(Originally published on November 24, 2008)
Thanksgiving and Christmas are so interwoven for me that I couldn’t wait to share this true story of my life. This Christmas experience is a big part of the reason I grew up knowing just how much I have to be thankful for each and every day.
1950 was a hard year. My father died and my mother was left with two small children. She was a “housewife” and had no particular marketable skills. She also didn’t have any family who could help her much. She was a recovering alcoholic and suffered from severe depression. Not a pretty picture.
This, of course, was long before the social workers, welfare, food stamps, WIC, or any of the alphabet soup government offices and “programs.” All she had was her faith in God and her children, the few friends who stood with her, and the understanding that it was her responsibility to raise her children and get on with life the best she could.
So, the winter of 1950 found us all staying with a friend’s family in a small Southern California desert town. Not the rich and beautiful part, but the dirt road, snowed in, wood stove outback of the Morongo Valley. There was no telephone or reliable transportation.
I was only four years old, so I have no idea why Mother moved there with no jobs available within fifty miles, any direction. The people we stayed with were living on a small pension and he was dying of lung cancer. Mother had $138. a month in Social Security Survivor’s benefit. Everybody had big troubles, make no mistake.
Some of this I remember myself, and much is remembered because we talked about this period so often, but I didn’t really understand any of it at the time, of course. I knew we were cold much of the time and seldom had enough to eat, but I don’t feel “damaged” or “traumatized” by any of it. Much the opposite is true. I know what it is to be cold, hungry and homeless. I remember that sometimes and thank God for all my blessings. We had each other and lots of love. We didn’t know poverty was supposed to scar us for life.
Christmas Eve came and we put up what decorations we had. (People didn’t ordinarily start to decorate for Christmas after Thanksgiving dinner in those days.) We had a branch of creosote bush for a “tree,” and there was one, small, handmade gift for each child under it. Soon wonderful smells came from the kitchen, and when we gathered for supper we were all surprised to learn that the only thing on the table was a large bowl of bread pudding.
In later years my mother often told us how she and Virginia mixed together the last remaining bread, milk, eggs and sugar with a few raisins and some cinnamon. They put it into the oven with a prayer, and we said our usual prayer of thanks before we ate it. Only the adults knew that those were the last morsels of food left in the house and that none of them had any idea when or how they would be able to get anything else until the next pension check came in on the first. I can only imagine their agony – and their faith.
Christmas morning broke clear and very cold. The snow wasn’t deep, but it stretched unbroken for many miles in every direction. We certainly didn’t anticipate company, but up the road came the county snowplow with a lone blue car behind it. The county never plowed the road by our house, so it was a mystery until the car pulled into our driveway.
Out popped Virginia’s mother! She had shamed the plowman into making a path for her, and he helped her unload boxes of groceries and other things. The children were too busy to notice, however, because we each had a wonderful felt stocking full of nuts, candy and a few small toys. Then, at the very bottom in the toe, was a huge shining orange! Those were worth their weight in gold then and had been very rare in our lives to that point. I can’t begin to tell you what it meant to us as we jealously watched our orange peeled and then savored each drop of the golden fruit.
From that date, Christmas has been a most blessed day. Mother went on to work hard, earning a living for her family. She made sure, by what magic I’ll never know, to have at least one big and beautiful orange in our stockings each year from then on. She told us it was to remind us of the past so that we would appreciate our lives and all the blessings we had. She made sure we never forgot to plan our Holy Day with others in mind.
There was always another place at our table, a few warm clothes to “spare,” a bed on the couch, or just the human touch of hugs and clasped hands for someone in need. She remained active in AA, and sponsored many a man and woman to health and life. Nobody ever left our home hungry, unclothed, uncomforted or unloved unless they wanted it that way.
I have spent my adult life trying to walk in that path. No Christmas passes without oranges, though it’s been years since I made bread pudding. I thank God there was no welfare, food stamps, etc. I would never have had the privilege of that “perfect Christmas.”
God bless and keep you all.