A Sand Road Christmas Card

I have enjoyed many yuletide carols and fa la la lala -ing in my time. We have made multiple wishes for peace on Earth and goodwill to men in my small family community, enough to fill the mandates of 10 United Nations. As the years do their one horse open sleigh ride through the memories that remain evergreen, I am reminded that not all recall the past as warmly as I do.

We struggled in those years; my single mother, six sisters and I. When the holidays rolled around it was a time to be anything but joyous. We were never certain where we would be living from one month to the next let alone be shopping for holiday gifts for ourselves. In those days we would draw names at school from our list of classmates in order to buy gifts for one another, and I dreaded each time having to ask my mother for the money. Even a couple of dollars was a big dent in our funds and I grew to resent the season to be jolly because of it’s hopeful glitter and emphasis on our poverty.

It was all a sham. Merchants displaying the traditions, crafts, foods, music, and toys of the holiday would put a desirous longing in my heart each year. But a cold reality as deep as a snow drift crept in my young mind all the while. It didn’t matter if I was “naughty or nice.” I could have been the nicest guy on the planet (though I wasn’t) and still the outcome would have been the same. I’d hear an aunt or uncle talking about how their family “weren’t going to have much of a Christmas this year” and I would cringe. They didn’t know what it meant to “not have much of a Christmas” because they gauged it on Christmas’ past. We knew each year that it wasn’t going to be much of one because it wasn’t much of one every year. But then one year a miracle happened, my oldest sister married.

No, I did not mean it was a miracle that she married. It was a miracle because when she married she remembered us, her siblings. I don’t doubt that back then it was sort of like a release from purgatory for her to become partners with a man and begin a family of her own. Whatever her feelings about being raised by my mother as the oldest and spending time with the rest of us kids (there were only 4 of us by the time she moved on) she was generous in her spirit. I received my first bicycle from her and my brother-in-law, and that year Christmas was the most joyous one for me and it remains so to this day. (see the post, My First Bicycle from 8-29-07)

But another Christmas year stands out in my mind as well and it was during the time we lived on the Sand Road back in Iowa.

My poor mother never had a chance when she was young. The opportunity for an education eluded her and the need to grow up too fast robbed my mother of her youth and the dreams associated with innocence. She was married at 15 the first time and frivolously threw away relationships that could have fostered a salvation of sorts with each marriage that followed. Instead of finding better relationships she fell in with unsavory men that abused her. Finally my mother found herself alone with the 7 children she bore having no skills or guidance on what being a proper parent meant. Being the oldest in her family, the only way to get out of her own circumstances (her father died when she was 12) was to marry and move on, with devastating results. In many ways, she was not more than a child herself.

We whittled through many locations in eastern Iowa and lived in Council Bluffs twice before we settled into the house on Sand Road. Usually it was because we couldn’t pay the rent and had to make a “mid-night move-out” to avoid the landlord. I think my mother had reached a time in her life where she realized she would remain alone from that point on. Fortunately my kind hearted grandfather by my grandmother’s second marriage had arranged to purchase this major fixer upper, otherwise we would have had no where else to go. Living in that house would ultimately change my life. (see the posts, My Dog Sam beginning on 1-20-08) Though at the time I felt our circumstances went from bad to worse.

My mother informed us that this year she could afford to buy a Christmas tree to enjoy or she would take that money and buy us gifts, but we had to choose one or the other. You can imagine what amount of money she had to buy gifts with if that sum total was what it cost to purchase a tree back then. I remember we all agreed in unison that we had to have a Christmas tree, even if it meant that we could not have the gifts. It was also quite possible that a bill was not going to get paid or the rent to my grandfather was going to be a little short, but our mother would not be deterred.

I know there were sacrifices she made back then. I do not recall ever seeing my mother buying something for herself, unless it were pen and paper. The cars we drove were clunkers, the clothes we wore were thrift store bargains or hand-me-downs. We were welfare babies and did not have any money to waste on things like toys and such. But whatever we had to do without, she did with less.

My mother had a generous spirit and opened up our table many times offering the food that we had. There were nights we spent together eating and talking amongst ourselves about what she had read or philosophised about. We laughed a lot about things we could only imagine that “someday” might happen. She loved music and would often sing to us. Many times traveling in our “beater” my mother would sing Patsy Cline or Loretta Lynn. Given the right circumstances my mother could have been a successful singer. But Christmas was always a cold reality check, the proof in the pudding, the wake up call to our dismal circumstances and hopeless surroundings.

That year we had decided to have the tree and were not expecting anything from my mother. Each night we dutifully plugged in the lights and gazed at the reflective tinsel that we had carefully strung like icicles from it’s boughs. I think our first season on Sand Road was particularly hard because we had just moved again after my mother’s last husband had walked out on her. My younger sisters tried to add to the festive appeal of the tree. They made their own gifts and went wrapping up some knick knack or other forgotten object left laying about just to add substance to it’s base. Christmas music played from the radio in our kitchen that usually boasted Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard. I could not wait for December 26th and the putting of all this useless longing behind us. But then, another miracle.

