You Don’t Have to Have Money to Be Rich

This is a revisit of a story I posted last year.  My mother, Kathleen, was raised during The Great Depression.  She often told this story of a happy Christmas when her family had no money, but didn’t let that stop them from having a joyous Christmas.  In the photo below, Kathleen is the small blonde child.  Back left is her cousin, Johnny Bell, center back  sister Annie, back right, brother John.  They are pictured with her parents, Lizzie age forty and Roscoe aged about 50.  Johnny Bell was the son of Roscoe’s beloved orphaned niece, Katie.  Katie’s mother had died in childbirth, so she was raised by Roscoe’s childless, widowed sister.  They all lived together till Roscoe’s marriage.  She was like a daughter to him, so he probably thought of Johnny as a grandson.   R G Holdaway Family with Johnny Bell early 1930's

We don’t have the money.” I’d heard that so many times I knew not to ask for candy, bright rubber balls, or coloring books at Miss Lonie’s store. If Daddy had a few cents to spare, he’d fill three small brown paper bags with candy for us…..peppermint sticks, gumballs, bubble gum, lollipops. Kits and BB Bats were five for a penny. A few cents would buy a pretty good belly ache if I’d done like John and gobbled it right up. As soon as John finished his, he’d be eyeing my candy. Demanding at first, then wheedling, he’d eventually try to win me over by being nice, a sure sign something was up. I’d fold and unfold the small bag till it was shredding and soft as cotton long before the last jawbreaker was gone. Annie’s candy could last for days. Sometimes she’d surprise me with a gumball or lollipop a week later.

Times were hard for my folks during the depression, but never having known anything else, I didn’t feel poor. Clothes were homemade, food home-grown and canned for the winter. As the days got shorter, Christmas was on my mind. More than anything else, I wanted a red bicycle with a basket and horn. When Mama said they couldn’t afford it. I reassured her, “That’s okay. I’ll just just ask Santa Claus to bring me one.” Hoping I’d forget about it, Mama said maybe I’d like a pretty rag doll with yellow hair. Knowing what a good girl I’d been, I returned, “Oh, no. Santa’s gonna bring me a red bicycle with a basket and a horn.”

Finally, Mama just had to tell me. “Santa won’t be bringing you a bicycle. He’s having a hard time too, and we don’t have the money to help him.”

“But that’s just not fair. Rich kid’s parents have money to buy things and Santa Claus still brings them bicycles.”

Mama agreed, “It’s not fair, but that’s how it is.”

Normally after supper, we gathered in the front room as Daddy read and smoked hand-rolled cigarettes while he and Mama talked of all that went on that day. Mama usually had mending or did some embroidery or handwork and played on the floor at their feet. When the older kids finished their homework, Mama read a chapter or two from a book Daddy had borrowed or the kids had brought in from school, but as the evenings got longer and colder, Daddy busied himself in the barn and Mama took to keeping her sewing basket covered, telling the kids curiosity killed the cat. That was okay because Annie and I had our own secrets. We cut up an old sheet to make handkerchiefs for Daddy and John, snipping and pulling threads along each side to make a cutwork pattern and hemming the edges. We made Mama some tea towels and a dresser scarf. Mama helped me make Gingerbread men for Annie and John. Christmas Eve, I was so excited I could hardly sleep, hoping Santa Claus might leave me a bike, despite what Mama had said. For once we hopped straight out of bed when we heard Daddy starting a fire and Mama making coffee, but Daddy made us go back to bed. It seemed like it took hours before Mama said biscuits were in the oven and Daddy said the room was warm enough for them to get up.

We lined up, smallest to biggest, and for once, it was good to be small. I tiptoed into the room to the magic of our Christmas tree illuminated by the warm glow of the fireplace, the room scented by the rare treat of Mama’s sweet, hot, chocolate. Only Christmas held this special joy. our lumpy stockings were so full they were about to pull away from the mantle. Santa had filled mine with bright wooden blocks, an apple, the biggest orange I’d ever seen, chocolate drops, ten new pennies, a bright rubber ball, a giant candy cane, and a brazil nut at the very toe! More riches than I’d seen all year! Thrilled, I dropped to the floor to play with my blocks and ball when Mama said there might be more. High on the tree hung a beautiful rag doll with yellow yarn hair, brown eyes, pink lips and cheeks. She was dressed in a blue flowered dress and bonnet and flour sack bloomers with the letters Ai Fa printed on the seat and rick-rack edging on the legs. So that’s the surprise Mama had been hiding. It was so beautiful! I’d seen this same pattern on the feed sacks at Miss Lonie’s Store. While I was still pondering the glory of my doll, Mama and Annie gave me a gift they had worked on together for me: a matching dress, bonnet, and bloomers with Air Fair printed across the seat, and rick-rack edging on the legs, just like my doll’s. No girl had ever had anything so perfect! When I was as big as Annie I’d have the whole label, Airy Fairy Flour on the seat of my bloomers. When I’d had time to play with my doll a few minutes, Daddy brought out what he’d spent his evenings working on: a little doll bed and a table and chairs just the doll’s size. This was the most wonderful Christmas of my entire life!

Ann got a dress and matching scarf, a card of bobby pens, and a bottle of Evening in Paris Perfume, John, a wooden pop gun, a sling shot, a shirt, and harmonica, along with the things Santa put in their stockings. Happiest of all were Mama with her tea towels and dresser scarf and Daddy with his handkerchiefs. You could see they’d never had such wonderful gifts. How lucky they were to have us!

