by Laurean Brooks
I was 11 years old the year a 12-inch snow fell five days before Christmas. It shut down everything in our rural town, Palmersville, Tennessee—including schools, two grocery stores and, of all things, the bus lines.
Daddy worked in Memphis, 120 miles away, on a riverboat. The snow was as deep there as it was at home. He worked four weeks and was off three. It was time for Daddy to come home, but he was stuck in Memphis. To get home, he needed to take the Greyhound to a town 20 miles away. Mama always picked him up at the station. We lived on a farm, fed livestock, cut firewood. Mama kept everything running with the help of her six kids.
Daddy loved Christmas and wanted to be involved in buying presents, stuffing our stockings with fruit and candy for his brood of seven. The day before Christmas we spent cracking walnuts and peeling tangerines to go into his famous fruitcake.
Daddy got a kick out of playing Santa Claus after everyone went to bed on Christmas Eve. My sister and I would beg our older brothers to let us sleep in their room. It was closest to the living room. That way, we might sneak a peek and catch Santa. But Daddy was sharper than us. He waited until we were sound asleep to slip everything under the tree.
On Christmas Eve this year, five kids ages 3 through 15, either paced the living room or peered through the window, hoping for a miracle that would bring Daddy home. Our oldest brother was in Vietnam.
Even without the snow, Daddy wouldn't leave Memphis. You see, his mother, our grandmother, lay in a hospital with pneumonia, and was not expected to recover. Between worrying about Grandma and wanting our daddy to come home for Christmas, we were a solemn brood.
Mama was the epitome of honesty, even when the truth was brutal. Early on Christmas morning, the black dial phone rang. She hurried to answer it. “Long distance? What?” After she hung up, her face grew solemn. She called her brood together and made us sit down. Then she said, “Your grandmother just passed away.”
We didn't know Grandma well. She had lived near Memphis. It was a chore to cram five or six young'uns and two adults into the old Ford Fairlane, to make the annual trip. Two of the younger ones had to sit on someone's lap. And the car usually had bald tires or something mechanically wrong with it. So we mostly drove it short distances.
As we watched, Mama cleared her throat, “One more thing; there aren't any presents for you kids. I had planned on Christmas shopping after your daddy came home. But the snow has iced over the roads, so... When your daddy does return, I don't want any of you mentioning presents. Not one word. This is a hard time for him. He will be grieving over losing his mother.”
I ran to my room to cry where no one could see me. No Daddy, no presents, no special Christmas dinner—and now we had lost our grandmother. On Christmas Day.
Early that afternoon, our old dog barked. My brother Ralph ran to the window to look out. “There's a bright yellow car coming down our driveway, real slow. I can't see it now. Wait, there it is, coming up the hill!”
It slid to a stop in our yard. The Taxi door flew open and out jumped Daddy. He turned around and grabbed two large paper bags from the back seat. Both were crammed full. We flew out the door to greet him. One bag held a turkey with all the fixings, and the other bag—well, Daddyadmonished, “Don't be so nosy.”
He paid the taxi driver, then we slogged through the snow and inside the house. Daddy handed Mama the grocery sack then held the mystery sack high enough that we couldn't see inside. He reached in and started pulling out presents. “Let's see...this one's for Ralph, this one's for Jewell, this one's for Laurie. And here's one for Paul, and another for Ruthie.”
I remember saying, “Daddy, we thought we weren't going to have Christmas because you couldn't get home.”
We each received two or three gifts. They were not expensive gifts, but they were interesting ones. We could tell Daddy had put a lot of thought into his shopping. No matter, knowing he had taken time to remember us, made our day. The two gifts I still remember were a box of scented dusting powder and a green, plastic pencil box. When you rolled the dial on the edge, the name of a country showed through a slot on the right side, and its capital showed through the slot on the left side. The little box taught me the capital cities of 50 countries. I still remember most of them.
When I reflect on past Christmases from childhood, I consider this one the most special. We will never know the effort it took our father to swallow his own grief in order to bring Christmas joy to his children. That's pretty special, don't you think?
NOT WHAT HE ORDERED is available in print and ebook at Amazon.com "Josh Kramer thinks his aunt ordered house help. But Aunt Em ordered a bride for him? So...who is this young woman?"