My next oldest sister was in her mid- teens and had been working as a waitress for a while. In her generous spirit she had purchased numerous gifts for all of us . On Christmas day, my oldest sister and my brother-in-law rolled in a wood cabinet stereo console for my mother along with gifts for her Grinch-like brother and sweet, little sisters. My mother cried when she saw the console, declaring it beautiful and began playing her precious albums immediately. I think it was the first time I saw my mother openly weep over receiving a gift. So it was my two oldest sisters that made our holiday memorable that year and I’ve never forgotten it.

I know my mother prayed, I found her upstairs one time kneeling on the edge of her bed. I think being caught appealing to the Almighty embarrassed her, because we were not overly religious. I also know that world events troubled her as well, recalling how she cried when Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy died. And I have no doubt that she anguished over her abilities as a parent, because she always tried to bestow as much wisdom as she could in her dealings with us kids. It had to be frustrating to feel that the entire world was against you and then have some event at home cause you to cave in, as she did numerous times.

But now as this Christmas rolls around and I look at my own tree set up by my wife and her children, I remember that time when we had the choice of something however meager now or the representation of the hope of better things to come… and we chose the latter. I do not know why that was. You would think that having done without all our young lives we would have gone for the substance, the bird in the hand.

I am not a guy that goes for the celebration of Christmas in the worldly sense, but I do enjoy the traditions of family and friends that come with it. I haven’t purchased any gifts and my poor, new bride is left to accept the cards we receive from the relatives she has yet to meet as graciously as she can. I know she feels the acceptance and love from my sisters as if she were one of them and it makes me feel proud of the girls.

I am also grateful to my mother who left the choice of what Christmas was all about to us and despite our crummy circumstances… we chose hope. My mother gave us her generous spirit and when we express it in giving and/or forgiving, we do her a great honor because that is all she had. I feel that she did the best she could under the circumstances and now my mother lives in each one of her children, especially during Christmas… through the miracle of love.

I hope you all have a safe and happy holiday season.

Merry Christmas from the Sand Road.



6 Responses to “A Sand Road Christmas Card”

  1. Karen Says:

    If any attention at all is paid to the television, you think the kind of Christmas you describe here is moribund. You’ve made me remember & I thank you for that.

  2. Chantal Says:

    When I married you, I knew you were a gift. Since that time, my life with you has been as if I’m given a daily treasure box to discover….I don’t know where I’ll find it, I don’t know when it pops up, but I’m always left grateful, humbled, and a better woman after opening it. I don’t need anything from you under the tree, Honey….this post, this genuine expression of your love and respect for your mother and your sisters is a gift that will last me forever.

    Your loving wife

  3. marge Says:

    wow you made me cry.
    Thank you for writing this.
    Our mother was a great woman in many ways.
    And I know she did the best she could with what she had both physically and emotionally.
    She had a rough life and still she stuck with parenting and trying her best to do what she could to raise us all.
    She didn’t give us away, she hung in there and made us all a part of her
    I miss her greatly and I thank you so much for writing this and remembering our mother in such a loving way.
    Love you bro

  4. msdane Says:

    Okay, I’ve been a bit unhappy with you for ignoring me for so long. You don’t answer emails and I lost you phone number, but I forgive you after reading this. I’m sure Marge has told you what has been going on. One of our sisters has always acted as though Mom was a monster because Mom wasn’t the kind of mother she wanted and wasn’t perfect (who is?) Another sister has written of late about Mom being abusive and beating her and the youngest with a belt and leaving bruises. If I listen to the one and then read what the other writes, it is easy to see Mom as a monster and she was far from that. Yes, she did the best she could, and she had a generous heart, letting us bring friends in for dinner even though the food was never fancy, she was willing to share what she had so that no one went hungry.

    She taught me many of the things I’m proud of myself for today. Without her I wouldn’t have grown to be the woman I am today. Flawed, of course, but I have reverence for God, joy and love in my family, and a longing for what is just and right in life. Mom taught me that. I remember those dinners and they are wonderful memories. Sometimes Perry would be there, sometimes one or two of my own friends besides, and though it was meager fare, the conversation and laughs abounded. I especially miss those days of all of us together at Mom’s table on these holidays and miss her even more than I already do at these times.

    Thank you for what you wrote. I hope certain people get to read it one day.

    You have been and always will be one of the very special people in my life. I love you.


  5. GoStorybooking.com Says:

    As an ardent fan, I am thrilled you are back!
    I loved reading your posts this week. I can tell your wife is an amazing woman as was your mother, who did a great job raising you. Reading Cyndi’s comment reminds me how differently kids see things. Sadly some will only remember the bad stuff (and magnify it some) and others remember the positive and the good. I know which is the happier for their memories?
    May the true spirit of Christmas be with all of us through the coming year.
    I can’t wait to read your upcoming posts, now that you have given us some teasers to look forward to…

  6. seamonster02 Says:

    Nice post.

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