Christmas 1955Posted: December 23, 2008
I keep an old black-and-white photograph from December 1955 displayed on a tall black bookcase in my family room. It’s a reprint that came from my own Epson, 4 x 5, in a white mat, under glass, inside a silver frame Made in China. It’s a picture of a dark-haired man of thirty-two with two little girls under the Christmas tree on Christmas morning. The girls are looking at all the toys. The man is playing with them. He is squatting, barefooted, leaning on one hand, his other hand pushing a train. His lips are parted and he is probably saying something like “Choo choo! Look what Santa Claus brought!”
This was a man who only got firecrackers and oranges for Christmas — maybe an occasional wooden truck — as a boy growing up in backwoods Mississippi in the 1920s and 30s during Depression years. Times were “depressed” all the time for his daddy, a poor dirt farmer with a small plot of 80 acres. He graduated from high school in ’41 and then the war came. He’d gone to Mobile with a cousin to work in a lumber mill, and they decided they’d work a little longer, earn some money, and then join up. But a telegram came from his daddy in Kemper County, saying to come home immediately, he had to report to the draft board the following morning. He rode the bus all night and his daddy met him at the bus station and took him to report to the Army. He spent one Christmas at Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge and the following Christmas at Garmish-Partenkirchen serving as a lifeguard in the beautiful mountains during occupation before coming back home, going to trade school, and putting a life together. At the opening of the next decade, the first little girl was born. Four years later, the second came along. Christmases during the 1950s were fun for him. He was living the American dream.
In the snapshot, a white circle of flash from the Kodak sits on the dark screen of the tabletop Philco TV, two big round knobs for On/Off and Volume under its face. A vase shaped like a giraffe sits on top of the television and next to it on the same wall is a blond cedar chest that holds the sparse three-foot Christmas tree, full of strung lights that are red and blue and yellow and green. The tree is doubled because it is sitting in front of a big mirror with palm fronds and flamingos on it. There’s a white sheet wrapped around the base of the tree — pretend snow — covered with packages wrapped in two or three holiday designs of paper.
The baby girl stands barefooted on the polished hardwood floor, looking down at all the toys. In her right arm she is holding a cloth doll in a bonnet, half as big as she is. Her white nightgown hangs to her ankles and her brown curls are tight to her head, the white lines of her scalp showing, where sleep has parted her hair. Her white blanket lies in a heap on the floor, the stiff edge she holds in a tight fist, sticking up. To her left, the big sister sits Indian style, her flannel print gown wrapped tightly around her bare legs, cold against the floor. A doll with a bonnet and white shoes lies upside down on her lap, and she is looking at a big blackboard, about three feet long, propped up against the Philco. Her mama has written MERRY CHRISTMAS on it, and she knows she will erase that and fill it with letters and words and pictures. Baby dolls — maybe a half dozen of them — sit up against the blackboard and the cedar chest, looking back at the family. The girl’s blond hair is curled only on the ends where her mama had rolled it to make it that way. Her hair is not naturally curly like the baby sister’s.
The baby sister has gotten a little wooden workbench with pegs in holes and a little hammer to pound them in farther. She has also gotten a train, the one toy the daddy takes over. The girls are slow to pick up the toys because the daddy makes such a racket laughing and saying HO! HO! HO! and LOOK AT ALL THESE TOYS!, then pretend-fussing about Santa sneaking in the front door unannounced.
Rolling the train across the wood grain of the floor, the daddy surely remembers the firecrackers and oranges of his boyhood Christmases on the farm. Or maybe he remembers coming home from the war when he was put in charge of all the Mississippi soldiers on the train ride home from New York after arriving in the States by ship.
The daddy always overdoes it in the mornings — laughing and singing (“I’ll get a line and you get a pole, and we’ll go down to the crawdad hole…”) and teasing — whether he is frying bacon and eggs on a workday morning or rolling a train on Christmas morning.
On Christmas morning, the daddy springs to life like a Jack-in-the-Box: wind it up, around and around, and when the time is right, a clown pops out the top, all smiles and lively and animated. The daddy is the first one up, he turns on the tree lights, and when the two little girls walk into the living room, he bounces and hops and yells, ME-E-E-ERRY CHRISTMAS!”