*It was a chilly Saturday morning in late November, just after breakfast, and Mama and Daddy were the only ones left at our green Formica table in the kitchen.
In a one-bedroom apartment with five kids, there weren’t a lot of places to be, period, let alone somewhere to have a private conversation. So when Mama solemnly broached the subject, we all heard it: “Johnny, Christmas is coming up; we need to get the kids some things.”
Daddy replied with something like, “I’m trying to catch up with the bills we have now.” Silence. “I understand, but we still got to do something for Christmas.”
“What do you want me to do, Margie? Make money out of thin air?”
Back and forth it went, increasingly agitated voices rising. “We gon’ have to do something, Johnny.” “Well, I don’t know what else I CAN do…” “Well, you gonna have to do SOMETHING….”
Finally, Daddy, frustrated and angry, uttered the unchallengeable locution to shut it all down: “Well, then,” he said with stubborn irrevocability, “I guess it’s just gon’ be a bleak Christmas….”
Whatever we kids were doing–watching TV, rolling toy cars along the floor or simply standing around waiting for Mama to wrap this up so we bug her for something–Daddy’s line stopped all that cold.
Bleak Christmas. BLEAK. Bleak? I’d never heard that word before. I didn’t know what it meant, only that within the context of my parent’s heated conversation, it couldn’t be good.
In retrospect, bleak was a fairly formidable word for Daddy. A meat and potatoes kind of guy, Daddy always told us he was a grade school dropout who hopped a freight train out of his tiny
native Winfield, Louisiana, ending up in Oklahoma City, where he ultimately met and married Mama. I don’t know where he got bleak. In dropping the bombshell that Christmas wasn’t coming to 1011 1/2 N.E. 6th Street, Daddy could have used more pedestrian terms, such as sad, lousy or 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. My parents sat in bruised quietude for a moment, stewing in their emotions, before Mama rose, busying herself in the kitchen. Daddy put on his coat and hat and left.
At age 10, I was old enough to feel sad for them both. The only thing worse than the idea of children not getting anything for Christmas is hearing their parents argue about it. I never felt we were poor, but with Mama still a housewife at the time (she would 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.
Making ends meet often took on seasonal desperation: Christmas, the start of the school year when we needed new clothes–that kind of thing. And while action-packed TV toy commercials by some of the most trusted names in a youngster’s life, including Mattel, Marx, Wham-O, Lionel and Remco, made it clear to me that Santa was a myth, I wished he did exist so Daddy wouldn’t have to work so hard, and not use an ominous word like bleak.
But then, when it came to finances, Daddy had a way with words, a gift he regularly flexed on bill collectors. Among the ruses: if he answered the phone to someone particularly persistent, Daddy, feigning the sound of a quietly psychotic Negro with a you-won’t-take-me-alive mentality, would reply, “I’m coming down there to give you your money RIGHT NOW, and I want to give it to YOU–PERSONALLY.” You could almost hear the collector nervously suggest that Mr. Ivory kindly put the payment in the mail–DON’T COME DOWN–at his convenience.
In any case, despite Daddy’s “bleak” holiday forecast, our Christmas tree went up right after Thanksgiving, as usual. And slowly, over the days, wrapped boxes of various sizes would appear under the tree. Covertly, we’d shake and squeeze the packages holding “utility gifts”–clothing, books; stuff a child needed, rather than wanted.
But come early Christmas morning, something magical happened: more gifts! 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 living room–which, equipped with two convertible couches, doubled as sleeping quarters for my siblings and I–remains a mystery.
Mama, in her robe and nursing a cup of coffee, watched from an arm chair, amused as her kids went utterly crazy. Daddy, in the bedroom, was out like a log.
It was a great Christmas. Actually, I can’t recall a bad one as a child. My parents would continue to bicker over finances, but somehow we got almost everything we wanted in life, including many memorable holidays.
Of course, I’d learn that Christmas isn’t about the material. Nevertheless, I’ve spent adulthood taking for granted my understanding of the word bleak. Only the other day, in honor of sweet reminiscence, did I look it up in a dictionary. What I found was Bleak: 1.“Cold and miserable.” 2.“(Of a situation or future prospect) not hopeful or encouraging; unlikely to have a favorable outcome.”
And then, oddly, there was this: 3. “Term used in temporary frustration by a proud, simple and loving father whose family will never go without.”
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected]