A Christmas Visit
by Kathryn Hamilton
“Now, how many of you girls are planning to bring something besides your gift?” Mrs. Watson stood up to address us so she could see all eight of our Sunday School class, I guess. She was so short she almost had to stand to see over Sarabeth Williams, who was taller than anybody. “Remember, you all need to bring a special gift” (she said special like it was wrapped in tissue paper) “for someone in the family we’re visiting. I think we’re clear that all the children there need a present, and we have just enough of us to cover.”
“Can we wear blue jeans?” Martha Ann wanted to know. Martha Ann wore blue jeans everywhere; she even wore them to school, the only girl in our class who did. She didn’t seem to care a bit being the only girl wearing them. I couldn’t wear mine if I’d wanted to — and I certainly did not — because Minnie would never wash them. I’d dump them in the clothes hamper, come home from school and they’d still be there. “Law, Miss Charlotte,” Minnie would say when I’d ask her why she hadn’t washed them, “They’ll bleed on everything. I can’t take up a whole washer load on one pair of blue jeans, now can I? Maybe I can get them done tomorrow.” She never would, though. I just learned to dig them out of the hamper and wear them again. Once, Granny—who was visiting us from Alabama for a week — said, “Charlotte Ann, looks like you’ve got some of your oatmeal from breakfast crusted on your pants, hon.” But I knew it was probably crusted pancake dough from at least three weeks ago.
“Jeans will be fine,” Mrs. Watson told Martha Ann, but the look she wore told us all that it wouldn’t.
Mrs. Watson had already gone over this stuff a million times. I had to listen to Mama go on about it just the other day. Mama had volunteered to help drive us, but — thankfully — Mrs. Watson had a station wagon and wouldn’t need any help. I hated it when Mama drove us anywhere because she thought she had to talk to each person in the car instead of just letting us talk to each other. At home, though, a huge sack Mama had carefully packed for me to take leaned against a corner of the kitchen, loaded with a mesh bag of oranges; chocolate covered cherries; a whole, entire pound cake; and some boxes of other stuff I didn’t bother to examine, the same things she always gave Minnie for Christmas — except for the pound cake since Minnie made all our cakes.
I had drawn the name of a twelve-year-old girl called Myra and I had my present for her already wrapped in green and red candy-cane paper tied with a red, curly ribbon. Everyone was jealous that I got the twelve-year-old girl since we were all just about that age. I wouldn’t have minded getting the fourteen-year-old girl, though; Judy Weems drew her name and probably got her a stupid gift. Whoever got the boys’ names or the baby probably just let their mamas buy theirs.
Shopping for Myra’s present became more of a challenge than I would have ever thought, especially when your Mama keeps telling you that what you’ve picked out wouldn’t be appropriate. You’d think that I’d know better than somebody forty years old what a twelve-year-old girl would like, wouldn’t you? In Saunders’ Drug Store, I had decided on a gorgeous box of “Evening in Paris” cologne and dusting powder in a satiny, deep blue package with gold letters on the outside. Mama said cologne probably wasn’t the best choice for Myra, that we should buy her something she needs, although I thought we should buy her something she wants, but who’s listening to me? Mama selected a white cotton slip with a little bitty row of lace around the top and matching underpants, so that’s what we wrapped up to take to Myra whether she wanted it or not.
One week before Christmas. The weather felt as balmy as spring and I had been praying to the baby Jesus in our little manger in the foyer for at least a week to bring us snow. I wasn’t ready to give up yet, but I had begun to feel a bit dispirited about it. I knew that this wasn’t actually the best time to pray for snow since we had started our Christmas vacation already and having snow now would mean no extra vacation days, almost a waste. I really, really wanted to experience a white Christmas, though. Besides, having the baby Jesus and Mary and Joseph right there in the foyer reminded me to pray; in January I might forget. I wanted a good snow, too, not just the kind that looks like sifted sugar on the ground and your footsteps leave big brown blobs wherever you walk. That’s mostly what we get in Elma, Mississippi, just teaser-snow, Daddy called it. No school cancellations for that. By afternoon when the bus brought me home, only little white patches would be lying under trees or around the shrubs in the front, not nearly enough to even make a snow ball. Even if I did get enough for one, leaves and dirt would probably make up half of it. Seeing pictures in the Memphis paper of kids playing in snow and getting out of school used to make me so mad I’d beg Daddy to let us move up there.
So no snow for our trip to the country delivering our Christmas presents for the Smith family. We packed ourselves and our presents into Mrs. Watson’s green station wagon. I got to sit in the way-back with Martha Ann even though I wasn’t wearing blue jeans. We sat along with big sacks of stuff two other mothers besides mine had sent for the family; I didn’t peek although I knew Mama would ask what was in them. We all sang Christmas carols on the way, which I could tell pleased Mrs. Watson to no end. She sang right along with us until we tried to do “Here Comes Santy Claus.” Her voice — high-pitched and loud — I could hear on the other songs like a tinny echo even in the way-back, but maybe she didn’t know the words to “Santy.” We messed up a little on it a time or two ourselves.
When we arrived, I’ll confess I’d been a little surprised. The house looked like a picture from the social studies book we used last year. A cabin, really, rather than a house, sitting up a few feet off the ground on stacks of bricks that looked like stilts. And so little — where in the world would they put eight children, I wondered. No grass in the yard at all, a few chickens running around pecking at the bare brown ground.
