Monday, December 22, 2014

My Worst Christmas Ever

Recently my brother and I discussed our worst Christmas ever. Even though the ones since then may not always have been joyous, none will ever compare with the worst.

On February 16, 1954, I stepped off the school bus just like every other day. I looked toward our house and saw cars parked in our driveway and along both sides of the street. Some I recognized. Some I didn’t.

As I walked home, I kept running different possible scenarios through my head as to why so many people would be at our house. None of them made sense.

My confusion deepened when I opened the door and saw my aunts, several neighbors, and some of my parents’ friends sitting and standing around the living room and in the kitchen. Most appeared to be crying.

I grew even more alarmed when I looked down the hall. The window blind on the glass back door had been pulled down, leaving the corridor in shadow.

My mother started toward me. She wore a brown and white striped dress I disliked. Her eyes were red, and my dad’s father had his arm around her as they approached.

My first thought was: That’s really weird. They hate each other. Why is Grandpa holding onto my mother?

She walked up to me and said, “Your daddy died this morning.”

I realized everyone in the room was staring at me as if they expected something. Since they had all been crying, I decided to conjure up a few tears. They came more from fear and confusion than from any real emotion.

My aunt brought me a glass of tomato juice.

I was seven years old and realized my whole world had just changed, only I wasn’t really sure quite how yet.

The concept of death wasn’t new to me. My grandfather had died when I was twenty-six months old, and I was still keenly aware of his absence.

My four-year-old brother wasn’t present. I later learned he’d been sent across the street to another neighbor’s house.
Christmas 1953, the year before the worst one ever.
As an adult, I realize what this moment must have been like for our mother. She had been raised to expect to spend her life as a wife and mother. Suddenly, at thirty-six years old, she was responsible for raising two small children without their father. And Dad’s $1000 life insurance policy provided only enough to bury him.

From then on, it was as if my dad had simply evaporated. We never spoke of him, and we were never given permission to grieve for him. The three of us didn’t do so until over fifty years later.

The next morning, I was sent off to school as if nothing had changed.

The atmosphere there contained the same unreality as at home. My father had died the day before, yet no one said anything about it. Not my teacher. Not the other students, No one. There, life went on as usual, only I no longer felt a part of it.

I have many memories of the next few days, but the most vivid is my crying and begging to be allowed to go to the funeral. Following the wisdom of the day, however, I was once again sent off to school.

Just before Christmas, Mom announced we would spend Christmas Eve with my grandmother. She was not like the warm and fuzzy grandmas I’d seen in movies and on TV. Our grandmother was starched and stiff and had the gift of criticism. She had made it clear to both of us that, no matter what we accomplished, it would never meet her high standards. I worked hard for years to gain her approval, only to be met with more suggestions for improvement.

On Christmas morning, my brother and I woke early to discover that Santa had, as promised, found us at Grandma’s house. I remember several gifts I received that year, including a life-sized doll with elastic bands on her feet and hands so you could dance with her. It was certainly not anything I would have thought to ask for. It looked sort-of like this one, only not dressed quite as well.

Shortly afterward, I wandered into my grandmother’s service porch and discovered the boxes and shopping bags from our gifts. In our house, Santa removed the toys from their packaging to put under the tree.

Here was concrete proof that my friends had been right. Santa was a story we were told by our parents. I had asked and asked my mother about what they had told me, but she insisted that a real person in a red suit brought our Christmas gifts.

My first thought upon my discovery was: If Mom lied about this, what else has she lied to us about?

When my daughter was born, I made myself a promise never to lie to her. When she asked me the same questions I’d asked my mother, my stock response became, “What do you think?” Then I’d nod in agreement with whatever logic she had come up with.

When it finally came out that she knew the truth and had for quite some time, I asked her why she hadn’t said anything.

After my assurance that she’d still get her ‘Santa gift,’ her answer made me cry. “I didn’t want to spoil your fun, Mommy.”

What a different scenario from my own childhood when, within the span of less than a year, I lost my father, Santa Claus, and my trust in my mother’s veracity.

