A Christmas Alone
Christmas began as another morning alone. Being alone was nothing unusual for me, even at ten years old, I´d spent many mornings fixing breakfast for myself and my younger brother Michael, getting us off to school hours after mom had left for her shift at the hospital. Mom, Michael and I had been alone since the divorce when I was five and Michael was three. Because mom worked as many extra shifts as she could, Michael and I helped by being responsible for ourselves. Michael made the beds, picked up the house, and retrieved the mail every day. I was responsible for getting us fed and off to school in the mornings, and for getting dinner started in the evenings. We three were a team; each one with specific responsibilities. Each responsible for the others. But this morning was Christmas, and I was going to be left alone.
Ever since he was very young, Michael had been susceptible to pneumonia. This winter, he seemed unusually vulnerable and by Christmas, he was in the hospital. As mother dressed for her visit, she assured me that she would be back in a few hours, and then she and I could have a nice dinner together before she had to leave again to start her evening shift at the hospital. As much as I tried to be brave, I longed to go with mother to visit Michael, but hospitals in the 1950s did not allow children to visit, and so I would wait at home. As mother dressed, I ran to get my coin purse to gather the four quarters I´d been saving to give to Michael so he could watch television today. The hospital TVs all had coin boxes, and a quarter would buy an hour´s worth of entertainment. Even as I dreaded being alone, I knew that it was worse for Michael, confined to an oxygen tent in his hospital bed. I hoped the television would show Christmas movies today so Michael wouldn´t be sad. I had already decided to set up my record player in the living room, plug in the Christmas lights, and read Trixie Belden and the Mystery in Arizona that my Aunt Dorothy had given me a few days before Christmas. I was determined to be brave and to show mother how grown-up and responsible I could be.
I waited by the Christmas tree as mother finished getting ready. At last she came into the living room and together we opened our presents--white socks, a coloring book and crayons, and a tea set for me, a jewelry box made from popsicle sticks and covered with pink and red felt hearts that I´d made in Girl Scouts for her. Michael´s presents would remain under the tree until he came home after Christmas. I´d never missed my little brother as much as I missed him at that moment. Leaving his presents under the tree assured me that he would eventually come home. Mother never spoke about Michael´s illness except in the most positive words, never giving in to her fears; I realized only many years later the anxiety she must have felt yet never exhibited. As mother rose to leave, she suggested that I open one of Michael´s presents, a train set, and set it up for him so that when he was able to return home, it would be ready for him. I was delighted. This would provide me with something important to do. Mother had entrusted me to put the set together correctly; I knew how important a job this was and how excited Michael would be when he saw the train chugging along the tracks that I so carefully would assemble.
As I sat on the floor, legs out in front of me, mother handed me the large box, laying it across my lap. Skillfully, I removed the ribbon and put it aside. Next, I removed the paper from the backside and turned the box over revealing through the clear top, the most beautiful wedding doll I had ever seen. Instantly I could feel my lungs fill with air and press against my chest forcing me to let out my breath. I began to cry, the tears running in rivulets down my cheeks as my shoulders shook from my sobs. I was overcome with emotion. I could do nothing but hold the box on my lap while my tears fell against the box still unopened on my lap.
I remember mother squatting down next to me, her arm about my shoulders as she kissed my hair, comforting me, probably confused at my unexpected response. I was overwhelmed. I had dropped carefully worded hints about a wedding doll for months before Christmas, and then Michael had gotten sick. And, worse, he´d been hospitalized. As the child of a single mother, I knew how far mother´s scant wages had to stretch. I had put all hopes of a wedding doll out of my mind. I had decided to be very adult about Christmas this year. I had decided to show mother that I understood about sacrifice. But here she was, 18" tall, wearing a beautiful white gown with lace panels, a veil of white netting and ribbons, soft cotton slippers and matching white socks.
Many Christmases have come and gone since the Christmas of my tenth year. Hundreds of presents have been exchanged between my mother, my brother, now grown with a family of his own, and me with a large family of my own. But no gift will ever compare with the sacrifice my mother made in order to give me a wedding doll the year I spent Christmas morning alone. Mother had taught me the true meaning of Christmas without saying a word. As I look at Susie sitting on my dresser in her yellowed wedding dress, now some forty years old, I am reminded of the true meaning of Christmas.