Sunday, December 15, 2013

Cigar Box Christmas

Fighting tears, Peggy watched her husband leave the house, as he had every night for the last month with what was left from supper.  He would come home a short time later smelling of tobacco and the night air.  She didn’t know where he went, or what he did when he got there.  And she was a little afraid to find out for sure. 

All she knew is the money she put in the cookie jar kept disappearing.  She had expected to use that money to buy presents at the mercantile.  But found herself making Christmas presents for the children instead.  

Billy wanted to be a pirate.  So she made an eye patch and a pirate’s hat from a large scrap of felt and embroidered a dragon on the front.  Then she copied the dragon onto an old wooden cigar box.  Hours and hours of painstakingly painting the dragon till she got it right.  An old string of beads, a few tin foil coins, and an ugly cameo broach turned the box into a perfect treasure chest.

Discipline kept her from crying as she cut apart a stained pink dress that she had found abandoned in the attic, left by the previous tenant of their small rented house.  Located on the right side of the tracks, Peggy tried very hard to keep up appearances determined that her family would be seen as well-off, given her husband’s position as supervisor.  It frustrated her that his paycheck didn’t seem to be enough lately.  She was worried that his nightly outings would be seen sooner or later and the neighbors would begin to talk.  Small towns were so gossipy. 

A second cigar box, this one painted white, would serve as a bed for Katie’s baby doll.  Sniffling Peggy created bedding for the doll bed.  Sheets, pillows, a little blanket, and a small bedspread.  She was even able to make a little dress and apron for the doll from a sleeve.   She was not a seamstress, so this gift was truly a labor of love, working secretly while the children were at school. 

By scrimping on the amount of meat she bought and serving more stews and soups than normal, she had managed to buy a small pouch of her husband’s favorite pipe tobacco.

Nevertheless, she felt inadequate.   In his old job, there had been plenty of money and they had all become accustomed to lots of presents under the tree.  The three small presents were a stark reminder of the tough times of the depression and of how her husband was apparently squandering their precious resources.  But she loved him.  And so said nothing.

Arrrrrrgh !  Avast ye Mateys
The children opened the presents that she had carefully wrapped in pages of an old Life Magazine – snatched from a burn pile before a neighbor noticed.    Katie loved her baby doll’s new bed.  After jumping up to kiss her mother, she wandered off to play in the corner, while Billy put on his eye patch, and went around all day saying “aaargh.” 

But there was no present under the tree for her.  She just looked at Floyd with quiet sadness as he sat there smoking his pipe, thoughtfully.   He was a man who had molded himself into a tower of strength.  In his young life he had been a cowboy in Oklahoma, a gandy dancer laying track across the Illinois prairie, and a professional boxer, hanging up his gloves after he won his third purse, having proved himself to the rough Irishmen that worked alongside him.  He took this confidence into the hard work of laying telephone lines across the countryside, unafraid of the creatures that walked about on two legs.  But he didn’t know how to talk to his young wife.  Didn’t understand that her strength came from understanding why sacrifice was needed.

Hiding her emotions, she bustled about the kitchen, fragrances of roast goose, stuffing, fresh bread and apple pie filling the house.  The adults ate quietly, while the children chatted excitedly about their presents.   While he was outside getting more wood for the fire, Peggy packed a picnic basket with an extra pie for whoever it was that her husband visited.  Leaving the basket on the table, she went to their room.
Floyd heard Peggy cry herself to sleep.  He knew she didn’t understand.  Someday he would explain.  It had been hard to watch his brother and sisters starve as his mother took in boarders in an effort to keep the family together.  He believed his little sister would have survived, if he’d been able to put enough food on the table for her.  But with his father gone, he’d been the man of the family at ten.  And he just couldn’t do a man’s job, or get a man’s wage.  Though he did try.

But he was a man now.  He had tears in his eyes as he picked up the basket his wife had made and when out into the blustery night, his Christmas bonus tucked safely away in his shirt pocket.

A half a mile outside of town the lonely cabin stood, on the wrong side of the tracks.  Christmas was here, and Sarah had nothing to put under the tree for her children.  She had put them to bed with bread and milk, having nothing else to feed them.   

The scarlet fever had nearly done Sarah’s husband in.  He was starting to get better, but it had been touch and go there for a while.  Since he had taken sick, every night someone had secretly left a pot of stew on their porch. 
Some nights there were a few coins next to it.  Sarah didn’t know who the angel was that watched over them, but was grateful that someone in this town cared.

That night Floyd didn’t run out of sight after he knocked on the door.  He placed the basket in her hands and pulled his Christmas bonus from his pocket. 

“Ma’am,” he said quietly.  “Your husband works for me.  I’m glad that he’s getting better.  But I can’t keep coming here.  The Company is sending me and my family south for the winter.  It’s getting too cold to do the work.  There’s enough here that you should be able to live for a couple of weeks, if you’re careful.  Or take a train somewhere warmer for the winter.  Maybe go live with relatives or something.”  He fell silent, unsure what to say next.  Taking in Sarah’s confusion, he continued.

“My wife, is a good woman; she fixed you up a nice Christmas dinner.  She made an extra pie for you.  And she doesn’t even know you. I think she believes I’m having an affair.  But she did this anyway, because she just wants me to be happy.  I didn’t tell her about your husband being sick and all.  She’s the kind of woman who would have come to take care of him and you, and probably gotten sick herself.  So I have got to go fix the mess I made.  And explain the struggles I’ve put her through.  If you were my sister I’d tell you to go home to your family.  The trains will be running tomorrow.  And I’ll have one of my men come give you all a ride to the station if you’re going.  Now I’ve got to get home and fix it with her.” 

He tipped his hat and turned to leave.  She asked him to wait and ran to the pink cigar box she kept her precious treasure in.  She scribbled a quick note and placed it in the box.  Returning she asked him to please give it to his wife as a Christmas gift. He tipped his hat once again, and walked off into the night.

Taking off his overcoat, he silently poured himself a shot of whiskey and lit his pipe.  Then he went into their bedroom and woke his wife.

“Tonight, I gave a family a chance to survive,” he smiled grimly. “People are so proud.  It’s so hard on men when they can’t work.  But it’s even harder for the women and children; they’re so thin.  And when we try to help them, they get all prideful and won’t take what they so desperately need,” he said quietly.  “Honey, I gave them my Christmas bonus.  So they can go home to her parents.  I know it’s been hard for you, with money so tight. And I thank you for not complaining, for we have so much more than most.”

“She asked me to give you this,” he said handing the cigar box to his wife.  Inside she found a delicate ladies handkerchief with tiny pink and white embroidered flowers.  And a simple note that read:  “Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts.  You saved us all.  Sarah.”

“I know I should have told you.  And I hope I didn’t ruin your Christmas, Peggy,” he wiped a tear from her cheek.  “I had hoped to take you to your mother’s for the holidays.  But I just couldn’t manage it.  I’m sorry.  I love you.”

“I love you, too.  Come to bed,” she said as she kissed him.

Some of the details are pure imagination.  But the presents were real and my grandmother died never knowing that those meager gifts were the most cherished things my mother and uncle ever received.