How to Read a Christmas Story: Ann Patchett Shares a Holiday Memory

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By Ann Patchett
Sunday, December 20, 2009

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that I have never been a big fan of Christmas. In my family there were happy Thanksgivings and tolerable Easters, but Christmas was a holiday we failed at with real vigor. I will blame this on my parents' divorce. When I was 5, my mother and sister and I left our home and my father in Los Angeles. We moved to Nashville, where my mother later married a man who had the great misfortune of having been born on Christmas Day. My father, largely stoic in the face of these circumstances, was not stoic when it came to missing Christmas with us. My sister and I, who were virtually incapable of stoicism, went down like a house of cards every year. My mother was made miserable by our misery, while our stepfather recounted all the years he never got a birthday cake. It wasn't good.

Because Christmas and presents are as intertwined as ribbon and wrapping, I didn't like the presents, either. It was a bad day for expectations and heart's desires. Even at 7, I was a hard person to shop for. My father's presents were always the saddest, because they were just so consistently wrong. He sent me clothes that were not to my childish liking, and dolls that were big and artistic and creepy. The year I very much wanted a pair of boot roller skates, he got them for me. They were black. The boys all skated on one side of the convent parking lot wearing black boot skates, and the girls skated on the other side of the parking lot wearing white boot skates. There was no overlap. I was disappointed to know that I would spend another year not skating, but, more than that, I was shaken by how little my father understood the circumstances of my life. On the phone, I thanked him and said they were perfect. I never even put the laces in.

Then one year my father called me late on Christmas Eve. This was unusual, because my father's time to call was after Mass on Christmas morning. In my memory, I was already in bed, although it seems more likely that I went to my mother's room and lay down on her bed to talk since that was where the phone was. I will say that I was 10 years old or 12, but in truth I have no idea. I was a child; let's leave it at that. My father called because he wanted to read me a short story that was in the newspaper. My father's newspaper has always been the Los Angeles Times.

If I was 10 that Christmas Eve, I already knew I wanted to be a writer. That knowledge goes back as early as 6, as early as the start of school and maybe even before that. It is the only truly remarkable thing about me: I knew from the very beginning what I wanted to do, and then I did it. I may forget the details of my own life, but I remember the stories I read. Plots, characters, entire passages of dialogue tattooed themselves onto my brain. They are still there now, slightly fuzzy but for the most part legible. Authors -- poor authors! -- are gone completely. It was much, much later in life that I took any notice of who was doing the writing.

I am certain this is the only time in my life that my father, or anyone else for that matter, ever read me a story over the phone. I pressed into the pillow and closed my eyes in order to give myself over completely to the pleasures of listening, the phone against my ear like a conch shell. The narrator of the story was a grown woman who was remembering a Christmas Eve in her childhood. She had grown up in a Catholic orphanage, and every year each of the girls received a single, disappointing gift that had come to them by way of charity. The gifts were given out in a random sort of lottery, and for years the heroine had received a pair of gloves or a package of underwear, some gift of necessity that might have been appreciated had it not been masquerading as a Christmas present. But on this particular night, her luck changed dramatically. She received a tin box of drawing pencils that she had desperately wanted. The narrator planned to be an artist, and so not only was the gift delightful, it was actually her only shot at having a future. She both loved the pencils and she needed them, and she took them to bed with her in a cold room with a good blanket where she slept with the other girls, and she was happy.

Christmas morning came very early. The nuns woke the girls up before it was light. The orphans were told that during the night a large group of gypsies had come to sleep in the field on the other side of the woods from the orphanage. The gypsy children had no presents at all, and no breakfast, and so the nuns told the girls that they should think about giving up their gifts to the poor children.

This is the only detail of the story that I puzzle over: Did the nuns tell the girls they had to give up their presents, or did they suggest the idea and leave it up to them? Morally, or course, it's more interesting to give the girls a choice, but I am certain the nuns where I went to school would have made us give the presents up.

