After my parents divorced when I was 12 years old, money was tight, even with Mom working as a teacher and Dad religiously paying child support and helping out beyond that when he could. I know Christmases were particularly stressful for Mom because we had little money for anything other than the necessities, and she worried about being able to buy gifts for us. I think now she saw “playing Santa” as one of her sacred duties as a parent. Somehow, she managed to do it every year. Fortunately, we weren’t spoiled, and we didn’t have expensive tastes. Most of the presents we received were practical things, like clothes for school, and we appreciated everything we received.
Back then, my mother drove a huge, silver 1980 Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser — a beast of a station wagon. We couldn’t afford a new car, and “The Bomb,” as we called it, was the bane of her existence. She never knew if the heat or air conditioning would work. I still remember her rolling down the driver’s side window and sticking her arm out to give hand signals when the turn signal went on the fritz. Although we usually rode to school with Mom instead of taking the bus, on the mornings when The Bomb refused to start, we all — Mom included — climbed out of the car and hurried to the end of the driveway to catch the school bus. The worst thing, though, was the horn. To this day, I’ve never heard a louder horn in a car. From time to time, as we drove through the small southern Indiana town where we lived, that horn would start blaring for no apparent reason. My then-teenaged sisters and I were so embarrassed by this that we’d flatten ourselves on the back seat until we got home and Mom shut off the ignition, thus stopping the horn from its blaring.
During the holiday season though, riding in The Bomb was a critical part of our family ritual. We’d all pile in and go for a drive, risking a horn episode to look at light displays and sing Christmas carols at the top of our lungs. It was fun, cheap entertainment. Mom tried to set aside a little money and take us shopping for Christmas presents for each other at least once each season, which was always a special treat. The nearest shopping mall was more than an hour’s drive from our house, so we’d all get in the car and sing during the drive down. Once we arrived, we’d hunt for bargain gifts until the last store closed. On the way home, we were usually too tired to sing, so Mom would just turn the radio to the station that played non-stop Christmas music.
When I was in high school, there was one year when money was especially tight, and Mom told us in early December that we wouldn’t have money for Christmas gifts at all that year. We were disappointed, but we understood and we accepted it. It was around that time that Grandpa Richardson, my mother’s father, called her with an unexpected offer.
Grandpa Richardson had left my grandmother when my Mom and my aunt were young children. Mom didn’t see him again until I was born some 23 years later. The next time he resurfaced, and when I first met him, I was a freshman in high school. My mother told me that Grandpa Richardson drove an armory truck during World War II and received several medals for his service. After the war, he worked as a truck driver until he retired. He drank a lot and had more than his share of women, or so he told her.
During the summer before that especially frugal Christmas, he reached out to my mother and my aunt – the two daughters he had abandoned when they were 4 and 2 years old. He had moved to Louisville, Kentucky, only a few minutes by car past our Christmas shopping mall. He was retired and living in a Veterans’ home. His health was declining.
Somehow, my mother looked past his abandonment, past growing up fatherless, and agreed to spend some time with him. She drove down to visit him, cooked meals for him, gave him haircuts and helped him shave and groom himself. He came up to stay with us a few weekends, too, although my sisters and I didn’t know quite what to make of him. He was gruff and strange, and certainly not a “Grandpa” – not like our father’s father, whom we’d known and loved from the time we were born. Still, through his visits during that summer and autumn, my mother and grandfather built a relationship. I’m still amazed that my mother did that, but I know that I shouldn’t be surprised. My Mom is the most loving and forgiving person that I know.
Now, a few weeks before Christmas, my grandfather was calling my mother to offer his car to her. He owned a decrepit Ford sedan that needed a new muffler and had been repainted in an ugly brown and white splotched pattern. It made The Bomb look (and sound) really good. My grandfather’s vision had deteriorated so much that he could no longer drive, and he urged my mother to take the car, sell it, and keep the money. She did, and she ended up making close to $700 on the sale. It was enough to buy Christmas gifts, with plenty left over to save.
That year, our Christmas shopping trip happened a little later than usual — on the day before Christmas Eve. The Bomb miraculously cooperated on the journey, and we managed to find some nice things even though the selection in the stores was pretty picked over by that point. It was different that year, though, knowing that the money we’d been given to buy our gifts had come from the grandfather I barely knew.
Now, with each holiday season, as I buy presents for my son and the rest of my family, I think about that one Christmas. How someone who was little more than a stranger helped my mother provide for us. How Mom was able to look past my grandfather’s great failings as a father and form a meaningful relationship with him. Those events gave me the most wonderful gift that Christmas. As real-life examples of peace and goodwill, they reshaped my understanding of what is possible through love and forgiveness. It is a gift that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
I wish all of you a wonderful Christmas and New Year.