I remember it well: Christmas, 1951. My family had gone to my dear cousin Carol’s house for Christmas dinner. Carol is a few years my junior and is now my only living relative from our generation. They lived across the river in North Little Rock and it was always an exciting trip for my brother, John, and me, especially crossing the large Main Street bridge. This was the largest family dinner I would ever encounter. There were my parents, John, me, Carol, Aunt Ella, Uncle Lewis,and Aunt Ella’s mother. The house was small (although I didn’t realize it at the time) and the dinner table would not accommodate all of us, so we children sat separately at a small table.
There would be several pies from which to choose and I always found the abundance of food and the continuous conversation stressful, but I felt this was what adults liked to do, so I made the best of it. Mom always made us “dress up”, so I wasn’t particularly comfortable in my Sunday clothes. Carol, John and I went outside to play, but it was difficult, wearing those clothes that we knew had to be kept clean. Still, that was preferable to being indoors and hearing all the adult conversation.
Dinner came and went. I recall eating quickly and not eating much. A fuss was made that I didn’t take a slice of each pie available and that made it all even worse. Such publicity I didn’t need or want. By now, I just wanted the day to end, and quickly.
After dinner, I noticed something I hadn’t seen before; there were many presents under their tree, which surprised me since I knew they had already opened their family gifts on Christmas morning. We had done the same; our living room showed obvious evidence of two children having opened presents that morning and our preference had been to just stay home and play. Could this mean there would be more gifts for everyone? The day began to look promising. As nonchalantly as a ten-year old can do, I sauntered near the tree to see if my name was on any of the presents. YES! There, behind the tree, was a package marked, “Merry Christmas, David”. Whatever it was, I knew that I just needed patience, and to be polite when other presents were opened.
What could it be? Aunt Ella and Uncle Lewis hadn’t been near me to get any hints, so I was puzzzled. I already had a small Erector set, and the cowboy belt/cap gun I had received from Mom and Dad that morning. Could it be that Boy Scout knife I wanted? Or maybe that Morse Code set? Waiting would tell.
Finally, the adults’ conversation ebbed and they gathered near the tree. Being adults, they continued to talk — about the gifts, about the children, about Christmas, about seeing each other. It seemed to go on and on and on. Kids use time more efficiently; we would just rip open the presents and be done with it. But I waited. And waited. Presents were starting to be handed out. Each gift would be given, the recipient would open the gift and make an appropriate “thank you” statement, and the others would make complimentary statements on the gift and the wrapping and on and on and on.
Then, I heard the magic words, “David, here’s a gift for you”. As I lifted it, the weight told me it wasn’t the Morse Code kit, and the softness told me it was not the Boy Scout knife. Oh, well, it would be something unexpected. As the wrapping paper was ripped away, my heart began to sink. My gift was underwear and socks. Underwear and socks. Several sets of underwear and socks. White t-shirts and white Jockey shorts and an assorted color of socks. Underwear and socks.
What to say? I knew I couldn’t stay quiet; a “thank you” was expected. This was not an event over which I wanted to dwell, so I quickly looked to my relatives and said my best “Thanks, Aunt Ella and Uncle Lewis” and hoped that was sufficient. Thankfully, the focus moved on to the next person. (Yes, my brother, John, received the same gift and the shared look between us told the same story: What? Underwear and socks?)
Hours later, after arriving back home, Mom explained why we received underwear and socks. My aunt and uncle had preferred to buy us fun gifts, but had purchased underwear and socks because Mom had told them that was what we needed. Bottomline: gifts cost money and my parents had just so much of it. My first reality check.
I learned a lot that Christmas:
- Mom and Dad were not able to do everything; they had limits.
- Sometimes in life you get what you need and not what you want.
- What you may want isn’t that important on a grander scale.
- Grownups sometimes talk about you.
- Disappointment happens: move on.
We would share Christmas only a few more times together, but that is another story. John would only be with us three more Christmases, also another story. Carol is now in Texas and I am in New York. All that remains of those family gatherings are memories. I was too young to grasp the love and togetherness that was being experienced, but I grew from the memories and from that package of underwear and socks.