It took time before I found the joy in Christmas again, but because we were quite poor, I always knew I would never get the gift I most wanted. The year when all my friends received new bicycles, a much-needed robe awaited me on Christmas morning. I would have to save all my money and earn more before I finally bought my own bike. And even then, I was not allowed to buy the one I wanted.

The year 1954 provides a clear line marking the end of my childhood.

Do you have a worst Christmas story? When was it, and what happened?


  1. That is pretty sad all right. Poor little girl, what a horrid thing to go through at such a young age.

  2. Thinking of you at Christmas, knowing the most terrible Christmas ever is behind you. I was just telling Sarah this morning about discovering there was no Santa which I'd strongly suspected anyway. There it was, the 29 cent price tag from Ben Franklin my mom had overlooked removing. I was pleased with myself at this discovery and immediately let my mother know.
    Growing up in a chaotic household with few boundaries was difficult for me as a quiet only daughter in a house full of wild, out of control boys. I fully understand and appreciate my parents were doing the best they could with what they had to work with. They loved us dearly but just didn't have the parenting thing down. They were overrun with kids and barely treading water. I often wonder how they could walk up to the house every day knowing what was waiting behind the door for them.
    Age has brought understanding and admiration for my parents into clear focus.I would never have been able to wrangle four kids. My parents were clueless, stumbling blindly in a sea of kids they didn't know how to manage. But somehow they pulled it off with what I know realize was great effort.
    I have to publish as Anonymous 'cause I can't figure out how to sign in! Suzanne Jumper

    1. Suzanne, as you know, none of the three of us girls had a great time growing up. None of our parents had a clue about what they were doing. I like to think all of us learned from our parents' mistakes and raised responsible kids in caring homes. Your brothers did the same. Thank goodness, we know a lot more now about the long-term effects of childhood trauma.

  3. Oh my, Lorna, how heartbreaking. That little seven-year-old Lorna needs several long, comforting hugs! I'm glad the three of you finally got to grieve together for your father...even if it was more than fifty years later.
    I'm also glad you were able to establish a fun and healthy way of dealing with the Santa issue with your daughter. I too had the first thought, upon finding out the truth, that my parents had LIED to me! (I was six.) I don't think i was overly traumatized, but Randi and i never taught our sons to believe in Santa, or the other childhood fables, as a reality.

    1. Kim was right. Larry and I both enjoyed playing Santa. His brother convinced Kim he'd heard sleigh bells on the roof one year. But I NEVER told her a lie about it. Actually, asking her for her thoughts bought me time to form a reasonable answer and also let me know where she was coming from. (Often the original question wasn't what she really wanted to know.)
      One year, I had the flag from Dad's funeral put into a box and gave it to my brother for Christmas. As soon as he saw it, he fell apart and left the room. i wouldn't leave him alone, but put an arm around him and cried with him for the first time ever. I have to give Mom a lot of credit because she followed us and wrapped her arms around us. And the three of us mourned the loss we hadn't acknowledged for so many years. Something changed that year in our relationships for the better. And something finally began to heal.

  4. What seemed like the best Christmas at the time was probably the worst Christmas in the long run. I was 15 my brother was 17. Since our parents divorced before I was born I had no memory of my father. He never visited or sent birthday cards and he did not pay child support. When we asked about him we were told he was “no good”. Christmas '61 he sent a taxi cab to our home with gifts. I remember an electric blanket for everyone and hair dryers for me and my mom and we each got $100.

    There was more gifts and promise than we had ever had, but along with it came a difficult relationship with my father. Our parents remarried a couple of months later and our lives changed substantially. Our father demanded our respect and adherence to his principles. We tried, but Mom continued to support us financially and his money was spent as he wished with a good chunk going to support his two boys from his second marriage.

    Mom and Dad quickly picked up their old “on again/off again” relationship which lasted until his death several years ago. I did develop some rapport with him over the years, but for the most part our relationship seemed to mirror that of his and my Mom's.