My brother, Bobby and I, visiting Santa when we were three and four years old.
I was never a practical little girl.
One Christmas Season when I was ten years old I was jittery with excitement because I was going to get to go Christmas shopping for the first time in my life, with money I had earned. I had saved the money and was going to spend it on my mother.
My mother was going to be the recipient of my hard earned money. I cannot remember how I earned it but I suspect it must have had something to do with my paternal grandmother. She was everyone’s fairy godmother in our family and, for that matter, everyone who lived within ten miles of her were beneficiaries of her kindness.
My grandmother was a one woman Salvation Army. She most likely put me to work separating buttons or safety pins from straight pins or something like that at her dry cleaners. I was always eager to work and earn some money.
So when I found out that we were going Christmas shopping, I decided to spend my Christmas money on my mother. I asked her what she wanted for Christmas. She told me that she wanted something practical for the kitchen. That suggestion went in one ear and out the other. I can’t even remember what that practical something was and I doubt I even remembered back then. I knew I had no plans to give my mother anything that even remotely resembled a small household appliance.
Santa always came last.
We went downtown one evening for the annual Christmas parade and had plans to shop afterwards. Back then there were no malls, no big shopping centers, no K-Marts, no Wal-Marts, no Marts at all. Just the Kress Store, McCrorys, Woolworths and the elegant Boston Store where we would have our picture taken with Santa Claus.
The city merchants firmly believed in decorating their windows for Christmas. I was in awe of the lights and sounds as we walked down the main street of town. There were crowds of people but they were not unruly. Moms and Dads had their children firmly in hand. Families and kids walked down the sidewalks peering in the windows resplendent with merchandise of all kinds. Beautiful dolls, dollhouses, and elegant clothing were displayed in windows. I paused to look and almost found myself lost until I got a tug on my shoulder. My little brother always had to play the big brother with me.
Christmas in 1957. My brother was five, I was six, and my doll loving, little sister was three years old.
On to another store. We went from window shopping to serious store shopping. This became much more serious. So much more serious for a very unpractical young lady with five dollars burning a hole in her handbag.
My mother kept steering us by the practical kitchen things and I kept wandering away from them. Potato peelers were boring. Collanders were boring. All of my hard earned money was not going to be spent for something so work-a-day.
I wanted to get my Mother something pretty.
My mother’s Aunt Ivy was very rich. When we went to visit her home she always had beautiful dishes set on her tables. On the rare occasions Aunt Ivy came to visit us my Mother was always in a full state of panic, urging us to clean our rooms and have everything in our tiny home perfect. I wanted to find one pretty platter that Mother could set on the table with pride. Surely McCrory’s would have something like that. I saw an eight inch milk white round platter with gold trim. It had a price tag that was within my price range. I looked at it and turned and walked away.
I suppose I wanted to do some comparison shopping. I found myself in the doll aisle. McCrory’s didn’t carry Madame Alexander dolls, only The Boston Store carried that kind of elegant doll. I wanted a Jo doll more than anything. Jo was the practical sister in Louisia May Alcott’s Little Women series and since I had already read the book I was captivated by the main character, Jo.
I’d had a glimpse of Jo earlier in the week when we’d taken the bus downtown to visit my maternal grandparents at their business, The Rightway Cleaners. As always, Mamaw Webster took us to The Wide Awake Cafe for coffee and cream and then we went to the Boston Store.
My grandmother picked out some beautiful blue velvet fabric to make some pretty dresses for my sister and me. While there, we passed through the toy department and I saw the section full of the inimitable blue boxes. I hoped there were still some Jo dolls left. I didn’t care for Amy or Beth or Meg. They were fine of course being Alcott characters but Jo was the character that captured my imagination because she thought for herself and was a tomboy.
The Fletcher Kids going to Church in 1957, my snaggletooth smile brought to you by my brother’s left hook
I was a tomboy too. I was the second fastest female runner in school. At that age I could outrun my brother. I’d put on boxing gloves and boxed my brother when I was seven years old. So what if he’d knocked out my front tooth and I’d swallowed it, missing the visit of the tooth fairy? I got him back a few years later when he didn’t want to go to football practice. I put on his football uniform, put my hair up under the helmet and went to his practice. I’d managed to fool the coach until I got tackled and the hair fell out of my helmet.