Christmas dinner was a wonder. Mama had killed an old hen the day before and made chicken and dumplings and dressing. To go along with it, the table was heaped with mashed potatoes and gravy, Mama’s wonderful canned green beans, okra and tomatoes, biscuits with homemade butter and sweet potato pie. Grandma and Grandpa and Maude, Mama’s snooty baby sister showed up with ham and Aunt Ellie, Cousin Katie, and Johnny walked over with a berry cobbler and fried squirrel. There was so much, my stomach would be hurting before I could even taste everything.

Johnny came over showing off his new trucks and toy guns. ‘ It just wasn’t right the way Aunt Ellie spoiled that Johnny. She only gave me some peppermint and a handkerchief. He was no more to her than I was, even though Aunt Ellie had raised his mama when Aunt Sally died and left Katie motherless about the same time Aunt Ellie’s only baby died. I was so sick of hearing about how Johnny’s daddy had died of tuberculosis when Johnny was only eight months old, and he and Katie had lived with Aunt Ellie ever since. It did look like Aunt Ellie would get tired of raising people’s left over kids and pay a little more attention to a nice little girl she wasn’t stuck raising. Aunt Ellie brought Johnny something every time she went to the store, and hardly ever even got a lollipop.’ Even though it was unfair as usual, Aunt Ellie’s partiality toward that rotten Johnny had worked out in my favor once. At some time in the past, apparently forgetting Johnny was a boy, Aunt Ellie had bought him a china doll with long, curly blonde hair. This dainty charmer was dressed in pink silk, patent leather shoes, and delicate lingerie. She came with a change of dress, coat hangers, and could be tucked neatly into her own trunk for storage. She was eventually passed on to me after Johnny ignored the doll for a couple of years.

Uncle Dave and Aunt Ethel’s car pulled in, packed tight with and the kids in the back seat. Kathleen and John raced to hide their stuff while Aunt Ethel waddled in with nothing but a bowl of greens. ‘Why in the world would anybody bring greens to Christmas dinner?’ Robert Gordon and Wayne fought their way out of back seat pounding each other for the privilege of being first, though it was hard to imagine why it mattered why unless they needed the toilet. John, Johnny, and I certainly didn’t want to see them. Whatever Robert Gordon and Wayne couldn’t tear up, they tried to haul home. Between us, John and I didn’t have a shoebox full of toys and had no intention of letting those little demons of Satan make off with them. Thank Goodness, John was big enough to hold them up by the ankles and shake them while I grabbed the stuff that fell out of their pockets. There was nothing too bad for those heathens to do. Last time they were here, they ate a whole quart of crackers and a quart of mustard. They chased the chickens and threw eggs against the barn till Daddy put a stop to that. Most of the time, John and Cousin Johnny teamed up and picked on me but it took all of us to keep Robert Gordon and Wayne from taking the place apart.

Thank Goodness, Mama didn’t believe in making kids eat at the second table. She told the women to fix their kids a plate and let them go play. Grandma, Aunt Ellie, and Aunt Ethel didn’t think it was right, but Mama said she wasn’t going to make her kids to starve while the grown-ups sat around eating, drinking coffee, and talking all afternoon. Mama didn’t insist we eat everything, just try just a bite to see if we liked it. She didn’t make us eat greens at holidays, though. It just didn’t seem right to insist greens at Christmas when they had the rest of the year for that! Mama didn’t have enough plates to go around, so as a special treat on holidays, she let us kids eat on syrup can lids and sit on the floor, just a little something special for company meals. As soon as we’d had our fill, we headed for the barn, anxious to get Robert Gordon and Wayne as far from their Christmas loot as possible. Though Robert Gordon was a year younger than me, he was bigger and a lifetime meaner. The last time he was here, he’d entertained himself by hiding behind corners and jumping out on my back, knocking me forward to the ground with him on my back. I’d complained to Mama and we’d hatched a plan and was ready for him this time. I sauntered alluringly past the barn door several times, till Robert Gordon leapt out, locking his arms around my neck. Prepared for his attack, I collapsed backward, banging his head against the barn wall, his shoes scooting in manure. He squalled into the house tattling that I’d had hurt his head, but got no sympathy when John, Johnny, and I got to tell our side of the story.

Soon he was fully recovered. Looking for trouble, Robert Gordon and his partner in sin ambled toward the pasture, where the hellions spotted Nanny Goat, grazing peacefully near the barnyard fence, her bag already engorged. Her young kid goats were penned nearby, already bleating hungrily, denied the comfort of Nanny Goat till evening milking was done. Satan possessed the boys as they ran at Nanny, chasing her till she collapsed, exhausted, then stripping her of her milk in a way no Christian ever would. All this in full view of her horrified, hungry kids and any neighbors who cared to watch, a equally deep sin in Mama’s view. Nanny’s terrified screams dragged the diners from the Christmas feast and it was clear that not only were Daddy and Mama furious at the abuse of livestock, but the look on Mama’s face showed she was outraged knowing “what the neighbors would think.” As for poor Nanny; she was so traumatized, she didn’t give milk for the next three days. Thankfully, our horrible cousins soon left to make the long trip back to Clarksville. We settled in front of the cozy fire to enjoy the remains of another wonderful holiday all together.

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10 thoughts on “You Don’t Have to Have Money to Be Rich

  1. Your mother’s recall is fantastic. A lovely portrait of Christmas at a simpler time. Thanks. 🎄 She was so right…it doesn’t take money to make a memorable holiday. We should all remember that.

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