By January, the Christmas tree still stood in the corner of the den, never decorated. My mother had been waiting for the perfect moment for my father to help us with it. But my father, who was a traveling artificial-flower salesman, worked too hard and was unlucky with holidays. Forget special occasions: My childhood birthday presents were bottles of Aqua Velva after-shave from his medicine cabinet, hurriedly wrapped in the morning newspaper. He was a great man for ordinary days, providing the basics -- housing, food, shoes -- and if he could only live his life backward, he often said, he could get everything right.

One evening, he finally came home and put his salesman's battered sample case beside the tree like a joke gift, dying needles falling to the floor. My two older brothers and I were watching TV. Days before, my mother had given us a small holiday celebration without my father. We had had good turkey-and-cranberry-sauce sandwiches on white bread, and she made red velvet cake for dessert. Every year she decorated the cake with three plastic snowmen. "One for each of my boys," she'd say. And we'd always sing her favorite song, "White Christmas," giving it our best Bing Crosby impressions.

On that night in January, even at 8 years old, I knew that the chance for singing carols and bringing the family together was gone. My parents talked behind the closed door of their bedroom for a long time. When they came out, the dead quiet of my mother's disappointment was too much to bear. My father picked up his case and headed back out. He had often threatened to leave, and this time I thought we'd never see him again.

Late that evening, I heard him, like a week-overdue Santa. I got up; my mother got up; and there he was, putting his traditional presents under the tree -- after-shave for me and my brothers, and late-night drugstore perfume for Mom. Then he opened his salesman's case. It was filled with doughnuts. A suitcase full of day-old doughnuts, some iced, some jelly-filled and some with sprinkles. My father didn't say anything. He just placed a chocolate-covered doughnut on the end of a brittle tree limb. He was trying to make the sale.

My mother could have gone either way, but she just smiled her mother's smile, preferring to follow the fathomless hope of the optimist's phrase: "Keep your eye on the doughnut and not on the hole." She got some bright thread out of her sewing basket and secured loops around some of the doughnuts. She started hanging them, too. Finally, Mom and Dad held on tight to me and hoisted me up to crown the top of the tree -- a doughnut angel. "Perfect," my mother said, and we feasted on doughnuts and the sweet smell of Aqua Velva for days.

Allen Woodman teaches at Northern Arizona University and is the author of "The Cows Are Going to Paris."