Tonight, on this Christmas Eve, thanks to indulgent employers, my husband and the girls expect to be home to make tamales. Maybe, if we get our courage up, we'll concoct the family jalapen o relish, so hot that you have to be born one of us to survive a spoonful. We'll eat too much and make too many bad puns, and chances are I'll get a laughing fit. If I look suitably pained, a helpful daughter will clear up the dishes, though the tamale pan will doubtless be "left to soak," the family euphemism for putting it off 'til tomorrow.
We'll open our presents after supper -- some years we open them before, but this year everyone is getting IOUs good for clothes at the after-Christmas sales, so no one is too excited about gifts. Before the clock strikes Christmas, and we all turn in to go to sleep by the traditional light of the television set, I hope I can get everyone to listen just a little while to stories of Christmas past.
During the Great Depression, I grew up in north Florida and south Georgia, two localities hard to tell from one another. My father was the pharmacist/manager of a drugstore. He was very good at it, working fast and hard and not missing anything. When he finished filling prescriptions, he'd do fancy arrangements with the Whitman chocolates.
If he saw customers waiting, he'd whiz over to them as though he were sliding on soap. He'd find them whatever they wanted and often some things they didn't. He'd dash over to clean off a soda fountain top if the counter man wasn't lightning fast. My father never made an exceptional salary, but unlike many people during the Depression, he never was out of work a single day.
I mean that almost literally. I never remember him taking a vacation. He was supposed to work Monday through Saturday and every other Sunday, with every other night off, but many times he worked on his days and nights off.
Christmas Eve was a big selling day in the store. Most people, especially at the last minute, bought their Christmas presents at the drugstore, considered one up from the five-and-dime store and one down from the clothing emporium.
My father would get there early -- drugstores opened then at 8 a.m. He always was up early -- he had to be to get in his 12 cups of coffee and three packs of cigarettes in. He would come home late -- when the last customer was gone, the last employe suitably thanked, the store swept and polished.
Though he was a man who would rather work than do anything else, the day was hard on him in other ways. He crammed more into his half-century or so than some could into a millennium. He was the world's best salesman, though the world didn't reward him for it. No one who came in the store with money left with all of it. He was also the most sentimental man -- no, person -- I ever knew.
In these Depression years, not everyone came with money. Children wearing thin shirts against the damp southern cold, so much worse than drier northern cold, came clutching a nickle earned washing cars. Able-bodied men in shoes with holes in them, worn-out from looking for the scarce jobs, would stand for a long time looking at price tags they knew they couldn't afford. Pinched-looking women in clothes painfully clean and terribly worn would bring a few coins tied up in handkerchiefs.
No matter how much he wished he hadn't, he always saw these people in need. He couldn't ignore anybody -- or any dog, cat or pigeon -- rich, poor, happy or unhappy. And no one ever ignored him. He may not have been rich or famous, but he was an important man because all creatures were important to him.
By the end of the day, whatever loose cash my father had, and that wasn't much, would've gone to make up the difference for Christmas shopping for the hard up.
We waited at home for him, as fans wait for rock stars. His homecoming was the event of the day. My mother, a night owl, never was very firm about bedtimes. We read or listened to Fibber McGee and Molly and later, "The Halls of Ivy" with Ronald Coleman. But she did like me in bed before he came home on nights he worked until midnight. After we had our own children, I realized it was because she wanted a little time with him alone. I used to listen to their murmurs from my room.
That Christmas Eve, I had been sent to bed early, with the promise of Santa. I was at that age when you know Santa is make-believe, but you aren't ready to admit it -- to yourself or your parents -- lest all the good things in life turn out to be false. I decided to find out. I read in bed with the flashlight under the covers, but I was still awake when my father came in at midnight. I heard them talking softly and laughing as he drank his 12th cup of coffee and ate the first slice of the season of my grandmother's fruitcake.
I heard them open their presents to each other with oohs and ahhs. I knew, without seeing them, how they looked. They could hardly open and appreciate their own presents for watching to be sure the other person was pleased. Both of them worried the whole holiday season, convinced that nothing they could afford would be the right thing. And that bankruptcy was close at hand.
I heard the door of the locked closet open as they brought my presents out of hiding and wrapped them. I heard my Daddy's tale-telling voice as he made short stories out of the people who had come in the store that day. I could hear my mother's low, pleasant laugh and her voice, so much softer when she spoke to him than to anyone else. About 2 a.m. they went to bed. He had to be up early to work Christmas Day.
As soon as I saw their light go out, I padded with bare feet into the living room, plugged in the lights on the Christmas tree, and sure enough, there were my presents, not brought by Santa at all -- I had listened carefully -- but by my parents. I knew now for sure that Santa Claus didn't come down the chimney, but from the drugstore. I felt a little sad for the fading of my fantasies. But I felt very grown-up with my new secret knowledge. I wondered whom I could tell and who would believe it without crying or getting mad. And though I read and played by myself the night long, I felt content and loved.
Anyway, what I started out to say was that at the Christmas season, I think of all those people who are working Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The nurses who are taking care of my mother in the nursing home. The airport controllers. The radio announcers. The weathermen and women. The Foreign Service officers who are getting Americans out of jail in Vienna, as my husband used to do. The bus drivers on the last runs. The cab drivers at the train station. The room service people at the hotel. The doctors and nurses in the emergency rooms and on the ward night shifts. The policemen patrolling the streets looking for people who have celebrated Christmas not wisely but too well. The Secret Service guarding the president. The military on duty in uncomfortable places. The pharmacists in the all-night drugstores. And, of course, the innkeepers.
I hope they all get home to their children and their wives and husbands safely tonight to bring the love my father brought to my mother and me.