The Worst Christmas Ever
I was a boy in my teens in the early 70’s and lived in a small town in the South – the Bible Belt. We lived four houses down from a small church in an ancient wood frame rental house on the wrong side of the tracts. We weren’t only poor – we were dirt poor. It had been a bad year.
My mother had suffered a stroke earlier that year and was bed ridden, so we boys, my brother and I, had to take care of her the best we could while dad worked. It was like taking care of a big helpless baby. Dad worked for most of that year as a painter and carpenter, but he had taken a fall from a water tower he was painting and was now laid up as well. We couldn’t pick him up to get him in bed so he laid on a makeshift bed on the creaky wooden floor.
My brother and I had a twenty-two so we hunted for meat when things got tough. We would shoot rabbits and squirrels and bring them home for supper. Since we had no power, we built a small fire in the oven to cook them. Not long after the water got cut off, as well. We picked up pecans from a neighborhood tree for our hard-earned feast. We collected coke bottles to return for the few pennies we could get for a loaf of bread or two. Then things got really bad. We ran out of bullets, so there was no more meat.
My brother and I had been attending school every other day in turns so we could take care of the folks. My brother wore our good shirt when he went and I wore that same shirt the next day when I went. We had long out grown our pants, which were high waters on both us by now. The school attendance officer threatened to put our parents in jail for our not-so-regular attendance, which made things even more difficult for our fear. And no one had explained to us about free lunches, so I stayed in class during the lunch break and caught up on my missed work. No one knew how bad things were, and we told no one.
One day a couple of months before Christmas, a big Cadillac pulled up in front of the house. I grabbed the gun with no bullets for protection and went to the door. When I opened the door, there stood the biggest black man I’d ever seen. “We’re here for Br. Rogers,” he said to me. Since he knew Dad’s name I figured it was someone he knew and let him in as he waved for a couple of his buddies to come on in. They came in and picked Dad up by the bedding and put him in the back of that big car. The big man drove off with Dad, leaving the other two behind. They asked if we had a phone and when I told them no, they took off walking. We didn’t hear anything about Dad after that for almost two months. We had no phone and no working car, so we had no way to check on him when someone finally came by to tell us he was in the hospital recovering from surgery.
During this time, it was just my brother and I, and our mother. We did whatever we could to stay alive and take care of her. One day, as I was out picking up coke bottles, a large shiny new car pulled up beside me. A man rolled down his window and asked, “Will you work?” I answered, “I sure will, Mister.” It turned out he was a deacon at one of the largest churches in town, so I figured he was a good man and went with him. He had some Doberman pincers which had dug holes under his house and was causing some problems to the foundation. Water needed to be bailed out of the holes and then the holes had to be filled back in.
Every day, for a week or so, I worked till I was worn out and chilled to the bone filling up those holes amongst all the dog poop up under that house. I had no way to bathe so I smelled like dog stuff that whole time. The deacon drove me home the first day, but his wife complained about the smell, so I walked home the rest of the week. But that was okay. I dreamed of all the food I was going to buy for the family when I got paid.
Finally the work was finished, so the deacon drove me home that last day, which was odd, because his wife wouldn’t allow it before. They put a tarp over the back seat and I climbed in feeling very rich. On the drive home they talked and laughed about my high water pants and the smell, which seemed to me like friendly fun, before they paid me well for the hard work I’d done. I thought maybe I might even get some new clothes out of this deal when we passed by a department store in town. But he didn’t turn in and drove on.
We went on and soon pulled up at the house. I walked around to the driver’s window and held out my hand with great hopes, only to pull it back an instant later with only two dollars worth of pocket change. They backed out quickly, laughing at me standing there with tears streaming down my cheeks. He hollered out the window, “See how many chittlins you can buy with that!”
I didn’t know what I would tell my Mother and brother when I went inside. How could I ever face them? And then I got angry. If I had had any bullets I don’t know what I might have done. This deacon had promised to pay me and he had, but how cruel and stingy he was. And he had the nerve to call himself a Christian. As for me, all my faith was gone. I had no hope. All I could see was the Christmas red walls of my bedroom with the cracks in them that let the wind blow through. And I was angry.
