This morning, when I tied the last few bows around the last few presents for my kids, I remembered a similar feeling from when I was a teenager, many Christmases ago. I loved wrapping presents. Loved it loved it loved it. I wrapped all the gifts my mom had bought. Then I went up the road and wrapped presents for my Aunt Dixie. Then Mom drove me into town and dropped me off at Pop and Grandmama Irene’s house for an afternoon so I could wrap presents for them, too.
Grandmama pulled everything out of the hall closets and made sure each box was labeled on the outside (so I wouldn’t have to peek inside to see what was what). I laid out the tubes of wrapping paper, the scissors and the tape on the braided rug in their bedroom, right in front of the warm gas logs. I worked along steadily in my own happy place. After a while, Grandmama came in to check on me. When she saw that I had it under control and there was nothing she needed to do, she stretched out across the white coverlet on the four-poster bed.
Like so many things in Grandmama’s house, we kids walked carefully around that bed. And woe be unto you if you so much as laid a hand on or god forbid leaned against the spindle that ran between the footposts. That bed was so old that it had been made by slaves owned by Pop’s side of the family. I had seen Grandmama lie down for a nap before, but never across the bed to chat. She stretched out on her side to watch me with one hand propped under her head. Her feet hung off the side of the bed like a teenager at a slumber party, with her shoes clear of the perfect white chenille spread.
“I sure am glad you like to wrap packages because I surely don’t.” She grinned and bounced her foot. I remember feeling that I needed to be careful, to not break this gentle magic. Grandmama was almost always busy and not much of a chatter. Most every action and word in her world had a POINT. I wanted to keep the conversation going, so I asked, “Did you like to wrap packages when you were my age?”
“Oh, we didn’t have any such as that when I was your age.” (I want to type that as “yo age” because that’s how she talks, not a terminal -r to be found) “For Christmas, we might get a piece of candy and an orange but that was it. Daddy always got us an orange.”
Grandmama was born in 1918, so her teenage years were the dark years of the Depression. Aunt Eula, Grandmama’s older sister by a few years, had come to stand in the doorway. “Irene, remember that year we got an apple AND an orange?” They went on to tell me about life on the farm down along the river, how they each had two dresses–one to wear and one to wash–while I sat there wrapping gifts in shiny paper and tying ribbons.
Twenty years later, I told that story to Richard and my dad one morning while we were sitting out on the deck in the sunshine. Daddy was born in 1942, but his brothers were 10 and 13 years older, so they were young in the Depression. Their father made a living cutting lumber for furniture makers in Atlanta and business had just about dried up. Nobody had money for furniture. Daddy told us how things got so bad one winter that his father had to leave a guard with the team of mules in the woods so that no one stole the animals for meat. That winter, my Grandfather Joe didn’t know how he was going to pay his hands, much less have anything left to make a little Christmas for Uncle Kenneth and Uncle Charles. Then just a few days before Christmas, he got an order for lumber, and it was enough to, in Daddy’s memory of hearing the story when he was a boy, “pay the hands, buy a little wooden train for Kenneth and Charles, and surprise the family with a bag of oranges.”
These two stories explain why Santa puts an orange in the toe of my kids’ stockings every year. This year, slogging through my own cold Depression, I keep hearing my grandmother saying “Daddy always got us an orange.” I think about how this might be the saddest Christmas of my life because I won’t hear any stories from my dad. He won’t be baking pies or slicing tenderloin for Christmas Eve dinner. He won’t be wearing a red and green tartan buttondown shirt under his flour-covered apron. He won’t make us a bag of oranges to take home from the box Uncle Kenneth sends up from Florida.
Those oranges in my kids’ stockings remind me that our family has had it worse. We’ve lived through some lean times and mean times. Some years are so bad you gotta worry about hungry folks boiling the mule. And some years you get an apple AND an orange.
I am the product of many generations of people who found a way to hold some sweetness, even in the darkest time of the year.
And that is why there will always be an orange in the toe of your stocking, kids.