How childhood poverty shaped one woman's attitude towards Christmas
| Doris was born in the Great Depression. Her family endured a lot of hardships. Her father had Addison’s disease, which was debilitating, and at assured an early death. However, Doris’ family lived near UVa Medical College, so he received experimental treatment there. Today, someone with Addison’s can live a normal life with medication. However, in the 30’s and 40’s, Walter had to be operated on a half dozen times. I saw the scars on his back myself when I was just a child, two to three inch incisions on each side of his spine.
Walter was told by the doctors that he had helped them make medical history. He was the principle guinea pig in the medical college study. When I came along, the operations were over, his life had resumed, and he took half a salt tablet every day. He also heavily salted his food with no fear of high blood pressure, since Addison ’s disease never goes away and drains the body of sodium. He was told that he was the first person documented with Adison’s to go back to work and live normally again. Today a doctor can medicate and help a patient survive and compensate for the disease.
So Walter’s medical expenses were non-existent, thanks to UVa. But it meant that he could not work for extended periods of time. He had small children, so his wife went to work in a sewing factory, when the youngest was in preschool, and Doris babysat. There was no spare money for Christmas. No turkey, no lights, no gifts.
When Doris was small, one year the bank gave out little silver piggy banks. No one ever told me the logistics, like which adult arranged it, but somehow, three banks were hidden and kept secret. It was the only thing the three children received that year from Santa, but Doris was old enough to read the inscription on the little bank.
Another year, the gifts from Santa were delivered by the Salvation Army. There were broken, unrepaired toys for the boys, and a cast-off doll for Doris. Getting broken toys was almost worse than getting none, because it forced them to face their poverty. Santa didn’t like poor children, white trash, as much as he did other children. On good years, they’d get a couple of oranges per child and some hard candy.
All of these Christmases were stored in Doris’ heart and mind. Her feelings remained stifled inside. As a young mother at 21, she vowed to make Christmas better for her children. And she kept her vow. She found every way possible to build excitement and a happy outlook on the holiday season.
Christmas was a season of celebration. There were fruitcakes to be made; people came to visit and eat on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the Sunday after. Everyone got presents. The good dishes came out, the decorations, the holiday print tablecloth, the candles, the activities for kids, and all that cooking. Five or six guests could show up unexpectedly and be fed until stuffed without a problem. Oyster stew was the family breakfast tradition. And the Christmas cards. Absolutely essential, even after postage soared. By the time the kids were grown, the house was filled with presents, and the grandchildren got even more.
But it wasn’t just the whir of activity, the decorations, and odors of food. It was attitude. She could make it exciting with anticipation. She was delighted with everything she got, like it was the most beautiful and special present in the world, even though she might have had three just like it. She loved Christmas. and it showed. You loved it, too, to be around her.
At age 74, in the fall, she had her third heart attack. This one left her weak and sickly. She had bounced back from the first two. She sat in her nightgown all day, hardly eating, sleeping more than waking. I watched her at times to make sure she was still breathing, she was so still. When she spoke it was soft and breathy, like she didn’t have enough strength. But she wanted to be here for Christmas. When anyone spoke of Christmas plans, her eyes twinkled. She knew she wouldn’t be around much longer, but she didn’t want to miss Christmas. So she got stronger. Her sons carried her downstairs to the family room in the wheelchair to attend “present time” around the tree. She had such a good time, she got stronger and brighter as the day went on.
Back upstairs, she had to relinquish her kitchen and dining room to her grown children, who had a great time together preparing the midday meal. She wheeled in to watch and be a part of the bubbub. But she also vowed that next year, she would do it all for them. She did. She got so much better, that in April the doctor said she shocked them by making so much improvement. He hadn’t expected her to make it past mid-December. But she did. And she made it past another December, this time cooking and directing the meals herself. Her victory was getting out of the chair to walk down the steps with assistance. She had one more Christmas her way, and it was beautiful as always.
As long as her family, her children and grandchildren live, Doris will be a part of Christmas traditions, and celebrations, and cooking, and hospitality, and love.