By Terry R. Shaw
Christmas was a special time for my single mother, and she had rules concerning the holiday when I was growing up in the 1950s. One of her rules was that my three brothers and I had to buy gifts for each other with our own money. Mom wouldn’t finance the gifts for us, and she informed us that the gifts we gave to each other had to cost at least a quarter.
“And you don’t have to buy me anything, boys. But, if you want to, don’t ask me for the money. That’s not giving. Giving means sacrifice, giving up something of importance to you.” (Like our hard earned, snow shoveling, paper route money).
Now a quarter was a goodly sum to little boys growing up without a father in the early ‘50s. You could go to a movie for a quarter. Of course, we could spend more on each other if we wanted to, but nobody ever did. I strived to find the perfect gift for my three brothers. My two older teenage brothers were easy to buy for. I forged a note from mom and bought them each a pack of cigarettes. They cost exactly a quarter. It was the perfect inexpensive gift for a teenage boy in the ‘50s. But the perfect gift for my younger brother Pat was a different story. Although, he probably smoked, I knew mom would frown on such a gift for him. So, I would search for a “neat,” but inexpensive toy at the five and dime store. It was a Herculean task.
I eagerly opened my gift from Pat one Christmas, expecting a cheap but “neat” toy back from him. When I had torn off the wrapping paper, with tons of tape all over it, I saw in my hands a piece of four inch by two-inch white corrugated cardboard with about a dozen or so multi-colored pushpins sticking out of it.
“What the heck is this?” I asked him.
“It’s a game,” he instructed me with a smug smile on his little face.
“The heck it is. These are just some darned tacks!” (I made sure Mom heard the anguish in my voice, trying hard not to say hell and damn in front of her.)
“I thought it was a game,” Pat said, looking to our mother for support.
“That’s OK, honey,” she said. “I’ll take them back to the store and get your money back. Then you can buy Terry something else. Thank Pat for the gift, Terry,” she added, turning to me.
“The heck I will. Darned tacks?”
“I thought it was a game!”
“I thought it was a game.”
At Christmastime, things were usually bleak for our mother financially. We always got great gifts, but another Christmas rule of mom’s was that my brothers and I would each get only one toy gift. Somehow she knew exactly what we wanted, too. The other gifts “from Santa” had to be a new set of clothes, usually corduroy slacks, and a dress shirt, except for a small brown bag of candy, nuts, and fruit, which mom always put under the tree for each of us. (When we grew up, she did it for our kids, her grandkids, and after she died, my brother Pat has kept it going for all these years.)
Our Christmas tree wouldn’t go up until exactly one week before Christmas and it wouldn’t go up at all if mom’s four boys didn’t pitch in picking it out, pulling it home atop our little red wagon, a good mile or so, (Mom didn’t have a car), and then decorating the tree with large shiny glass bulbs, all different colors, bubble lights, (my favorite), strings of popcorn, tinsel, and, finally, angel hair, which only mom was allowed to touch and put on the tree because it was made from spun glass. The tinsel was an adventure. Mom would be on one side of the tree carefully draping strands of it on the boughs while her boys stood at the other side and just tossed the stuff, willy nilly, on the tree. A week after Christmas she’d pull each strand off and save it for next year. Were we really that poor? Mom had grown up in the Great Depression. Nothing was ever thrown away if it could be used again. A plastic Santa in his sleigh, pulled by eight reindeer sat on the TV on top of a sheet of sparkling cotton. The manger scene would go on one of the end tables beside the sofa. Sometimes mom would switch them around.
We would open our gifts from Santa and to each other on the 23rd of December because of another Christmas rule of Mom’s. That meant we had to be in our mother’s hometown 70 miles away, with her mother and father, for Christmas Eve Midnight Mass every year. Remember, we didn’t have a car, so getting us there was quite a task for her. Somehow, she did it. We never missed a Christmas Eve with Grandma and Grandpa in LeSueur. I remember taking the bus a couple of times. We had to go to Minneapolis, wait hours in the Greyhound Depot, and then board the bus to Le Sueur from there. No buses ran from Litchfield to LeSueur. Grandpa or our Uncle Bud drove up to Litchfield to get us a couple of times.
Christmas day, all of mom’s six brothers and sisters with their families of running and screaming kids would crowd into Grandpa and Grandma’s tiny house on Main Street in Le Sueur. There’d be a huge supper, people sitting all over the house, eating turkey and mashed potatoes, and then the family choir would begin singing carols. All my aunts and uncles would gather in the living room and stand before us and sing. They were great, harmonies and all. Mom’s brother Ray led them, as he did with the Albert Lea church choir all year long. One year, he turned to me, a teenager, and said, “Would you like to join the choir, Terry?”
Suddenly, I had grown up.