Father Christmas

I was home from college for Christmas. We were gathered around the table, my freshman 15 pounds packed onto my 18 year old frame. I shoveled in my mother’s famous chicken divan, so happy to be in my house, eating more food. I had never had an opportunity to miss my parents before this. Or my dog. Or my bed. Or that someone did my laundry and fed me.

I was excited. Christmas was just days away and I would soon be tearing into a pile of presents.

“What’s your favorite gift you ever got for Christmas?” I was chirpy and loud, making everyone at the table stop chewing long enough to answer. A few of my parents’ friends gave their replies which have long since left my memory. My mother said a baby doll. My father kept eating.

“What was your favorite present, Dad?”

He paused, looking at his plate, his fork halfway to his mouth. “I never got a Christmas present.”

“What do you mean?” I made it worse, urging him to remember a toy truck, something homemade, even an orange.

“Myrtle bought me a shirt when I was 15.” Myrtle was my aunt, my father’s older sister, married by the time he was 15.

The clicking of forks was the only sound for the next few seconds. My father broke the silence by changing the topic.  I was too stunned to continue eating.

My dad had the sort of Gothic southern childhood one encounters in a William Faulkner novel. It makes for a compelling story, but a hideous reality, and it’s one I knew nothing about until I was grown and my aunts began to surrender the stories of their youth, giving me a glimpse inside my father’s life before my mother and my sister and I came long.

My father and grandfather

My father and grandfather

Words like hardscrabble don’t do justice to the struggle my father and his four siblings endured. A loving mother killed in a car accident when he was a toddler. A widowed father who left his children alone in the North Carolina mountains for long stretches of time, the oldest just 12 years old, while he worked as a weekday mine worker and weekend bootlegger in West Virginia.  Despite their poverty, my father and his siblings went on to become wildly successful adults, owning their own companies, serving as leading members of our community. My dad graduated high school a year early and put himself through college. He became a personnel chief at the military base near our house. He was revered by his employees and beloved at our golf club where he was the frequent champion.

I wanted for nothing growing up, but as a young couple, my parents struggled. A few years ago, I found out from my mother that even though money was very tight when we were little, Dad always set aside $125 dollars per child at Christmas — a fortune (this was the early 70’s).

You may wonder how I made it 18 years without knowing that my dad had never received a Christmas present as a child. My father is a man of few words. Gregarious and enormously funny with his friends, possessed of a drier than kindling wit, my father is quiet with us — I came to realize, more himself. He was a stern dad, reserved with physical affection. One of my favorite memories is of combing his hair. He liked for me or my sister to do it when he laid on the couch after dinner. My insides would tumble with happiness when it was my turn to stand quietly next to the striped couch, daddy’s eyes closed as I ran his black plastic pocket comb lightly over his hair.

He didn’t talk about his childhood. Ever. He didn’t complain. Ever. He lived and worked and provided for his family, ensuring we would have a smooth path to our futures. He did all the things no one had done for him.

My favorite picture. He was so happy the day I graduated college

My favorite picture. He was so happy the day I graduated college

Each of us has that day, when we see our parents as people, not as our parents. It’s a startling epiphany, when the bullet proof badge of Dad is ripped away, revealing the grieving boy who lost his mama, the grown man no one nurtured, no one indulged, no one told, “It will be okay, sweetheart. I will always be here for you. I will always love you.”

My father and his baby brother, my Uncle Tommie

My father and his baby brother, my Uncle Tommy

I grew up a lot that night at the dinner table. When I became a mother, it hit me anew, the burden on that tiny boy who realized that magic and presents and parents-who-stay are things he would live without.

I am quite certain I have shed more tears for my father’s broken childhood than he ever has.

These days his walk has a slight shuffle and his to do list is a good book, a diner meet up with buddies, or a day on the links.

This week my children will almost knock each other over racing to their bounty beneath the tree. The only world they know is one of magic and presents and parents who stay. That is because their grandfather gave those things to a little girl who would one day be their mother.

Merry Christmas, Dad.

Dad and Mom

Mom and Dad

 

 

 

 

 

 

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26 comments on “Father Christmas
  1. That was beautiful my sweet friend! Just beautiful!!!
    xoxo
    kb

  2. Kim Schulman says:

    Aw man. Tears again. What a great man with a big heart. Though I’m not surprised… the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Love you!