A bunch of kids came running up to our car just as soon as we pulled off the gravel road we’d been bouncing on for what seemed like ages. Boys and girls rushed up, smiling and chattering — one, a little girl about five or six, jumped up and down, up and down like a pogo stick. We emerged from Mrs. Watson’s station wagon, holding our presents and wondering how on earth we would know who to give them to.
Mrs. Watson took care of that right quick, though, telling us, “Girls, girls! Go on up to the porch and lay your presents on the table right out front.”
“But how will our person know which present is theirs?” Sarabeth Williams asked, grasping her present with both hands, as if it might be in danger. And actually, the way the Smith boys and girls were crowding us, it did seem to be in a bit of trouble. They looked like an army surrounding us, though there were only three girls and three boys, all with huge grins, teeth shining white in dark faces. The girls’ hair poked out in what seemed like hundreds of little pigtails, and I immediately wondered who on earth could plait all that hair on so many heads. And chattering — all talking at once so that I could hardly understand a thing they said — only “we getting presents,” and “when we gonna open ‘em?” A tall, thin lady stood on the porch holding a little baby in one arm and with the other hand, the finger of a young boy who looked about two, wearing only a diaper and t-shirt. She smiled and nodded at us but ducked her head when I tried smiling back.
“You were supposed to write the name of your child on your present.” Mrs. Watson frowned at Sarabeth. “Didn’t you write the name on it?”
Sarabeth examined her parcel. “Yes ma’am. I guess my mama did. Sorry.” She walked up to the porch and plopped her present on the table. We all followed Sarabeth. The thin lady — who must be Mrs. Smith— watched us place our presents there. The table wobbled and squeaked a bit each time we put a package on it. Disappointment overcame me. I wanted to watch Myra open her present that I gave her. Even though it wasn’t the choice I would have made, I wanted Myra to know that I was the one who was giving her that cotton slip and underpants.
But that wasn’t the only thing that bothered me. When I walked up onto the porch, I could see straight through the open front door into the house, right into the kitchen. I could see a big table in the middle of the room and right on top of it was a chicken, a brownish-red one, just pecking away at something on that table. A chicken! On the kitchen table!
I felt pretty sure I wasn’t the only one who saw that chicken. I don’t know whether it was the only chicken in the house, couldn’t see anywhere else in the brief glimpse I had, and because I didn’t want to appear rude, I didn’t stare. I just plopped the slip and underpants package on the table and walked back to the yard to the group of girls who stood waiting.
We didn’t know what to do with ourselves. Mrs. Watson stayed on the porch talking to Mrs. Smith while we stood in the yard and watched. The Smith boys and girls didn’t seem to know what to do with themselves either, standing in another group nearby. Like restless ponies, we just stood there, fidgeting and sneaking glances at each other.
“Look! A tire swing!” Martha Ann hollered, pointing in the direction of a huge oak tree that sat at the end of the rise below the house. She trotted toward it as we turned to look, but lo and behold, the littlest Smith girl ran right in front of her, yelling, “My turn! My turn! Push me!” and jumped into the tire swing. One of the boys followed, turned to Martha Ann and said, “She always think it her turn! MayJo! MayJo! You let this here girl swing, now!”
“It’s okay,” Martha Ann told him. I’ll swing her. I like to swing people.” And she began pushing MayJo. We all walked down to the swing to watch.
We ended up taking turns pushing MayJo in the swing. She sang and laughed while we pushed, the ropes on the swing creaking so loudly that I wondered briefly if the branch would come tumbling down, but knew that MayJo was almost weightless in the tire. When she started singing “Jesus Loves Me” we sang along with her as we all knew the words to that one.
Just before it was my turn to swing MayJo again, Mrs. Watson hollered, “Time to go, girls!” so we headed back to the station wagon. MayJo stayed in the swing and watched us go. I had figured out which girl was Myra by then, but somehow I didn’t know how to tell her I was the one who had brought her present.
Martha Ann and I sat in the way-back again, and I noticed right away that my shiny patent shoes had a fine brown dust all over them, my ankles too. I wished I had, like Martha Ann, worn my sensible school shoes, and, noticing Martha Ann’s green socks with white snowmen prancing around her ankles, wished I had worn socks as well. She must have caught my glance at them, for she leaned over and whispered to me, “I bought my person some socks like these, too.”
We didn’t talk going back. We didn’t sing any carols either. Only Susan Sullivan asking Mrs. Watson about the chicken, and Mrs. Watson telling her something about being poor and having to make do with what you had, which I couldn’t picture having a thing to do with the chicken. We bumped over the gravel road and I remember thinking how hard it must be to ride a bicycle on this stuff, but then realized I hadn’t seen a single bicycle there. Just the swing.
And the chicken on the table.
We were quiet. I thought about my present to Myra and realized that I didn’t care that I hadn’t been there to see her open her gift. But most of all I wished Mama had let me buy her the “Evening in Paris” cologne and powder set.
Because I believe she really needed it.
As the holiday season approaches, there are plenty of Christmas party venues to choose from.
Kathryn Hamilton is a retired assistant professor of English at Columbus State University. She has published several short stories, her latest in “Halfway Down the Stairs,” as well as essays in Mississippi Magazine. At the 2009 Charttahoochee Writers’ Convention, her work won the short story award. She currently resides in Georgia.