Saturday, January 1, 2011

My Mother's Christmas Present

When I was little, we always spent Christmas with my mother's family. We went to the house on Christmas Eve to be ready for Santa Claus to come. I was the only child that lived close, so I was sort of the star, or so I thought. Sometimes relatives came with children, cousins, second cousins, distant cousins. We kept in touch with the far-off as well as the close-by relations. For spending the night, it was often just Auntie, Tom, Jimmie, Momma, Daddy, and me.

On Christmas morning, we gathered in the kitchen where the coffee was brewing. I looked in at them; then we went to the living room where the tree was.

Auntie, who was actually my mother's aunt and my grandfather's second wife, came to offer me a glass of milk. To me she was a grandmother. I thanked her but refused. Her expression said she was crushed. She was tall and slender and sort of regal but oh, so gentle.

Tom was Momma's sister. She fluttered around the kitchen a little like Edith Bunker, making coffee, offering toast, and insisting on helping. I just wanted to open the presents. Yes, I know, Tom is a man's name. I always wondered about that, too. One time I asked Daddy why they called her Tom. I thought that it was a nickname. He said, "I guess they didn't want to say Zelma." Her whole name was Zelma Tom, but I didn't know that until I saw it on a legal document many years later.

I came back to the kitchen begging everyone to hurry. Jimmie was Momma's brother. "The gifts will still be there if I drink this coffee," He said, teasing me. He always looked handsome and sort of sophisticated, at least for our small town. This morning he was wearing a white shirt and slacks. His hands were manicured and smooth and he held his cigarette delicately in one hand and the coffee in the other. Jimmie loved to dance and taught me. I thought I was quite sophisticated when he took me dancing for my ninth birthday. I gave up on him and begged Momma to come.

Momma helped me with scouting the tree and the presents. We finally all got around the tree and I was allowed to deliver the gifts.

Momma always liked surprises, especially if she could surprise someone else. This year I had helped her wrap Daddy's gift. It was a pair of shoes. She wrapped them separately in odd shaped boxes. Of course, we knew that when he opened the first one, the game was up. I thought it was wonderful.

Daddy showed no excitement. He was always patient and seemed never to get in a hurry. It was quite frustrating. He was not handsome or tall like Jimmie. He gazed at me with mild humor. He was 16 years older than Momma, which, in my mind, accounted for his lackadaisical behavior.

Momma was patient as long as she could stand it; she began to shuffle the gifts and sort through the pile. She finally found the one from Daddy. He hadn't put it under the tree until Christmas morning. Sometimes he put it under the tree with no tag because she would open it as soon as she found it. She tore into the little package. I was completely disappointed. It was a box of bath powder. Nice bath powder, the kind she used, but hardly worth all this effort. She opened the box and finally found what she was after under the powder puff: the card. It read, "I would love you if you were a millstone around my neck."

She died of cancer the next August. I wish I had all the cards he ever wrote her. That kind of romance is hard to come by.

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