  3. Blanca says:

    Thank you so much for sharing with us.
    You have a wonderful father, I cried for him, it remained me of my childhood, I lost my mom when I was 5 and my life changed forever, like him I didn’t get many gifts, but the thing I wanted most was what you said, someone hugging me and telling me that everything was going to be ok.
    I love reading your blogs.
    Have a Merry Christmas!

    • Jaye Watson says:

      Blanca, thank you for reading. I’m sorry you could relate to my father. That sort of pain must be so difficult. In cases like yours and my dad, it hopefully makes us better people. Merry Christmas.

  4. Barb McWethy says:

    This is the best gift you could give. Merry Christmas to you and yours.

  5. Angela Wilson says:

    So nicely written. I’m sure your father is very proud. I know your mother is. Merry Christmas!

  6. Jean Gailey says:

    Jaye, this made my eyes leak. I grew up in a wonderful family, who as children, had little, but my Dad made sure we all had what we needed. It reminded me of my Daddy who died in 2003. Will always miss the biggest hero of my life. Thank you for your story of your Dad. Cherish him all his life. Love your stories from your heart.

    • Jaye Watson says:

      Thank you so much, Jean. I can’t even imagine how much you must miss your father. They are part of us. It sounds like you had a wonderful daddy. Merry Christmas.

    • Jaye Watson says:

      Jean, thank you so much. I know you will never stop missing your daddy. Hero is the right word. Blessings to you.

  7. Jim Grey says:

    Your story moved me today because it’s so much like my father’s. His mother died of a cerebral hemorrhage when he was 4. His dad, trying to support the family, moved to northern Indiana to find work in the factories, leaving my dad (and his sister) behind in West Virginia to be raised by their grandmother, who had her hands already full with her youngest children and the railroad tavern she owned and ran. At no fault of his own, Dad was a bother to everyone — even to his own dad when his grandmother decided she couldn’t raise him anymore and sent him to Indiana to stay.

    My dad made sure his sons had a stable, predictable home life. It set me up for such success as an adult. I’ve had my own issues, but my dad made sure I didn’t have any of his.

    Coming to understand our parents’ backstories lets us love them more deeply, and forgive them if we need to.

    • jeanni says:

      I am without words. Just a huge lump in my throat as i know there is familiarity to many in your father’s story. What a neat guy and i am crushed for their loss. Grateful that he leaves a great legacy on you. Thank you as always for sharing.

    • Jaye Watson says:

      Beautifully written, Jim. I am always astonished at the things people can survive. Your poor dad. I pray that at this stage in lives, our anguish over their circumstances eclipses theirs.

    • Jaye Watson says:

      Jim, I really thought I had replied to your thoughtful comment back when I wrote this. Just now seeing that I didn’t. Your dad’s story breaks my heart. All of that rejection..at such a young age. And like you, I have plenty of issues..but they’re my own — not imposed by my dad. I hope you had a nice holiday. Happy New Year.

  8. Katherine Michalak says:

    My daddy, too… Rural, Northern Alabama… And Christmas was always over the top for us growing up. So we’re all birthdays and holidays and special events. As though he were not only giving joy to us, but also creating extra to share with that little boy, buried inside of him, who had craved life and love and magic.

    • Katherine Michalak says:

      (“So *were all birthdays… .” Ugh. I hate seeing the typos from writing on my teeny phone screen)

    • Jaye Watson says:

      Katherine, I couldn’t agree more. You said it perfectly. I do think in trying to give us a better life than they had, they are healing something within themselves. At least that is my hope. Thank you so much for writing. Merry Christmas.

    • Jaye Watson says:

      Katherine, what a beautiful way to put it..your father’s generosity after his own difficult upbringing. We are so lucky, aren’t we? Happy New Year to you.

  9. Dani says:

    Lovely….

  10. Beth G. says:

    Sitting here with tears in my eyes, Jaye. The part that got me was… well, all of it. But especially combing your father’s hair. We used to do that, long after we were grown and too old to be fighting over who got to be the comber. In the days he quietly left us, we took turns combing his silk white hair, the only thing untouched by Parkinson’s. He could not speak by then, but I know that familiar ritual helped him and us face what would come.

    My father also lost his mother, at 9. His father struggled, too. God bless your dad and the hard beginning he endured. He looks like a wonderful dad. Just like his daughter. Merry Christmas to you and Kenny.

    • Jaye Watson says:

      Beth, a long overdue thank you for reading. Somehow I missed this. So you combed your daddy’s hair, too. Must be a military thing. 🙂 It’s such a sweet act..one that says a lot about your relationship with your father. I know miss him more than anything. I hope you had an okay first Christmas without him. xx

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