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I was three when my father left home and my mother went to work full time. I lived in boarding houses or boarding schools and when Christmas came my mother would pick me up and take me where ever she was going. My memories were of visiting department store Santa Clauses, seeing Christmas trees decorated, and I’m sure I was given gifts, but there was no experience of decorating a tree or finding gifts intended for me under a tree.
My mother had always told me that when I turned ten I would be old enough to take care of myself and could live with her. The summer I turned ten I did, indeed, move into a small house in Ocean Beach with her and her husband Leslie. As Christmas approached I got more and more excited. At last I was going to have a real Christmas. A few days before Christmas my mother was putting me to bed when she said to me, “You are too excited. It’s not good for you. We won’t celebrate Christmas this year.”
School was on vacation. Every day my mother went to her work at the Probation Office and Leslie was on duty aboard his ship so I stayed home alone. The next days dragged by. I was not allowed to go out, to answer the doorbell or the telephone, or to visit a schoolmate. I read. I played paper dolls. I fixed my meals. I played with my kitten, Pinto.
It was 1933 and the country was in deep depression. Many people were hungry. A friend of my mother, Bill, raised chickens. He said to her “You work for the County and you know about people who are in real poverty. I want you to get the addresses of six families in need, and Christmas morning we will drive to their houses and give them a chicken for Christmas dinner.”
Christmas morning dawned. My mother and I get in her flivver and drive to Bill’s place. His small truck is ready with the six chickens caged in the back.
We set off for the six addresses my mother had provided. At the first address my mother goes to the front door, and when her knock is answered she reminds the couple that they met her at the Probation Office and tells them her friend Bill is bringing them a chicken for their Christmas dinner. Bill approaches holding an upside down squawking chicken by the legs and holds it out to them. The woman, wide eyed and dropped jaw, gingerly reaches for the squirming, screeching bird. The man shakes his head and walks away.
This process is repeated five more times and by three o’clock in the afternoon we drive home. Bill comes in and we have tuna sandwiches. Mom and Bill sit and enjoy coffee and re-hash their morning adventures. I take my glass of milk and sandwiches and go sit down and read a book.
December 2006. My mother speaks to me from the past, “You make it sound so dismal.”
I answer her, “Yes, Mother, it was.”
Christmas Eve 1957
Larry and Verna demand the children spend Christmas Eve with them. They promise that they will bring them home by ten. This gives Bob and me time to take care of last minute details, and for Bob to pick up his kids, Robbie and Sue, and bring them to our place to celebrate Christmas morning.
My mother and Leslie show up—they will sleep in their Nash, parked in our driveway.
Christmas morning everyone collects in the living room to eat their oranges, bananas and oatmeal cookies from their stockings. Then begins the opening of the packages. Mathematician Carl says, “Ten people, each person getting about eight presents means we need to open eighty gifts before breakfast.”
All the kids had opened gifts at their father’s house the night before, and by the time the eighty gifts get unwrapped and appreciated it was boring. Christmas breakfast was always a major celebration, and then we all climbed into cars and went down to play on the beach. This was the procedure until son Larry was eighteen and had come home from college.
Larry had won a scholarship to any college or university of his choice, and although his math and science friends were going to Cal Tech, and his father, being a graduate, also wanted him to go there, Bob and I, somehow, convinced him that he knew plenty of math and science, and he needed to be well rounded. So he went, instead, to a liberal arts school, Reed College in Oregon.
December 24, I picked him up at the airport at 10:00 a.m. and my eyes boggled. Instead of my conservative son he had let his hair grow shoulder length and had, as well, a three month’s growth of beard. He was wearing a second hand Plains Indian shirt made of some animal skin that had never been washed, with long sleeves that had eighteen inch fringe falling from the length of each arm, chambray pants, and motorcycle boots.
Bob and I had decided that for our gift to him we would get him a dress suit. I questioned him as to whether that is really what he wanted, and he said yes. I drove him to a men’s shop on La Cienega. He walked in and told the greeter at the door what he wanted, and the man never cracked a smile nor widened his eyes. We went to the location of suits and the clerk showed us the three styles they had in stock. He particularly pushed the new fashion with inch wider lapels, fashioned after the Beatles. Larry’s comment was, “No, I want the narrow lapels. I’m really very conservative.”
When we got home, my mother and Leslie were there. Leslie took one look at Larry and came apart. In his book the long hair was an advertisement that he was homosexual and the beard said he was a hoodlum. No amount of persuasion could change Les’ mind. Bob took Leslie to the back part of the house, and calmed him with a pint of bourbon. We try to persuade Larry to shave his beard to help Leslie feel better about him. The next morning at breakfast I was at the foot of the table and Leslie was at the head. When I asked Larry to pass the butter he turned toward me. He had shaved the half of his face that Leslie could see, and left the half unshaved that was toward me. The kids all thought that was hilarious, but Leslie never spoke to Larry again.
I cried much of that holiday because I thought it would be the last time the whole family would be together at Christmas time.
It is twelve years after I cried during the holiday because it would be the last time I would have the whole family together. I sit at the foot of the table and look at the gathering. All of the kids were there, and in addition each of them had brought a friend. I glowed with joy.
The kids have gone their own ways. Larry is running an Ashram in Cuernavaca, Mexico with his wife and two babies, Lee is in San Fernando Valley with his wife and two babies, Carl is skiing in Heavenly Valley with friends, and Holly has chosen to work that day at her job at Palmdale General Hospital. I have separated from Bob.
I have breakfast with friends, and they take me to LAX to catch the three o’clock flight to Hawaii. My East European Folklife friends are putting on a dance camp at Kaneohe—the week from Christmas until New Year’s. That is my holiday for the next ten years.
Christmases after 2000
Each year I visit the family that is nearest, or request me to kitty-sit while they travel.
This year Holly and I drive to Pahrump, Nevada where Lee and Lucille have just finished their new house. The day before Christmas I go with Lee and Holly to the grocery store and play the slot machines while they shop. Christmas day Lee teaches Holly how to run his construction tractor and I take pictures of her digging the trench for planting trees along the perimeter of their property.