Christmas of 1963 came with a volley of cheers and excitement. My Mom and Dad had divorced when I was four years old, about 13 years ago. Mom married her black lover but finally gave up on her new boy friend / husband and came back to Dad. This was the first Christmas we had ever spent as a family for as long as I could remember.
The tree was all set with real decorations, not just homemade ones, and it was oh, so beautiful. Underneath were presents galore, presents for everyone; big ones, small ones, hard ones and soft ones. The house, our home, was alive with anticipation; you could feel the electricity flowing through the atmosphere. The music, the lights, the decorations; everything contributed to a wonderfully exciting Christmas season.
I hadn’t really been part of a Christmas celebration for the last eight years. Mom’s black husband didn’t believe in celebrating Christmas so we never even had a tree. Besides that we were so poor we could never afford presents anyway.
Last night, Christmas Eve, while opening our one allowed Christmas Eve present Mom made each one of us kids promise something. She made us promise not to open a certain present until she got home from work. She was just so excited about one specific present for each of us that we had to promise. We quickly gave her our vows; little did we know how nearly impossible that would turn out to be.
Christmas morning came and there was Dad, out by the Christmas tree, with his three-day growth of whiskers, waiting to play Santa Claus. He was sitting comfortably in his rocking chair, wearing his boxer shorts and Sears work shirt, but he also had on his brand new bathrobe, that Mom just got him. The bathrobe was Dad’s special Christmas Eve gift from Mom. I think the bathrobe was every bit as much for Mom as it was for Dad; it was Mom’s way of guarding against that raw boxer short look she despised.
The bathrobe looked good on Dad; it gave him a finished appearance. The thick, soft material was absorbing Dad’s special smells of Old Spice cologne and Wintergreen Copenhagen. It would soon be a part of Dad just like everything else he wore was. This whole scene injected my spirit with a sense of comfort and security that was totally foreign to my senses. I just hadn’t had the opportunity to experience a Christmas morning like this before. I breathed a sigh of contentment to myself and thanked the Lord for my good fortune; I thanked him for blessing me so richly.
Dad would pick up the presents one by one, call out a name and that person would have to go up and get their present. Dad’s face was alive with excitement as he enjoyed our anticipation and impatience. He would make us all wait while the person unwrapped the present and jumped with joy at finding exactly what they wanted under all the wrappings. Then Dad would move on to the next one. This would continue until the very last present was handed out.
Dad would show his real comical side in playing Santa. He would pick up a present that one of us really wanted to open, read the tag and say out loud “Oh, that person isn’t here yet,” then he would put it back under the tree. Or he would say, “Whoops, can’t open that one yet” and put it back. Several times I watched Dad pick up the big one that I was supposed to wait to open, then put it back because he knew I couldn’t open it yet. I was jumping out of my skin I was so excited; Dad made it even more thrilling.
Finally the tree was empty except for three presents; one big soft one for Gertrude, my sister, one small hard one for my other sister and the big one for me. All three of us were supposed to wait until Mom got home to open these three special presents. They were all marked from Mom & Dad. I’m sure Mom did the shopping but I know Dad financed her trips; it was indeed a joint effort.
I can only imagine what Mom was going through at work. How was she going to last the whole day. Mom so seldom got excited; she never had anything to be excited about. Now she was in a real home and part of a real family. We were doing so good she could buy Christmas presents that she knew meant something, to the person she was giving them to. She actually had the freedom to buy what her children wanted, not just what they needed.
I didn’t know how I was going to endure through the day either. I was just so sure I knew what was in that big present that Dad was holding back for me, but I couldn’t touch it. I had to amuse myself with the other presents I had gotten. That wasn’t too difficult; I had gotten so many nice things. Still, I wanted that big present.
Gertrude wanted hers pretty bad too. She was certain she knew what it was but she couldn’t have it yet either. Finally she screamed out “I can’t take it any more.” She reached under the tree, dragged her present out and ripped it open. Sure enough, exactly the one she had been looking at and trying on for weeks. Mom had gotten her the leopard print, waist length, wrap around coat / cape she was dieing for. It was a cape but it was also enough of a coat to serve as her winter coat. She put it on immediately, jumped around with glee and squealed her delight all morning. She never took it off again all day.
Finally, Mom walked in the door. Her face was glowing like a diamond from her anticipation and excitement at the wonderful Christmas we were having. She saw my sister and you could tell she was a little disappointed that she didn’t get to see her open the leopard coat but Gertrude was still jumping and prancing around and squealing and giggling so much that it was clear how pleased she was. She still showed the same amount of excitement when Mom got home as she did when she first opened it.
Now it was time for me to open the present Mom wanted me to wait for. I grabbed it out from under the tree before Mom could even get her coat off. I ripped at the paper and tore the ribbon off in one quick motion. “YES!” I hollered. “Thanks Mom and Dad!” I’ll never forget screaming out the “Thanks Mom and Dad.” I said “Mom and Dad.” For the first time in years I could say Mom and Dad, together in the same sentence and mean what I was saying.
Exactly as I thought, they had gotten me the slot car race set I had been ogling ever since I first saw it advertised. In 1963 slot car race sets were all the rage. I wanted one so badly I could hardly stand it. This one happened to be the one that seemed to be advertised more than any other so I saw it more and wanted it more. Every time the advertisement would come on I would run get Mom and show her, “That’s the one Mom. That’s it.” She would calmly reply “Oh, OK honey. I don’t know though. They are pretty expensive.” But here it was. I was ecstatic. I looked at Mom and could see she was happier right now than she had been since she took me to see the Shaggy Dog movie.
I don’t remember my other sister opening her special present. I know she did, but I was too engrossed in my own pleasure to even notice her doing so. I remember her being in the room and getting all emotional and ecstatic about her gift, but I cannot remember what her special present was; I was just too pre-occupied. Mom and Dad were both there, smiling at each other. Gertrude was still dancing around the room like some star-struck princess and I was building a racetrack to beat all racetracks.
Oh, that was a Christmas. Life was wonderful. I forgot about all the trials we had been through over the last several years and concentrated on making what I had right then as much as it could be. Finally I was excited about my life. I was looking forward to the next day and the next and the next. I had never done that before, I had never wanted tomorrow to even come, and now I could hardly wait. It’s just so surprising how little one needs to make such a big impression. We were not by any stretch of the imagination rich, well to do or even extra comfortable, but we had everything we needed, we were enjoying our newfound contentment and we had each other. Merry Christmas everyone, Merry Christmas!