It’s hackneyed to quote Dickens during the holidays. But Dickens is a seasonal habit for this writer, my Dickensesque upbringing making him a favorite companion during the holidays.
When I write, “Dickensesque upbringing,” I’m not being self-indulgent, but self-effacing.
My father abandoned my mother when I was about 6 months old or so, and she raised me on her own. Mom was uneducated, having barely made it through high school because of a learning disability, which I believe would now be classified as dyslexia. She was a keen reader of people, however, and an animal of singular survival instincts. Both native abilities equipped her to be an extraordinary caregiver, and she stumbled into nursing by way of being a nurse’s aide.
Those hourly wages were negligible, at best. Until my father’s death, and the arrival of my Social Security survivor benefits, it was a less than meager existence, and a routine of constant sacrifice for my mother, who cherished me more than her own life.
For this reason, when I was four or so, Mom sat me down and had an earnest talk with me.
“I may not be able to keep you,” she said, “I don’t think I can afford to raise you.”
It was a well-intentioned if catastrophic moment when a parent recognizes that their beloved and only child would fare better in other circumstances, immediate needs and fear obliterating all else.
Despite the trauma that she created for both of us in those earnest moments, she did not give me away, nor did the daily economic pressures subside, because we were like those who populate Dickens’ best works.
Mom never read Dickens, never entered one of his literary landscapes — and I don’t remember her having much use for a film adaptation of any book, either.
Apart from the Bible, Mom didn’t read, because symbols on a page eluded her.
Books were humiliating, a reminder of life’s unfairness, not a portal to freedom.
Rather, Mom told stories. She collected them. Saved them. Kept her ears open for any and all that could be subsumed into her narrative compilation, a repository of myth and meaning coloring our existence. Bible stories. Family stories. Friends’ stories. Our stories. She told them over and over, sharing them like familiar songs, queuing one and then another, stories that grounded our existence, their subtext almost always pointing to a larger redemption.
I doubt she was aware of their subtext. I wasn’t until much later in life.
The bills, the anxieties, the heartaches that oozed like puss from a wound that day when she told me that I would soon be living as one without a home or a history, those limitless worries were eventually buoyed by her faith narratives. Despite herself.
Mom had a favorite story that she told during the holidays, especially later in life, when middle class comforts surrounded her. Though my life choices were a source of confusion and disappointment until the day she died, these stories reminded her of where we had been, what we had survived, who we were, and the roads we had traveled.
It was Mom’s version of our wilderness wanderings, written in my youth.
The story went something like this:
Dad was in prison. Mom was working as a nurse’s aide. She wasn’t eligible for food stamps or assistance, because she was working — and, by God, she was going to work, because she had a sense of pride, even if it meant wiping asses for a living.
Come Christmastime, I would see advertisements for Mattel this, Mattel that. She knew that she couldn’t afford anything Mattel, so she sat me down and had a talk with me. [Another sit-down.]
“We’re poor people, and can’t afford [theme and variation] all these toys that you’re seeing on the television, so don’t be surprised if you don’t get everything you’re asking for.”
“What about a cup of tea? Can I have a cup of tea,” I asked.
“Yes, you can ask for a cup of tea.”
Mom was relieved that she had settled that problem. She wasn’t expecting what followed.
As the story went, when people would ask me what I wanted Santa to bring me for Christmas, I pulled out my eager to accommodate script, looked at them with my big eyes and would politely answer, “Oh, we’re poor people, all I want for Christmas is a cup of tea. Just a cup of tea, please.”
Mom was mortified.
“I should have put her in front of the bank with a tin cup,” she then added.
That Christmas, to use Mom’s words, I made out like a bandit. Dolls, clothes, stuffed animals, an Etch-A-Sketch, Mattel this and Mattel that, everyone had a present for the big eyed child who was asking only for a cup of tea, please.
The Rotary Club gave me a tricycle.
Christmas dinner with a month’s worth of turkey graced the table.
It was one of our best Christmas’ because we were so overwhelmed with generosity.
That was pretty much the story’s substance, as I remember it, and it was one of Mom’s favorites from Christmas’ past.
Despite her mortification, Mom received as much joy that Christmas as I did, seeing promise in that outpouring of kindness, finding temporary comfort that she wasn’t all alone in trying to be the best she could, by herself.
She recited that story every holiday, to whoever would listen, as many times as possible, not because she loved hearing her own voice, not because she remembered the girl that I was, and not simply because she was remembering the woman she was, the woman who overcame innumerable obstacles, and survived.
The events were a cornerstone of meaning in her life, they lifted the hardship of our existence into the miraculous, the unexpected, the redemptive. Her telling that particular story during the winter holidays was an emotional reenactment of light coming into darkness, the heart and meaning of Christmas, a story she repeated in an act of sacred memory.
To those in need, my mother was one of the most generous humans that I’ve known, having learned the true spirit of giving, during our years of wandering the wilderness.
Yes, it was a Dickenseque youth, in its hardships and hopes, oppression and good will. Mom never read Dickens, but she wrote her own Christmas carol, that she offered to anyone willing to listen, and most were happy to accommodate her good natured literary performances, hearing the story’s heart and soul quite clearly.
I offer that story here, repeating her tradition, and I lift a cup of tea in my Mother’s honor.