Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A favorite Christmas memory

I have been recently accused - fairly - of writing something "dark" during the holidays. So today, I hope to redeem myself with a true story that always comes to me this time of year. It's a "true meaning of Christmas" story.

Like so many of my Christmas memories, it features my dad. Avid readers of this blog with fastidious memory banks will recall last year's item that detailed Daddy's lack of enthusiasm for the whole Christmas issue. I think the biggest part of his disdain for Christmas was the excess of it - and this was in a household that did not have anything like a fancy Christmas. We were a working-class family with a working-class Christmas. Although I never wanted for anything necessary, I was just like other kids in lusting after the unnecessary, expensive toys in the Sears "Wishbook" catalog - elaborate slot car tracks and electric hockey games and full-blown cowboy outfits. Things that were out of reach for people of our means.

No doubt Daddy wanted to teach me something on this particular Christmas. I was 9 or 10 I think. It was a day or two before the holiday. After he got home from work and the firewood had been replenished in the house, he told me he wanted me to go somewhere with him. This was out of the ordinary. I knew it had to be something of significance to compel him to make a point of asking me to go with him. Sometime just before dark we got into his Rambler and drove just a short way, maybe a mile or less from our house, up a dirt road. Back there in the woods (44th Street when it was still in the woods and unpaved, for those who have Joplin knowledge) there was a tumble-down house that I had passed a few times. It looked like it hadn't seen paint in fifty years, and there was junk strewn in the front and a broken down car or two. Not all the windows had glass in them. No electric light. Daddy turned the car into the dirt driveway and stopped. A child peeked out from the door. I don't think any words were said as Daddy got out and reached for a grocery bag in the back seat. I could see that inside the bag were oranges, maybe nuts, eggs perhaps. Some sustenance.

I watched from the car, and from this unlivable-looking house a man came out. He was in his 30s, needed a shave, and his face had that beaten look - beaten by hard work in the sun, beaten by wind, beaten by life. There were two or three children, a wife inside. He took the grocery bag. Not much was said. Daddy came back to the car, sat in the driver's seat, and looked over at me. He didn't say a word. We drove back to our home, a warm, comfortable home, that now seemed so opulent by comparison.

Later I came to understand that this was a family of migrant farm workers of the "Okie" variety. Dirt poor people who moved from place to place and subsisted. Today they would probably be housed in some kind of shelter. In that day the just lived on, the hard-scrabble life.

Daddy's life was shaped by being poor - Depression poor. Will-there-be-enough-to-eat poor. There was something about the way Christmas was shaping up - as the festival of conspicuous consumption that we have today - that urged him to give me a little perspective. I guess it worked. Not a Christmas goes by that I don't think about that day.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

inspiring...truly inspiring...

Anonymous said...

Did you inspire that type of goodwill in your own children?

Anonymous said...

Wow- we are all anonymose today- Barry, no one would ever know that I grew up living in car at times and not eating for days. It shaped who I am today. Today I am wealthy, but I always make sure I donate money to the food bank, everyone needs to eat, especially at Christmas time. I can remember one day how good an orange tasted and just how good it smelled to me as a 7 year old. I feel blessed everytime I eat one now. It is the little things that your dad did that make a difference in life. He understood that.

Barry Martin said...

Anonymous II asked if I have inspired that kind of goodwill in my children. The answer is that I don't know, but they are outstanding people who have given more in service at their ages that I did by that stage in my life - have a deep sense of fairness and responsibility and how to be good. They are better people than I am. Maybe it skips a generation...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your story and showing your not all dark during this holiday season. Most importantly, remember all year is a time to give, not just Christmas....that was pointed out to me when I was writing out my donations checks for the year and my daughter said, "Did you know Mom that this is the time of year most foundations get there donations, but they can use it all year, the diseases, research and whatever are continous, just a thought Mom". Boy I love that girl and she's right.