I was just ten, but I knew the conversation was about money. And I knew the conversation might go where other talks between my parents often went when it came to that subject. The anger frightened me. The shouting felt like thunder.
We couldn’t escape the noise. A small, second story one bedroom apartment didn’t offer much privacy for five kids, though I do have distinct childhood memories of solitude at home-of playing in the floor with my toy cars and trucks uninterrupted; of spending evenings after elementary school sitting alone in our tiny kitchen and being absolutely entranced by the top 40 hits coming out of the speaker of our Motorola AM table radio on the utility shelf. Emotionally, however, there was no refuge from Mama and Daddy’s wrangling.
“What do you want me to do, Margie,” I heard Daddy plead, his voice raising. “Make money out of thin air?”
“I don’t know what you’re going to do, Johnny,” Mama retorted, “but it’s Christmas. I have to get the kids something….”
Back and forth it went, their voices becoming bigger and increasingly agitated, until Daddy uttered the unchallengeable locution that shut it all down: “Well, then,” he said with brusque finality, “I guess it’s just gon’ be a bleak Christmas….”
Whatever we were doing–watching TV, trying to play amidst the disruption or simply waiting for Mama to wrap this up so we bug her for something–Daddy’s line stopped all that cold.
Bleak. I didn’t know what that meant. I did know it wasn’t good.
Bleak was a formidable word for Daddy, a meat and potatoes man who, as a grade school dropout, said he hopped a freight train out of his tiny native Winfield, Louisiana and ended up in Oklahoma City, where he ultimately met and married Mama.
I don’t know where he got bleak, though. In dropping the bombshell that Christmas wasn’t coming to 1011 1/2 N.E. 6th Street, he could have used more commonplace terms, such as sad, lousy or just too bad, all of which would have sufficed.
However, the sheer anomaly of bleak carried weight. Bleak was beyond, say, getting something for Christmas, just not everything you wanted; bleak was some Oliver Twist shit.
And when John Ivory said that, the conversation was over. He and Mama stewed in raw emotion for a few silent minutes before she rose and began busying herself in the kitchen. Daddy put on his coat and left.
I remember feeling sad for them both. The only thing worse than the idea of children not getting anything for Christmas is the child witnessing their parents argue about it. I never felt we were poor, but with Mama still a housewife at the time (she’d later work as a housekeeper before putting herself through college, majoring in child development), Daddy’s postman job at Tinker Air Force Base had to go a long way every month.
Making ends meet in our household often took on seasonal desperation. There’d have to be money for Christmas; there’d have to be new clothes for the start of school–that kind of thing. There was always something coming up and the money to deal with it was always a problem. I knew there wasn’t a Santa Claus–action-packed TV commercials by some of the most trusted names in a youngster’s life, including Mattel, Wham-O, Lionel and Remco had seen to that. But I wished St. Nick did exist, if only because then Daddy wouldn’t have to work so hard and not use an ominous word like bleak.
In any case, despite Daddy’s disheartening holiday forecast, our Christmas tree went up December 1st, as usual, purchased, like always, in Safeway’s parking lot.
Decorating it was a family event, distinguished by the fresh redolence of pine battling for household airspace with the delightful aroma of Christmas tree-shaped, made-from-scratch butter cookies baking in the oven. There were giggles and clowning and eggnog and, on the black and white Philco, the requisite Perry Como or Andy Williams holiday TV special. No one really watched, but the sounds and images provided a festive backdrop to our joyful process.
Slowly, over the days, wrapped gifts of various sizes would appear under the tree. Covertly, my brother Tony and I would shake and squeeze what turned out to be the “utility gifts”–clothing or books; stuff a child needed, rather than wanted.
However, come early Christmas morning, something truly magical occurred: more presents! And not just wrapped ones, but the big artillery, laid out around the tree–bikes, a wagon, an electric train. How my parents set this scene in the wee hours of the morning in the living room–which, equipped with two convertible couches, also doubled as sleeping quarters for my siblings and I–remains a mystery.
Mama, in her robe and nursing a cup of coffee, sat in an arm chair and watched in quiet amusement as her kids went utterly crazy opening the gifts. Daddy was in the bedroom in deep slumber. Talk about a wonderful Christmas. Actually, I can’t recall a bad one as a child.
In the future my parents would continue to argue over finances, but somehow we got almost everything we wanted and needed in life, including some memorable holidays.
Of course, I’d learn that Christmas isn’t about the material. It wasn’t until adulthood, however, that I picked up a dictionary and actually looked up bleak. Among the definitions: 1. “Cold and miserable.” 2.”(Of a situation or future prospect) not hopeful or encouraging; unlikely to have a favorable outcome.”
And then, incredibly, there was this: 3. “Term used in temporary frustration by a proud, simple and loving man whose family will never go without.”
Steven Ivory is a journalist/author who has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].