Special to the Tribune-Star
TERRE HAUTE —
My brother and sister and I sat around a Thanksgiving dinner table a month ago, shifting in our seats just enough to make our yet-to-be digested turkey sit a little more easily, and, as we often do when we get together, we reminisced about our childhoods for a while. What, I asked, was your favorite childhood Christmas gift?
The question had been prompted by a haphazardly taken snapshot I discovered a few weeks earlier of my brother and sister as they ransacked their gifts on our uncomfortably cold front porch, the site for years of our Christmas tree in all its bubble-lit and glass-bulbed splendor years and years ago. I can still feel the chill of the porch’s tile coming through the insulated feet of my flannel, trap-doored pajamas, still smell the scent of pine when we opened the doors to that magical place as kids on Christmas morning.
The photo was taken before I could walk, I’m sure, so I am not in it, and typically, the panes of the windows of the porch were coated with a glaze of ice. My brother has his back to the camera; my sister is blurred and too close to the lens, her face a glaring flash of nostrils and teeth. But despite my mom’s poor work with the Kodak, the picture still brought back a flood of memories, right down to the strands of gaudy tinsel that limply hung from the tree’s scrawny limbs.
I already knew what gift I would enter into the discussion, but since I have been agonizingly slow in writing an oft-promised book about such things, I figured I might uncover a story or two for later use if I asked them while I had the chance. As it turned out, I was too surprised, and too pleased with their answers to wait on the book, and so, on this Christmas Eve, I wanted to share.
My brother, John, surprised me with his answer. He is nearly six years older than I am, and he remembered, more realistically, I suppose, what Christmases from those early days were like for us. He can clearly remember when our family desperately struggled financially, when my dad, despite working on construction jobs in such exotic locales (well, to me they were exotic) as Goose Bay, Labrador, and Seattle and Springfield, Mo., we barely made ends meet.
One winter, while Dad was away, we were not going to have a Christmas tree at all, and Mom, in hopes she could afford a small one, drove into North Terre Haute just a few days before Christmas, hoping to find one cheap enough to bring home. The salesman at the lot, far from looking prosperous himself, must have sensed how badly Mom wanted a tree, and despite her trying to cram a few crumpled bills into his hands, he refused to be paid for the one he gave to us. With that story in mind, John simply said, “Christmas was always pretty tough on Mom.”
As it turned out, despite our “slim” Christmases, my dad supplied John’s greatest gift. It was a battleship-sized stereo record player that he’d won on a tavern tip-board near Christmas in 1964, and the sheer novelty of it must have captivated my brother. A rather eclectic collection of records came with the stereo — a huge walnut-encased slab of furniture that matched nothing we had in the house — and for the next few years, we all listened to Lefty Frizzell as he pined for Saginaw, Mich., George Hamilton IV as he longed for Abilene — it was the “prettiest town he’d ever seen” — and Johnny Horton belting it out about the Battle of New Orleans. I think a little Chet Atkins and Elvis Presley, and inexplicably, the soundtrack to “Exodus” were in the mix, too.
My sister didn’t hesitate with her story, either. She said that as Christmas neared, and it may have been in the very same year dad brought the stereo home, my mom had grown increasingly nervous when the topic of gifts had come up, and that as the big day approached she had told my sister that her present might not be brought by Santa on Christmas Eve, that it may come a few days later. As it turned out, Sis eventually discovered that Mom had ordered her a pair of dolls, a “Tiny and Big Thumbelina” set by Ideal, both of which, if I recall correctly, had huge, growth-like knobs in the small of their backs, that when turned, made their arms and legs robotically move. The dolls also looked as if it they had badly botched heads of hair plugs, but, of course, that’s the way dolls’ scalps looked in those days.
Mom had ordered the dolls from the Spiegel’s catalog, and day after day, she waited for them, knowing they were what Sis wanted more than anything else. She called the store every day; she even called Walt Williams, our kindly old mailman (I used to wait for him every summer day on our front hillside just to have someone to talk to) who told her that if the dolls came, he’d bring them to the house, even on Christmas Eve if necessary. As it turned out, they didn’t come for Christmas, but when Walt brought them to the house a week or so later, Mom went ahead and wrapped them. My sister still remembers the red corduroy dresses the dolls wore, and said, “I was disappointed about not getting them on Christmas morning, but not traumatized. We didn’t get much for Christmas, so it was still exciting when I did finally get them.”
My favorite gift is one that will play a big role in that yet-to-be-finished book, if I ever get it written. It was a plastic “Fort Apache” play set, resplendent with its plastic stockade fence, plastic blockhouses, plastic totem pole and plastic teepee. Of course, plastic cowboys and Indians and Calvary soldiers accompanied the set, and I played with it so often, and so loudly, that both my brother and sister begged my mom to make me play without the accompanying sound effects. That proved impossible, so they either had to live with hearing the bloodcurdling screams of Indian raiding parties, the blares of Army bugles, and the gunfire of frontier battle action, or go listen to Lefty Frizzell …
I don’t think I ever noticed that our Christmases were low-budget affairs in those days. And even though I know I can never go back to that ice box of a porch and that Charlie Brown pine tree, except in my memories, I don’t think I will ever be nearly as rich.
Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808.