Sometimes it is necessary to rummage through the not-so-good memories to find that special one you’ve carried through the years. It was a rough patch in my life and my mother, who tolerated me through my teenage years and early marriage, emerged as a total different character in my eyes.
My father had died a few years before and she lived alone in her little house in Greenwood and ,as life sometimes hands, I was in rather a quagmire of my own. It was so that I moved in with my mother that fall of 1973 for the winter. She worked at Ekco in Lockes Mills; I was covering stories for three newspapers at the time, so my time was more or less my own so I could plan my day.
We shared the duties. She left for work in the morning and each week, I tossed the trash in my little VW Bug for the town landfill and the basket of laundry for the laundromat. While the clothes were spinning, I spun the wheels to the dump and back to pick up the clothes. We fell into a routine that I never thought possible. I could cover the stories and still have her supper waiting when she came through the door.
But that is not the memory. Christmas was coming and neither of us had mentioned that fact much. We kept oil in the barrel to keep us warm and food on the table . Neither of us had money to spare except for the essentials.
I don’t know how the topic of a tree came up in conversation, but Ma thought we should have one. Just a small one, she said, there in the corner where it always used to be when we were kids. I knew there had been no tree in the corner since Dad died, so I figured I’d go along with it. My memory does not allow me to tell you where the tree came from or whether she bought, begged or stole it. I only know there was a tree on the front porch one night when I came home from working a story.
It was two days before Christmas so time was tight. Ma had supper on the table and suggested we put the tree up that night. Well, Christmas was not going to mean much for me that year, but why not go along with Ma’s plan? After all, she had offered me her house for the winter.
We dragged the tree through the front door and there it lay on the kitchen floor. The branches were a bit sparse, she acknowledged, but we didn’t need anything huge anyway.
“I think we need a cocktail before we begin putting up the tree.” The air crackled with silence. Was that my mother suggesting we have a mixed drink? The mother who threatened to disown me if I smelled a bottle of beer in high school?
Before I could answer, the little woman was bent over and reaching under the kitchen sink and producing a bottle of whiskey. Over to the refrigerator and she whisked out a bottle of ginger ale. Well, this was all coming together rather well, I thought.
“It’s cocktail time somewhere and I’ll get the rope for the tree. ” Up the stairs she went and back down in a flash with rope and a small box of old ornaments and I swear a garland of colored ringlets that Curt and I made when we were in grade school. Out on the porch and back in with a small pail half filled with dirt…she was a whirling dervish.
It was time. We each took a sip of her mixture and I grabbed the tree. “Hold it up higher so I can get the pail under it and then drop it in the pail”…geesh, she was barking out orders like I had never heard. Up it went. Down in the pail it went. We stood back and admired that it was upright….and took another sip of the mixture.
It was then the unbelievable happened. As if in slow motion, the tree was slowly sagging toward us. “Grab it,” Ma shrieked. I grabbed. We took another sip. Back in the pail and Ma got on her knees and pushed some dirt up around the tiny trunk. “That should do it” she gasped, pushing herself back to the kitchen table and another sip.
The tree refused to cooperate and started its slo-mo move again. “The rope,” Ma shrieked and it was then I realized that our sipping might have got a bit out of hand. I grabbed the tree; Ma grabbed the rope and slung it from one nail in the wall, lassoed the middle of the tree in a circular fashion and to the nail on the opposite wall. “There, you miserable thing, stand there”…suddenly I realized that the Christmas spirit had spiraled into an almost non-existent state. Ma grabbed the ornaments , looked me in the eye and said, “Let’s get these things on before that miserable thing falls over again.” We did. The tree stood resplendent in its beauty.
Fast forward to Christmas morning. We sat at the kitchen table, nursing our tea. Ma went in the bedroom and brought out a package. I went in by my bed and brought a package out to her. We sat at the table, and proceeded to unwrap. Each of us had given the same to each other but just different colors.
At different times, we had gone to Hathaway’s store in Lockes Mills and bought a turtleneck long sleeve shirt for the other. $1.98 —and it is one of my favorite Christmas memories. The year we had so little, but so much and the year I discovered a whole new side of my mother.