My training union teacher had the flu, and Mama was substitute teaching at our small, rural church. Pansy Baptist Church sat between two cotton fields, smelling of old hymnals and potluck dinners, with an attendance board that testified ten present that evening. I was the only child.
As Mother and I settled in the classroom, I asked her to tell me a story. I expected the one about Jesus walking on water or feeding five thousand, but instead, she began one I’d never heard. Her eyes went distant as she began:
“This story took place long ago in a simple two-roomed shack not far from here. It was cold outside, being December and all, but inside, when you stood close enough to the wood-burning stove, you could feel the warmth on your cheeks. Getting up next to the heat wasn’t easy because nine people lived in that little place. But that night, with bellies satisfied on beans and cornbread, it seemed quite cozy.
“When the table was cleared of chipped pottery, Mama began to transform the singular space from the dining room to master bedroom and nursery. She, Papa, and the baby would nestle down in this room while the six older children sprinted across the breezeway into the other.
“As the three older boys jumped into one of the metal-framed beds, the three little girls scrambled onto the second. In the summertime, this room felt cramped, but here in the winter, The children shared body heat gladly as they snuggled beneath the handmade quilts. They giggled and whispered with the restless, excited murmur of children on the night before Christmas.
“Each told stories and shared memories, laughing especially about the fiasco of last year’s smuggled orange. The two youngest girls found this intended gift the week before Christmas and smuggled it under their bed. After enjoying the citrus segments, they realized the need to dispose of the peeling. Unable to think of another plan, they consumed the rest of the evidence, leaving them a bitter taste of theft.”
Mother stopped and chuckled to herself as if she knew just what it tasted like to eat an orange peel. Then she continued,
“The next morning, one little girl awoke extra early to a fine dusting of snow upon her bed. Like her mother’s flour sifter, their old house kept out the larger portions while allowing the most delicate particles a powdery entrance inside. She could hear her mother stoking the fire next door, so the little girl quietly slipped past her dreaming siblings and into the adjacent room.
“At first, Mama and Papa didn’t notice her standing there, but the wonder on her face caught their eye as the little girl surveyed the room. She wasn’t staring at the decorations because there were none in their plain, country shack. There was no wreath on the door, no brightly wrapped gifts, and no lights on a tree. In fact, this little family didn’t even have a freshly-cut pine tree. The only sign of Christmas was the bulging woolen stockings hanging on the back of seven mismatched chairs.
“The little girl didn’t rush to her stocking but lingered by the fire until the rest of the children tumbled excitedly into the room. She knew as they all did that the contents of that humble stocking were the only gifts she would receive. The little girl took a deep breath, inhaling the spice of citrus, knowing that this tang meant Christmas — the only time such delicacies were afforded.
“Papa already had the family Bible opened to the second chapter of Luke, and when the children assembled around him, he began to read. ‘And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.’ The little girl knew this story well. Papa read it every Christmas morning. ‘And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’ The little girl loved this part —loved thinking about a tiny newborn wrapped tightly against the chilling December cold.
“Thanking God for the abundance of the year, Papa finished in prayer, remembering God’s great provision for their needs. Even the little girl realized how easy it was to be thankful on Christmas since her faith in the stocking would soon become sight. With Papa’s amen, each child scurried to their own chair and began quarrying its treasures. A handful of unshelled walnuts. A stick of striped peppermint. An extra pair of socks. A Florida orange and a crisp, store-bought apple. These were treats that the little girl looked forward to all year.
“Once these traditional specialties were unearthed, the little girl was surprised to find one more item left in her stocking. As she reached deeply into the toe of her sock, she brought up something cold and hard. Sliding her hand out, she discovered a tiny celluloid doll with hand-painted hair and rosy pink cheeks. The dolly wore a simple cream nightshirt with matching panties. This was her first doll, and she couldn’t be more perfect.”
At this point, I interrupted my mother’s story in amazement. “She’d never had her own doll before?”
“No,” continued Mother. “She had played with her sister’s doll and had seen them in the Sears, Roebuck catalog that Mama kept by her chair. But, this little girl had never had her very own doll.”
Mother paused for a moment as my thoughts ran wildly.
A little girl who’d never owned her own doll? I felt a connection with this little girl and wished I’d known her. I could have given her one of mine. As my mother spoke, this little girl came to life before my eyes.
Mother’s voice picked up where she’d left off, “As the little girl rocked her new baby, she remembered the story of baby Jesus and how His mother wrapped Him tightly to keep Him warm. Realizing she had no blanket, the little girl took her dolly to the fire, where she could warm her. Like a real mother, the little girl cradled, caressed, and sang her newborn to sleep.
“What the little girl didn’t know was that the small baby doll was made out of a very flammable substance, like transparency material used in film negatives. As she soothed her celluloid baby near the heat, her fragile doll suddenly disintegrated in her hands.”
I was horrified, imagining how I would have felt. “What happened to it? Where did it go?”
Mother murmured, “Once it got hot, the doll dissolved into nothing.”
Stunned, I couldn’t imagine such a tragedy on Christmas. “So, her parents got her another one, right?” I pleaded, my eyes filling with tears.
“No, sweetheart. She didn’t get another doll that year. You see, her parents were poor, and they could hardly afford the few gifts they had given.”
As the tears flooded my face, I was immobilized by this heartbreak. ”What happened to the little girl? Is she okay? Where is she now?”
Mother smiled. “She cried, but her Mama held her, and her sisters readily shared their gifts. Remember Kandy, that was long ago. The little girl grew up, and now she has two daughters of her own.” And then, after a penetrable pause, she added, “That little girl was me.”
Compassion flooded me like never before. I looked anew at this woman seated in front of me. She, too, had once been a little girl. I saw her tenderness, her simplicity, and her vulnerability. Mother became flesh to me that day. She was a person, not just a parent, and I had stepped through a looking glass into her past.
As class time ended, I held Mother’s hand, and we walked into the Sunday evening service together. I cried throughout the pastor’s entire message. Not because of his words but because of hers.
I no longer have my Mother with me. But her stories still influence my life. As I reflect upon her this Christmas season, I realize that she was my first connection between life and words. Her example made the life of faith — allowing His Life to live through His Word — a little easier. May I use my words this season for the same purpose.
The two-roomed shack pictured above is where my mother was born. Mother is second from the right, in white. Her mother is standing in the breezeway in the background. Other girls are unidentified.