When Margot was here last month, she found a small stash of old Polaroids from my past family Christmases that we scanned into my hard drive to save. I was thinking about those images and the gatherings they represented as I went to sleep last night.
For a couple of years in the mid 1960s, while we lived in Dilley, we had what I remember as wholly good Christmas celebrations. Mama had energy to spare, and she was moved to create crafts with us, guide us through the actual making of presents and imaginative baking. She used patterns from Good Housekeeping and Redbook to fashion decorations from inexpensive materials. We could rely on enough to eat for Christmas dinner those years, and my father would be home for more than a day, and we did not spend all our time crammed together in the Chevy driving to see far-flung grandparents.
The truth is, maybe it was just one Christmas that was good. I remember sitting on the floor under the new aluminum tree with the colour wheel rotating on it, and Mama reading to us from Luke or Matthew while we waiting for the turkey to cook. She would then tell us the story of the first Christmas present she ever got, a miniature kerosene lantern, when she was age five, and an entire orange: A huge treat during the Depression for an orphaned girl. She would begin crying as she explained to us that was why we always got a Clementine in our stockings, and I would also weep as I dutifully ate mine.
But maybe it was just the one time. All the other memories I can pull up have want and fear and grief larded throughout them. Adults gone stiff from the reality of death, or volatile from nowhere near enough money to buy presents, or ruptured by failed commitments. Mama pregnant with a baby she didn't want and would deliver for a few minutes of life less than a month later. Daddy still on the road Christmas morning, arriving cold-cheeked and expecting a hero's welcome with an armful of impulsively bought gifts that never matched who we actually were. And seeing the boys get things like guitars, chemistry sets, race cars, building kits, while my main acquisition year after year was never the printing press or microscope I requested but: A doll. Whatever the ad men said was a must have for little girls that year.
I did not play with my dolls. I did not sleep with them. They piled up in a corner, and finally stopped arriving when I was 13.
And this, by the way, is one of the things I mean when I talk about a shared girlhood. You cannot acquire this from hormones or empathy or rhetoric. I did not want to be a boy -- I wanted to be a girl who was not forced to wear dresses, have long hair, and care about dolls. Grok that and you will understand radical lesbian feminism.
The photos Margot and I unearthed are of the Christmas where I drove back to Stoneburg to spend it in the trailer with my family during my first year of college. Bill had stolen my room as soon as I left for school that fall. so I was reduced to either sleeping in his filthy cubicle of a prior bedroom or spreading a sleeping bag on our stained living carpet. Bill was not expected to clean the room he'd left behind: Boys did not have to clean up after themselves in our house.
I vaccuumed myself a spot and spread my bag. Daddy gleefully woke me up at dawn, taking a flash photo in my face to capture my disorientation. He resented anyone who slept in.
Someone, likely him, also took photos of us opening presents. Daddy himself is shirtless because it's his time off. He has a Pearl beer in front of him at the breakfast table. Mama is in a tattered, too small nightgown, with much of her exposed, including her snatch in one shot. She did not dress because she literally didn't have a dress that fit any more. I had been doing her grocery shopping all semester because she could not go into town in just a robe.
I was a scholarship kid at college, an academic award that was calculated to include at least $50 a month from parental contribution. (laughs grimly) The total award was somewhat less than $700 a term, from which I had to pay tuition, fees, books, and all living expenses. It was decidedly not enough. When I got that check in September, I set aside $75 of it, a bit more than 10%. I got through by not buying any clothes (wore the same thing day after day) and not eating on Tuesdays and Thursdays, plus eating sheer crap the rest of the week. In mid December I bought a $75 certificate to Sears in my mother's name, and gave it to her along with a catalogue as my Christmas gift to her.
The Polaroids show Bill's present to her -- a cheap knockoff of a statue based on Blue Boy -- and a new steam iron from my father. There is no photo of her reaction to the gift certificate. She burst into tears and tried to shove it back at me. When I wouldn't take it, she stood and declared "I know you are embarrassed of me, but this is hard to take" and retreated to her bedroom. Daddy was furious at me and Bill followed his lead. It was up to me to figure out Mama's meal plans and get them started.
In the end, she used the gift certificate and bought her first pantsuit, along with several other outfits. My father's resentment only grew at seeing her wear pants.
I spent a couple of decades as an adult trying to create my own version of a good Christmas, with friends and lovers and careful visits home. But nothing was ever quite right, or sometimes even close to okay. In the end, I gave up and began spending them alone. Now that the blood family are all dead, it's much easier. And honest. It sucks as a holiday for more people than I think will admit it. I am so relieved Margot hates it to the same degree I do. It will all be over this time tomorrow and we can drop the pretense. Poor people understand very well how we are supposed to act, to be merry and familial even when there is no fucking turkey: God bless us every one.
(Copyright 2013 Maggie Jochild.)