I also identified with Jo in Alcott’s depiction of the March sisters’ haughty, Aunt March. I’d thought of my Aunt Ivy when I first read about Jo’s wealthy aunt. Of course, all my silly notions were part and parcel of my vivid imagination. Except for Santa, I’d told no one that I wanted Jo for Christmas. Not even my sister, Lucy. I pretty much lived inside my head back in those days.
Still, my mother always seemed to know everything. If I didn’t tell her about something that was worrying me she seemed to read my mind anyway because she was a quiet person who always had her eyes on her children and was always listening to us.
The Fletcher Family in 1956, thanks to Kodacolor
In the Boston Store I passed by the boxes of dolls and breathed a sigh of relief when I saw a Jo doll inside one of them. My brother tugged me on the arm and we walked back to the Rightway Cleaners where I found the little wooden box toy my Grandfather always had for me to play with. I thought about the doll a lot since that day and the pretty satin dress and blue and white striped pinafore she was wearing. She would be a perfect Christmas present. Why hadn’t I told my family about her anyway?
I wandered around the aisles of McCrory’s, looking at the china figurines. None of them would do. My mother really wouldn’t like them because they would serve no useful purpose whatsoever. I sensed that somehow. I knew that my Aunt Ivy would turn her nose up at them and sniff something about dime store pottery and how would that help my mother? Besides, my mother’s mashed potatoes were delicious the way they were. She really didn’t need a new potato masher or peeler, but that pretty milk white glass platter with the gold trim needed another look.
Looking back I was a natural at rationalization.
We can bake some delicious peppermint cookies, I thought, with white icing and sprinkles and then we’ll place them on the platter next Christmas and when Aunt Ivy and Uncle Roy come over they will see how delicious and pretty they look.
I walked back to the aisle and picked up the white platter and examined it again. It was made in Japan. There were platters just like it that were in boxes under the shelves so I picked up one of them and headed to the cash register. I made my purchase and looked for my brother. He was buying a gift for our Dad. I can’t remember what it was but it probably had something to do with sports.
We met up with our parents and little sister and went home. As I wrapped the present for my mother I imagined how happy she would be when she opened her gift. I tried to make the wrapping as pretty as I could. I painted a watercolor picture for a card.
Christmas couldn’t come soon enough. My brother and sister and I counted the days. We went outside at night to breathe the cold December air and look at the Christmas scene our Dad had created.
We looked up into the sky for the star of Bethlehem.
When Daddy came home with a new issue of Christmas Ideals we gathered around to see it. Later Mother would pull out an older issue which had the illustrated version of The Little Match Girl. That story had quickly become a tradition in our family. The line drawings illustrating the poor little girl in that particular issue still stay in my memory and spurred me on in my desire to be an artist.
When there was a newly wrapped gift under the tree we were worse than our dog, Cookie at sniffing around it. When our mother wasn’t looking we picked up the gift to examine it. One of the bolder siblings would shake the gift. A certain little sister would actually take the tape off the end of the box and with her skillful fingers would open up the paper to discover the treasure inside the box.
I preferred the element of surprise.
On Christmas morning I woke up early, but not as early as my little brother. I crept into the living room and there he was, asleep under the tree. He did it every year. He woke up sometime during the night excited about Christmas and went into the living room to wait on everyone to wake up, then when we didn’t wake up, he would fall asleep under the tree.
So there was my brother under the tree.
And there was Jo.
Santa had listened. I knew he would. Even though kids at school had argued with me, telling me, I was stupid, I was a little kid, and I needed to grow up, I wouldn’t listen to them, I argued with them that there is a Santa Claus. I had more than one reason to believe you see. I was the oldest in our family. I had had my doubts and skepticisms but for the sake of my little brothers and my sister I chose to believe.