Not long after that, the Cadillac pulled up again, bringing Dad home to us. The big black man helped Dad come inside and get into bed. Dad was still recovering from the surgery on his spine. The man had paid for Dad’s surgery himself. Why this black man would help us white folks at all we couldn’t understand at the time, but he was a mechanic and Dad would always take the car to his shop when it needed repairs because he was honest. How he had found out Dad was hurt we never knew. What we did know, was that he was a good man.
We still had no power or water but Dad was home! It was almost Christmas, so my brother and I went and cut the top off a pine tree and brought it home for Christmas. We found some old tin foil and made a few ornaments for it. We wrapped up a couple of empty boxes and bricks with the rest of it, so it would look like we had presents under the tree. And how wonderful it looked to us! Finally one day, a lady came to visit us from the church a few doors down and realized we didn’t have any lights and water. They helped us get them turned back on and things were looking up.
Dad had about seven dollars, so we walked with him to the local Sun Flower grocery store to buy a little food. My brother and I walked on each side of him to help support him as we walked. He propped up on the grocery cart with us on each side when we got inside the store, so he was able to move around a little now. We picked up a pack of Oscar Myer wieners, two loaves of bread, and a couple of other items.
We walked passed two men standing in the aisle, when one of them said, “Man, you need to fill that thing up!” Dad shot him a look that could kill and we walked on by as we heard, one say to the other, “That’s Mr. Rogers, the painter I was telling you about.” We got to the register, but the clerk was ringing up a loaded grocery cart in front of us, so we had to wait. Dad was getting tired. When the clerk finished the cart he was working on, he walked around to our cart and started ringing our stuff up along with the other. Dad stopped him, and said, “That’s not ours.” The clerk replied, “Your Mr. Rogers, aren’t you?” Dad answered, “Yes, but only these are our groceries.” Just then, one of the two men who we had seen talking in the aisle walked up and shook Dad’s hand, saying, “ I’m Mr. Bob Martin. I own these stores. I’ve heard you’re the man I need for a job!” Then Dad said, I’m not leaving without paying for these groceries.” So Mr. Bob said, “Then you can head right over to my house.”
So for the next week or so, we went to Mr. Bob’s house and painted. Dad was still so weak, we had to hold him up while he painted. He had slyly opened up an unused can of Killz for its smell. Mr. Bob’s wife promptly closed the doors to that end of the house where we were working, allowing us to work without them seeing how my brother and I were holding Dad up. That’s when Dad first taught us how to paint.
Mr. Bob kept Dad on as his permanent work foreman for his Sun Flower stores all across the South and there was plenty of work to be had. Dad slowly recuperated and worked as hard as ever, while teaching us boys everything he knew. Mr. Bob was a godly man, who helped us get back on our feet after the worst Christmas ever. We never forgot his generosity to us over the years.
For many years when Christmas came around, my mind wandered back to that awful Christmas and my Christmas red wall with the cracks in it. I could still feel the cold wind blow through them, even far away. I didn’t know how to be happy at Christmas with my own family. My mind kept wandering back to those dark, hungry, cold days and I was angry again. That anger expressed itself on those closest to me in ways that I still regret to this day. But now, I can’t help but remember the light that shined in that darkness – the kind-hearted black man who helped Dad, Mr. Bob’s gracious offer of work when it was needed most, the lady from the church and their generosity to help us in our time of need. The contrast I saw between them and the deacon, who is now dead and buried, was great. I sometimes wonder whether or not he ever felt any remorse, but I leave that to God now. Those whose true Christianity expressed itself in their actions were the light that shined through the thick darkness of my world. In spite of the years I spent in that darkness, Christ’s light always shined through as a beacon of hope to bring me back out of the shackles of that worst Christmas ever.
In loving memory of Bob Martin