The Christmas Gift
A few white flakes fell on the little boy’s cheeks just as he and his Papa filled the last gunny sack with leaves. The old man of slight build and grayish hair and whiskers tied off the end of the sack and lifted his face to the sky.
“Well, Bobby-boy, we might be having a white Christmas after all. You’ll like that, I know, ‘cause Mama will make you some snow-cream. And I can tell you it’s better than any other kind of ice cream.” The man pulled at the sleeves of his old ragged Mackinaw…they were too short, leaving his lower arms open to the raw winter air. He then pulled the woolen beanie down over Bobby’s ears and closed the sides of his heavy sweater-jacket. “Let’s get the gunny sacks back down the hill for the hogs and we can go sit in front of the pot-bellied stove and warm up.”
Bobby was six years old, living now with his grandfather and grandmother because his parents were divorced and neither could afford to keep him. The grandparents lived on a farm in east Tennessee, growing their own vegetables, getting milk from old Bessie, the cow, and lucky enough to slaughter occasionally some hogs for the meat.
The grandfather (Papa) worked most days piloting the old coal-driven train engine and some flatbeds around the mountain to pick-up and haul back logs to the local sawmill. When he was not on the train engine Papa was plowing with his mule, Fred, tending to his fields and his hogs.
The grandmother (Mama) churned their butter from old Bessie’s milk, cooked the best breakfasts, lunches, and dinners the little boy ever tasted. Mama wore long faded dresses with aprons, loved her snuff, set her spittle can on the floor next to the aged stuffed chair she sat in during breaks in the day and evenings when the radio shows were on.
Bobby loved his grandparents and tried not to think too much about the mother he also loved very much. Most days Bobby trailed along with Mama while she did washing in the old fired-up black vat outside near the kitchen which was also used for making lye soap. Now and then, she would grab a squealing rooster by its head and wring its neck, the body of the big bird flying off with blood drops falling on the grass and bare spots of the ground. Bobby was fascinated by the procedures Mama took to prepare the rooster for frying – soaking the dead rooster in hot water for some time, then pulling each feather easily from its body…Most of all, Bobby remembered how good the chicken tasted at dinner time, with Mama’s good seasonings and her golden frying of the bird.
Mama sat on Bobby’s sleeping cot and told him fancy fairy stories until his closed eyes signaled her to leave. Bobby sure loved being with his paternal grandparents but he missed his sassy Sister and his Mom. Bobby loved his Dad, too, but he argued and fought a lot with his Mom…he was scared of his Dad because he hit his Mom a lot, but he still loved him. He didn’t let himself think too much about those things. When Mama finished with her stories at his cot he would think too much about lots of things long into the night.
Finished with their leave-gathering chore, Papa and Bobby entered the old clapboard house. The aroma came out of the kitchen onto the small screened-in porch where Papa filled the blue-streaked basin bowl with water from the well and washed his face and hands…then instructed Bobby to do the same. The large bar of lye soap was almost too big for Bobby to grasp and occasionally he dropped it. Bobby hurried because the smell of dinner cooking on the old wood stove had him really hungry.
As Bobby walked through the screen door to the kitchen, Mama came smiling and hugged him. Her reddish-gray hair was done up in a ‘bun’ at the back of her head. Bobby could not remember ever seeing her hair down. “Now you go in with Papa and listen to the radio news, and dinner will be ready soon.” As she gently pushed him toward the living room door, she added, “Looks like we’ll have a nice white Christmas for you when you wake up tomorrow, Bobby. Now, I can’t tell you whether or not Santa’s going to be stopping here or not but you never know.” She reached down and gave Bobby a kiss on the cheek.
After a wonderful dinner of pork chops, fried potatoes, and cornbread topped off with banana pudding the little family spent the evening decorating the small tree Papa brought in from off the back porch. Mama read Bobby a Christmas story, and Papa briefly left the room with something in his eyes. Then they listened to the Christmas carols and radio shows for a while until it was time for Bobby to go to bed. Papa laughed and whiskered Bobby in tease until Mama made him quit, and they both kissed him and said Merry Christmas. Papa left but Mama stayed, read a baby Jesus story to Bobby, and reminded him he needed to go to sleep so Santa Claus could get about his business of delivering presents to the kids all around the world.
Bobby tried very hard to go to sleep but he stayed awake long into the night thinking about his Mom, Dad, and Sister. He silently wished them a Merry Christmas and told them he loved them. He cried a little.
The next morning the radio was playing Christmas carols and Mama and Papa led him to the small Christmas tree. One gift was under the tree, wrapped in ordinary paper.
“It’s for you, Bobby. Santa must have left it.” Mama said with excitement, “Go ahead and open it!”
Bobby quickly picked up the gift and tore the paper away. It was a game: a round red peg anchored to the center of a white piece of hard cardboard with three blue rings. His eyes widened. He had seen this game – a kid was to stand some ten or more feet from the red peg and toss the blue rings at it.
“Do you like it, Bobby?” Mama asked.
Bobby’s face glowed with pleasure, “Oh, yes, Mama!” He placed the board and peg some feet away, stepped back ten short steps and began tossing the blue rings. When he finally put a ring onto the peg he yelled with delight, “I did it! I did it!”
There were tears in the eyes of Mama and Papa. They had wanted to do so much more for his Christmas but could not. Bobby’s happiness with the cheap little game made them both happy and ashamed.
Many years later, Bobby would remember that Christmas present as the most precious gift he would ever receive.
Billy Ray Chitwood – ‘An almost-true’ Christmas Story – December, 2014
MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY NEW YEAR!
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