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.
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.
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.”
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.