And that Christmas morning I had proof. There was my Jo, my Madame Alexander Doll. Yes, there were also some other sweet gifts too. A jewelry box, and a bride doll. (I’ve always loved bride dolls) And as always, the night before at our traditional Christmas Eve get together at my paternal grandparents’ house I had received a pair of knitted socks from my great grandmother, Kathryn Ford Mackey Morrison. Other things too but those knitted socks I could always depend upon.
I woke up my brother and we both went to wake up our sister, Lucy but we had to wait on our parents to awaken because we had a year old baby brother who was sleeping.
I couldn’t wait for my mother to open up her present from me. Meanwhile we could enjoy all the presents Santa had left for us because they were not wrapped. We three kids whispered oohs and ahhs until we got too loud and our bleary eyed parents came walking into the room with our little brother Guy.
Now there were four of us
That Christmas morning was bliss. Mother made hot chocolate and biscuits. We opened our wrapped presents and laughed as Guy opened his presents. Daddy asked Lucy and me to sing some Christmas carols. We had discovered our ability to harmonize and we were regular wrens, singing all the time around the house.
Then the moment came. It was time for our parents to open their presents. I don’t remember what my father received from my brother. The only thing remembered from that Christmas is what I gave and what I received. I wish I could say that my mother beamed with joy when she saw the beautiful white platter with gold trim but I would be fibbing.
It wouldn’t be true. My Mother smiled at me, and gave me a hug and said thanks but later in the kitchen she reminded me that she had asked for something practical.
My heart sank.
I had failed my first big test of giving and the irony was that this was the Christmas that I had received my most favorite gift. I was heart sick that I had let my mother down. I hadn’t listened to her when she told me what she wanted for Christmas. She had explained to me that she wanted something practical because there was not enough money for her to spend anything on kitchen things so she wanted them as gifts. I had ignored that. My parents were always generous with us but not so with themselves. I remember wondering why my mother wore the same coat for five years in a row.
Now I knew.
So my Mother didn’t pretend to be overjoyed by the milk white round platter with gold trim. My mother was always honest with me. That is how our parents raised us.
Unpractical little girls can learn.
The next Christmas I listened when my mother mentioned in passing what she wanted for Christmas. I wrote her wishes down in my diary. I saved my money and I bought what she wanted and yes, it was a practical kitchen appliance. She was very happy with her gift. My mother was always a skillful and ambitious cook and the things she wanted for her kitchen made it easier for her to cook. And bake. And what a mighty baker was she! My mother’s pies are still in demand.
One day Aunt Ivy came over and as usual we scurried around to clean up the house before she arrived. I walked into the living room and there on the coffee table was the eight inch milk white round platter with gold trim. We weren’t given enough notice to make homemade cookies so we had to make do with Lemon sandwich cookies.
In recent years I’ve discovered that I am my Mother in more ways than one. I’ve caught myself being too frank and honest when I have received a gift from my children that wasn’t quite up to my hopes or standards. (although, I will admit, I never give them much guidance) That it is more blessed to give than to receive is so true. I admit I love to give to those I love. I have found joy in giving gifts to friends and family.
To this very day the eight inch milk white round platter with gold trim has a place of honor on the center shelf of my Mother’s china cabinet. I noticed it a couple of years ago and it brought back the remembrance of my first Christmas shopping trip. I remain hopelessly impractical but I am thankful my Mother gave me the guidance, direction, advice and practicality I needed when I was growing up.
Christmas is about God coming down to earth from Heaven in the person of a tiny baby. Through Jesus Christ the world gained pure Love, forgiveness, and reconciliation to God through Him. In our little Fletcher Family we experienced all that joy every Christmas, no matter how much or how little we had and we continue to do so but that Christmas when I was ten, I began to awaken to the world, and to get a small glimpse of the worries and the sacrifices that Mothers and Fathers make for their children because of their great love for them.
That was the last year I asked Santa for a doll but it wasn’t the last year I asked Santa for a present. My doll, Jo wisely supervised my daughter’s dolls as they grew up and she sits in the pink room in our house, anxiously awaiting the arrival of our granddaughter this coming March.
Welcome visitors from The Carnival of Christmas!