘Santa’ that was my favorite toy for years. I still have it, freshly reupholstered with fake fur. Most of the other years were pretty lean as far as presents went.
Instead, we made memories – our ritual of putting up a tree, of cutting the trunk evenly so it would stay upright in the stand, keeping it watered, decorating the tree and the house, putting up the stockings/ Papa’s clean work socks, of preparing the Christmas dinner together starting the night before, of Mama’s wonderful cooking and her ability to make a scrumptious holiday meal out of what little our pantry offered.
Every year out in the countryside near Iron Post, Papa cut a nice-sized evergreen tree for us to decorate with our delicate glass bulbs from earlier years of largess. We made paper chains to wrap around the tree and made popcorn strings for the same. We learned who would have the honor of hanging the bird ornament on the tree, and we got the giggling secret joy of hearing Papa cuss as he untangled the lights.
Our greater joy was hearing him recite “The Night Before Christmas” with pantomime. Papa had a way of telling a story, and he was more Clement Moore than Clement Moore, himself. I was nine when I heard his final recitation.
I was probably around 11 or 12 when I got a bike. It was a solidly built second-hand model that my sister Ginny repainted a bright green, with a big silver basket on the front. I was stunned, so happy that I got to have a bike like other kids my age! I was relieved it was a used bike, too, because it was bound to have a rough time with me learning to ride on it. A new bike would have made me stressed and nervous about accidentally scratching it up. As it was, I took care of my bike because it was a gift from my family and I knew they must have sacrificed to get it for me.
Then there was the year I turned 13, and most of my sisters were off at college via BIA scholarships, loans or work/study. Mama got me a three-quarter sized guitar at Otasco’s store in Bristow. We went to Otasco – Oklahoma Tire and Supply Company – regularly so Mama could make payments on the tires she had to get for our car. Whenever we went, I stood and admired those guitars hanging on display, and when Mama finished making her payment, she joined me and paused to look them over. I never dreamed she would get one for me; she was so casual about chatting with me to find out what my tastes and style were. Or okay; maybe I was kinda thick and slow on the uptake but the point was, Mama listened to me. And, not being an idiot style of teenager, I enjoyed having conversations with my mom.
It was an inexpensive model as far as guitars go, but to me it was like getting a custom-made Martin. I cried when I opened the box and saw it, because I always loved to hear my eldest sister Annie play her guitar, and now I would be able to join in. It was red in the center and had a burned-black look around the edges front and back and had plastic strings that often went out of tune. I have a pretty good ear so tuning it wasn’t so hard. Annie was home for Christmas that year and taught me some main chords and how to pick and play ‘Wildwood Flower.”
It was a godsend having Annie teach me, as she was patient and calm and crazy talented. She, on the other hand, had learned with a chord fingering chart with Papa hum-singing each note that she had to find by ear. It was not easy for her to learn this way, given Papa had no idea how to play a guitar and dubious humming skills.
I doggedly learned to play and eventually became Mama’s personal jukebox, choosing popular songs of the day that she liked and sang them for her as she made dinner in the evenings. I never learned to cook or properly clean or anything domestic, because Mama was convinced I would be a famous singer and writer some day, and would be able to hire someone to do those chores for me. She also preferred that I sing and play for her instead. She liked her ‘command performances.’
Ah, Mama. You wonderful dreamer. You believed in me more than I did.
It is not Christmas without making memories, and mine happen to be warm and happy, even during the hard times. Maybe because of the hard times, because warmth and happiness are better savored when they are hard won.