Friday, 14 December 2012

Christmas Mother

As a kid growing up in Chicago, the winter weather was cause enough to remember a few Noels with a twinge of discomfort. My brother and I, however, had other things working against us well way back in 1925.

Our dad had died three years before, leaving our mom with only her pride and a strong back.

My brother, Ned, was four years older than me and went to school. It was necessary for my mom to take me with her to the only job she could find – a cleaning lady. In those days, work was scarce and money was scarcer. I remember watching Mom hour after hour scrubbing floors and walls, on her hands and knees or sitting on the outside of a window sill washing windows, four stories off the ground in freezing weather – all for 25 cents an hour!

It was the Christmas Eve of 1925 that I shall never forget. Mom had just finished working on the near Northside and we headed home on one of the big, red, noisy and cold Chicago streetcars. Mom had earned her $2.25 for nine hours of work plus a jar of tomato jam as a Christmas present. I remember after she lifted me onto the rear platform of the streetcar, how she searched through her precious few coins for five pennies and a nickel. Her fare was seven cents and mine was three cents. As we sat together on the cold seats we held hands: the roughness of her hands almost scratched my cold hands as she held them tightly in hers.

I knew it was Christmas Eve, and even though I was only five, the past few Christmases had conditioned me not to expect anything more than some extra food, a visit to Marshall Fields’ window display of animated toys and snow, and other kids’ excitement.

With Mom’s hand in mine and the knowledge that our Christmas basket had been delivered by Big Brothers, a charitable organisation, I felt a warm sense of security as we headed home.

We had just passed a major intersection where Wieboldts, a large department store, was letting out the last of its shoppers before closing for Christmas Eve. Their feelings of holiday cheer, cries of joy and happiness could be felt and heard through the cold, steel walls and noise of the travelling streetcar. I was insensitive to the joy but as I looked up at Mom I could feel her body racked with pain. Tears streamed down her weathered face. She squeezed my hand as she released it to wipe away her tears with her chapped and cracking hands. I will always remember her hands with the swollen knuckles, enlarged veins, and coarse surface that somehow reflected her sacrifices, her honesty and her love.

The bitter cold struck our faces like a slap as we stepped down from the streetcar and onto the icy, snow-covered streets.

I walked close to Mom to stay warm and looked into the front-room windows that framed brightly lit Christmas trees. Mom walked straight ahead without a side glance, one of her ungloved hands holding mine, the other holding a paper shopping bag which contained her soiled white uniform and the jar of tomato jam.

Our flat was a corner unit in the middle of the block. Each Christmas, Nick, the barber, sold Christmas trees on an empty lot next to his shop. In those days, tree lots were sold out long before Christmas Eve, leaving only broken or dead brown branches covering the ground. As we passed the quiet, emptied lot, Mom dropped my hand and picked up a bundle of broken, discarded pine-needle branches.

Our second-story flat was without heat except for a small pot-bellied stove in the kitchen. Ned and I fed the stove with coal that dropped off railroad cars a couple of blocks away and with wooden fruit boxes that we found in the alley next to our house. It was natural for each of us to bring home anything that would burn.
As we climbed the dingy, uncarpeted, wooden stairs to our flat, I’m sure my relief was only minimal compared with Mom’s. We opened the door to the front room that felt like a refrigerator. The still air actually made it colder than it was outside.
There was a front bedroom, off of the front room, and Ned’s bedroom, next to the kitchen, which were no warmer. The door to the kitchen was kept closed to keep what little heat there was in the bathless bathroom, the rear bedroom, and the worn linoleum-covered kitchen. Other than two beds and a lion-clawed wood table with four chairs, there was no other furniture or floor covering in the entire flat.
Ned had started a fire and had pulled up close to the stove to absorb what little heat it afforded and fortunately was absorbed in an old issue of Boy’s Life. Mom unbundled me and sat me next to the stove, then prepared the table for our Christmas feast.

There were few words spoken because the season was about joy, giving, receiving and love. With the exception of love, there was an obvious void in the remaining Christmas features. We sat facing the little wood stove as we ate canned ham, vegetables and bread. Our faces flushed with the heat as the cold attacked our backs.
I remember that my only concerns that evening were having to go to bed early because of no heat and the shock of cold sheets.

As usual, we washed our hands and faces in cold water, brushed our teeth and made a Rambo-like charge to our respective deep freezes. I curled up in a foetal position between the two sheets of ice with my socks and Ace cap still on. A cold draft of air attacked my behind because one button was missing from my thin, second-hand long underwear. There was no great anticipation about what I would or would not receive for Christmas, so I fell asleep fast and soundly.

Because the streetlight was directly opposite my bedroom window and the Oscar Mayer slaughterhouses were only half a block away, it was common for large trucks to wake me up several times a night. But at my age and with the cold, it was no challenge to escape back to my dreams.

During the twilight before dawn, I awoke. The streetlight clearly illuminated Mom’s ticking tin clock (with one missing foot). I hadn’t heard the milkman ratting bottles or his horses’ hoofs in the alley, so I knew I could sleep at least a few hours longer.

However, when I looked over to see my mother sleeping beside me, I realised that she hadn’t been to bed yet. Suddenly I was wide awake in a state of panic, wondering if Mom was sick or if she possible and finally had had enough and left.

The trucks had passed but my panic had not as I lay there staring at the streetlight with my wool cap over my eyebrows and flannel blankets up to my eyes. I couldn’t imagine life without Mom.

I lay in the icy stillness, afraid to get up and confirm my fears, but totally incapable of going back to sleep. Then, I heard a grinding, twisting sound coming from the kitchen. It was as constant as machine: it would stop for a few seconds, then continue, then pause again.

As best as I could tell time at that age, I figured it was about 5am. With the darkness of winter there was no assurance of what time it really was, other than it was long past the time Mom should have been to bed.

As much as I feared the truth, I knew I had to find it. I rolled under the covers to the edge of the bed and dropped my stocking-covered to the cold, bare wood floor. With the streetlight illuminating the bedroom, I could see my breath as clear as if I were out in the street.

Once into the darkness of the front room, I was guided to the kitchen by a light glowing from under the door which ajar. The grinding and twisting sound became louder as I approached. The stove had been out for hours and I could see Mom’s breath as well as my own. Her back was toward me. She had wrapped a blanket over her head and back for some small insulation against the cold.

On the floor to the right was her favourite broom, but the handle had been whittled off just above the sweeping portion. She was working at the old wood table: I had never seen such total concentration and dedication in my life. In front of her was what appeared to be some sort of a disfigured Christmas tree. As I stared in awe her effort became apparent to me. She was using her broken kitchen knife to drill holes in her broom handles into which she had inserted the branches of Nick’s empty tree lot. Suddenly it became the most beautiful Christmas tree I had ever seen in my life. Many of the irregular holes had not been effective in supporting the branches which were held in place with butcher’s string.

As she continued to twist and dig another slot for the remaining branches, my eyes dropped to her feet, where a small can of red paint was still open. A wet brush lay next to it. On the other side of her chair there were two towels on the floor that were almost covered with red toys: a fire engine with two wheels missing off of the back; the caboose’s roof bent in half; a jack out-of-the-box, with no head; and a doll’s head with no body. I felt no cold, no fears, no pain, but rather the greatest flow of love I have ever felt in my life. I stood motionless and silent as tears poured from my eyes.

Mom never stopped for a second as I silently turned and walked slowly back to my bedroom. I have had love in my life and received some elaborate gifts through the years, but how can I ever hope to receive more costly gifts or more sacrificial love. I shall never forget my mother or the Christmas of 1925.

John Doll

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