Some people say that we old folks spend too much time in the past, revisiting it in memories, talking about it too much to people who are not interested in hearing about it. "Too much" is a subjective conclusion. We have two, three, four times as many memorable life experiences as our critics. However, if remembering is a fault, I am faulty.
The word "Christmas" evokes memories of a treasure chest of happiness, the best of times with beloved people. Christmas 1940 was Spartan for my family but it remains one of my most memorable.
It was a memorable year but not good. Two years earlier, my parents had cashed in the equity on a small farm and made a down payment on a larger one near the farm where my father was raised. He built the biggest tobacco curing barn that anyone around had ever seen. A man of boundless energy and endurance, he believed that he was equal to any challenge, even conquering the invasive Johnson grass that infested the whole farm.
The first year was bountiful but not the second. One of his best mules died and was replaced by a gentle buckskin horse named Dan that worked well alone but did not fit in dual harness with smaller mules. Some-where along the way, I had a bout with pneumonia that soon passed because of a new medicine called sulfa.
Early in the year, late February or early March, Daddy suffered a ruptured appendix. The irresistible force was stopped, almost destroyed. Sulfa saved him but he spent a long time in the hospital and emerged a thin shadow of himself. It was the time of year for preparing the land and planting crops. Neighbors gathered one day with their tools and teams and did a lot of work, but Luke, the one farm worker, was no match for the Johnson grass. The crops were planted late. Daddy started plowing far too soon. Momma worked in the fields, taking me along to do whatever I could.
There is an ancient truth about farming. It only takes one bad crop season or one bad illness to wipe out a farm family. I did not understand what was happening but knew something was wrong. Daddy's big truck was suddenly replaced by a much used Chevrolet car. Then another big truck came and took away the buckskin horse and did not slow as I ran behind crying, "Bring back my horse. Bring back my Dan." Later, I also learned that my folks were losing the farm.
I started first grade in a two-room country school nearby. As the year neared its finish, so did my shoes, getting worn and torn because I only had one pair. Perhaps some of the other children said things about them. Most children have a cruel streak under the right conditions. In any case, I was well aware that I needed shoes.
Mother's family celebrated Christmas — everyone at grandparents' house, food and drink and at least some presents. In spite of the bleak situation, she wanted to decorate for Christmas. Daddy selected a thick, well-shaped pine which she decorated with red and green paper garlands and folding bells that opened into proper shape and size. There were no lights, electricity being unavailable for another decade. When she asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I replied, "New shoes."
When I awoke on Christmas morning, there was one present under the tree. Shoes. High tops. My size. Mine. There was nothing for Momma. Nothing for Daddy. No toys for me, but those shoes were quite enough.
That afternoon, Uncle Bill, Daddy's brother, came. He had a gift for me from Aunt Catherine, Uncle Ray's wife, who worked as a waitress in Savannah and seemed always to have a little cash money on hand. It was a Marx toy train, an engine driven by a wind-up spring with three cars all running on an oval track. Sparks came out the smoke-stack when it was turned on. It was a marvel to behold. Unfortunately, the floor of our old house was so uneven that the track kept coming apart at its joints, leading to constant train wrecks. Still, it was a marvel to behold. And I had my new shoes.
Days later we moved just down the road to a farm Daddy had rented. In July, I got my only brother, Jim, and for Christmas a sturdy red wagon, good for hauling him around when Momma was working. The wagon lasted for a decade, the shoes for less than a year, but I remember both. Three years later, Daddy bought a new farm and soon built a new house, one regularly filled with happiness every Christmas for 50 years with presents for everyone.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.