Bundled in their coats and scarves, the girls went through the woods toward the gypsy camp in the darkness, carrying not only their presents but their breakfasts. The gypsy children were poor and thin and shivering in the cold, and the narrator was beautifully brave as she gave her colored pencil set to one of the little gypsy girls. She was glad to do it, because at that moment she realized all that she had: a warm place to sleep, food, an education, nuns to look after her. She knew how lucky she was to be the girl who had something as extraordinary as colored pencils to give away. They walked back to the orphanage as the sun was coming up, and it seems to me that they were singing, the nuns or the orphans or the gypsies, though the singing may be my own embellishment, so great was my happiness by the time my father drew the story to a close.

Though there was no talk of it during this particular phone conversation, my father wanted me to be a dental hygienist. Unlike my sister, I wasn't shooting the lights out in school, and he thought it was essential that I have a practical skill to fall back on. A career in writing seemed about as likely to him as the chances of my inheriting Disneyland. My father thought I should be realistic.

But my father was a great reader who had a real appreciation for stories. He wouldn't have read me a bad story, no matter how moral it was, and so I feel certain he chose this one as much for its simple and lovely construction as for its messages -- there's always someone who's worse off than you; it is better to give than to receive; and, most of all, listen to the nuns, who are bound to steer you toward your best self.

And I got all of that, but in the kind of explosion of understanding that sometimes happens in childhood, I got more and more. Even now, it strikes me as tender that he would have read this story in the paper and that, rather than cutting it out and mailing it (my father loves to cut the newspaper apart and mail his favorite articles to me and my sister), he called and read it to me over the phone. There was no gift, no stuffed sheep or board game, that could have made me feel my father really knew me the way that story did. I loved the bright portrait of Catholicism at its best: As much as I wanted to be a writer when I was a child, I also wanted to be a shining example of my faith, which meant that I wanted the nuns and the other children in my school to be dazzled by my selflessness and piety while I, in my transcendent goodness, never noticed them noticing me. Oh, what I wouldn't have given to be that orphaned narrator! Wouldn't it be so much better to be an orphan, to not feel that you were letting one parent down by being with the other parent on Christmas? But children don't get to pick their hardships. I would have to make do with having too many parents instead of not having enough. I wanted the chance to receive something equally as wonderful as those colored pencils and then have the opportunity to give them away, but I had no idea where a person could find gypsies on Christmas Eve in Nashville.

What is remarkable to me now is that I was able to consider not only how the story made me feel, but how it was made. The narrator presented this Christmas as a memory, looking back from the safe perch of adulthood, so that I would know from the very start that she had survived everything. Even as I wanted to be the heroine of that story, I understood how much better it was to have her be a Catholic orphan instead of a Catholic girl like me. In terms of plot, there really is nothing interesting about a middle-class child giving away colored pencils to the poor, but it moved me to tears to see an orphan give her present away. The poverty of the narrator was striking until one considered the poverty of the gypsies; it seemed sad to get only one measly Christmas present until you found someone who had no Christmas present at all; these were the wheels that moved the story along. All the while, I understood it was fiction. I knew the person doing the telling was a made-up person. The author very likely had never been to an orphanage before, in the same way I had never been to an orphanage. I understood this not because there was anything shoddy about the work, but because I was concentrating very hard on what it meant to write at that time in my life. Writers need not be confined by their own dull lives or their petty Christmas sadness; they could cut new stories out of whole cloth, stories that did not reflect their own experiences but instead spoke to the depth of their emotions. In short, this was something I could do.

***

I was recently at a friend's house and commented on a small toy skunk sitting on a shelf in a hallway. It was a striking little creature, its fur short and bristling, its tail raised. It looked like something you'd find in a Smithsonian exhibition on the history of American toys. My friend told me it was her husband's and that he'd had it since childhood. I marveled at the fact that a man of almost 60 had managed to hang onto this lovely skunk for so long. I have never been one to hang onto things: Toys, presents, letters, I let them go. But there hasn't been a Christmas Eve when I haven't rolled out for myself the story my father read to me, a happy memory of a cherished gift. The details of the things that were difficult in life have fallen away from me, but the things I loved have stayed. The story is the best gift I have no record of.

Ann Patchett has written seven books of fiction and nonfiction including "Bel Canto," "Truth & Beauty" and "Run." Her most recent piece for the Magazine was about trying out for the Los Angeles Police Academy. To comment on this story, e-mail wpmagazine@washpost.com.


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