When Mama was a small girl growing up in the Nimblewill Valley in the Appalachian foothills, it was the midst of the Great Depression. As she often said, “Times were hard, but it’s all we knew so we didn’t know how poor we were.”
Mostly, they were a self-sufficient bunch, growing most of what they ate and bartering for what they couldn’t produce on the little rented farm they had. My grandmother had been gifted a small farm from her father, a mountain merchant and postmaster, but when times turned bad, the farm was lost to taxes. My grandparents, hard working and earnest, spent the rest of their lives, living in small rented houses.
“I would walk a couple of miles to the store, carrying a chicken or fresh eggs, and trade them for coffee, tobacco or flour,” Mama once said.
That is all to explain that each year when Christmas arrived for Mama and her family, there was no money for gifts. They celebrated the holidays with a fresh cut tree and focused on what they, as born-again Christians, believed the day to commemorate: the birth of Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem.
“We’d usually have a stocking — really a sock — filled with fruit and nuts,” she remembered.
Once her little brother, Doyle, who at three, mixed up his consonants as kids sometimes do, delivered a memorable line.
He had poured out his sock and was delighted with the treats because fresh fruit and a couple of pieces of hard candy were a bounty to those who seldom knew treats. A bit later, he discovered that a large orange had stuck in the toe of the sock. It was as though he had found a new toy.
“Wook!” he exclaimed, clapping his little hands together and dancing around with joy. “It’s another wrange!”
Daddy, raised in an adjoining mountain county, was not as rich. He seldom received anything for Christmas, therefore, tainting his view of Christmas gifts for the rest of his life. “Bunch of foolishness,” he often said about exchanging gifts. Practical man that he was, though, when his kids insisted on giving him gifts, he asked only for necessities like underwear and socks. One year when he needed a new pasture fence, he, in an unusual manner, embraced the tradition of exchanging gifts.
“I want bobwire,” he said, using the rural slang for barbed wire. We laughed off the request but his green eyes sparked with deep seriousness. “Do you know how much a roll costs? I’ve got to put in a new fence at the farm. It’s what I need.”
So, on that memorable Christmas day, Ralph Satterfield was gifted with enough rolls of barbed wire to build his fence. It was the only Christmas where I saw his eyes dance with pure joy over gifts.
When Tink suggested that we not exchange gifts this year, I was unruffled by it. “That’s fine,” I said, smiling. “I have Christmas every day.” For it’s true. Unlike my parents back in those days, I can buy a new dress that I fancy if I’m willing to spend the money or whatever groceries we want. A day or two later, I decided to take a page from my parents’ book.
“I need a new pair of running shoes,” I said. My others have holes in the soles and are coming apart at the seams. “And I need some lip balm.” I figured that I was going to have to buy them anyway so I might as well get them for Christmas.
Tink nodded. “I don’t need anything so don’t buy me a gift. Promise?” I refused, though, to promise because I know exactly what Tink needs — a big box of Dove soap bars and antibacterial liquid soap. He likes clean better than anyone I’ve ever known.
And, maybe if he’s really good, I’ll throw in a couple of oranges.