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It was fall in Tulsa. The hot, humid air outside had turned mild, and the evenings were cool and sweet. It was the week before Thanksgiving, five weeks before Christmas, and retail America was already preparing for another big holiday season. As always, the stores around town were getting ahead of themselves and decorating for the biggest spending season of the year before we even had a chance to carve the Thanksgiving turkey. Christmas music was piped into every store, decorations sprang up in every shop window, and signs warned us that there were less than forty shopping days left!
We didn't even have to leave the house to feel the retail spirit. With each day's mail, another stack of glossy catalogs arrived to tempt us with everything from stereo systems to silk bathrobes. The mailbox was so stuffed with commercial reminders of the upcoming holiday, I wondered if there would be room left for the Christmas letters from family and friends that I looked forward to every year.
Both my son and his mother took advantage of this marketing deluge to leave helpful reminders around the house, turning down catalog pages, and marking items with stars and circles. I would find catalogs strategically placed where I was sure to see them and left open to a certain page, drawing my attention to a gift idea that someone felt particularly suited their fancy. If that was not enough, my twenty-year-old son, Marshall, hinted to my wife, Barbara, and me by talking loudly on the phone to his friends, describing how much he was hoping to receive this or that gift.
One evening, Barbara and I sat down in the den to discuss our Christmas plans and what our gift for Marshall would be. A CD burner? An MP3 player? One of those new high-end turntables he was always talking about?
The ever-present catalogs crowded around in stack s, vying for our attention. We perused the stereo and electronic equipment, laughing and talking together. There were plenty of items that would be sure to please him.
"He doesn't need any more electronic gadgets," said Barbara. "The upstairs den is a sea of wires and speakers already."
We fell silent, hunting through the catalogs for ideas.
"We could get something for the truck," I suggested.
"He liked the off-road tires we got last year." Tires, I thought to myself, that were probably worth more than plenty of people's cars.
"That was last year. This year we should do something different," said Barbara, flipping past page after page of colorful merchandise arrayed on smiling models. "He doesn't like clothes, and I can't think of anything else he needs."
As we listened to ourselves, we both realized how different Marshall's world is from the world we were raised in. Barbara grew up in rural Arkansas, the third oldest of eleven children, living on her parents' cotton farm. Christmas time was joyfully welcomed, but often brought little or nothing in the way of toys. I grew up in a small town in the Mississippi Delta, where cotton and hard work ruled our lives. There, too, Christmas had been about friends, family, and good food, not lavish gifts. Our son was living as we had once only dreamed of doing. Already in college, he was also on the cusp of independence, and his life was beginning to take him further and further away from what Barbara and I called home.
As we sat and talked, considering all the advantages Marshall enjoyed as well as all that he had experienced within the last couple of years, it became quite clear that our increasingly material society was threatening to drown out the family heritage that his mother and I valued so dearly. Marshall had attended a Final Four basketball game where he was escorted to a sky box with the "big guys." Marshall had been mistaken for a member of a famous rap group. This guy was cashing in, and in a big way. He had spent his high school senior trip in Cancun, Mexico, getting wild with all the college students on break. (When I was a senior in high school, I had not even heard of Cancun.) Now Barbara was hoping that we wouldn't look up one day and see him on one of those candid MTV Cancun specials. We knew he'd had a good time. In the days after he returned, his friends would come over and immediately run upstairs to see the photographs, pictures that were not shared with us.
Before the trip, he had asked for and received our permission to dreadlock his hair using an elaborate method involving wax. Unfortunately, the sun in Mexico was so hot it melted the wax, undoing his new look. Not to be discouraged, he let his friends help him dye his dark, tightly curled hair -- blond. Apparently, this process gave him coming-of-age courage. On returning home, my newly blond son told me that he had seen several sunrises while in Mexico, as if to imply that the curfew back home ought to be lifted. I listened and promptly advised him that the rubber band had stretched liberally to reach as far as Cancun for one week, but was now back to normal, as was his curfew.
Earlier that year, he had gone to New York City with his friend Wendell and Wendell's mother. The boys had probably seen more of New York in their short stay than I had seen in ten years of business visits. He had gone down to the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange and talked about his future with some of the top stockbrokers in America. Several years earlier, he had landed a silent bit part in the movie based on my first book, Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored, a recollection of my childhood, picking cotton in the segregated Mississippi of the 1950s.
He was disappointed with me because, as the writer of the book, I had not negotiated him a long and memorable speaking part. I did the best I could: He got to sit behind the male lead while on their bus ride to school. He followed directions well. He kept his head down, looking in his books, a direction I wish he'd follow in college. Now as Barbara and I sat amidst the catalogs, talking and laughing about our son's adventures in the wider world, we wondered, was there anything left to wrap?
Picturing my son carousing with his friends in Cancun, I remembered Glen Allan, Mississippi. I recalled my life among the people who loved and cared for me as a child. They didn't vacation in Cancun. They were maids and field hands. A sprinkling of them were teachers and church workers. I could not help but recall how, as a young boy growing up in the Mississippi Delta, the gifts of Christmas were shared joy and simple pleasures. Miss Martha Dunn made Christmas bread pudding that everyone on our street could hardly wait to sample, and Miss Florence and her boarder Mr. KC would cook until the smell of smothered chicken -- a southern slow-cooked delicacy with gravy -- mustard greens, and hot corn bread drifted out of the kitchen window and mingled with the smell of the honey-suckle that grew in front of her white house with the long front porch. At Christmas time, I was welcomed at each house and never missed my turn to taste and tell. It was the season of good food, but it was also the time of giving, when parents might save up all year to get that one special gift. The present I treasured most was a red bicycle, too tall for me to reach the pedals, but small enough to walk around the neighborhood for all to see. I was overjoyed with that big bike, knowing that it would be shared with family and friends for years. Throughout my childhood, it was our neighborhood "horse," and we would take turns riding it like cowboys, decked out with a fancy holster and twin guns, a gift from another special Christmas.
I was younger than Marshall in those days. I was just a kid with plenty of dreams. However, when I was twenty years old, the same as he, I was in the military, anxiously awaiting orders that could have shipped me off to Vietnam. Christmas was a lonely time for me in 1965. I was unable to go home and be with the family who raised me in Glen Allan, or visit the family who had voluntarily taken me in while I was in St. Louis, where I'd been making my way as a dishwasher. It was the coldest Christmas of my life -- a time in which I desperately needed the warmth I remembered emanating from the kitchens and lives in Glen Allan. Instead of the two-gun play set I cherished as a boy, I had been issued a real gun with real bullets, just in case my number came up and Vietnam needed my classification.
While I was proud of my son standing and talking with brokers on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, I couldn't help feeling that Marshall was missing out on valuable consultations with other important people. I recalled my joy at standing in line with my sisters and brother at our great-grandfather's house to get our Christmas gifts and holiday hugs from Poppa Joe, the big man in our lives. Marshall never knew him and never experienced the giant bear hug that seemed to hold you forever.
It had been many years since we had taken Marshall back to my small Mississippi Delta hometown. He'd been only seven years old the last time he visited Glen Allan. H e recalls it as the time of the great fight, when he did battle against swarms of blood-sucking mosquitoes. Marshall is allergic to mosquitoes, and there were plenty of them to go around, leaving big, swollen marks on his skin. Every time we mentioned Glen Allan to him after that, he recoiled and hugged his spotted legs, which for a long time bore the telltale signs of his visit to "the country," as he called my hometown. Now he was just about a man, already in college, and he had never experienced the holidays in the world that had shaped my life.
"Why not take him home?" I suggested to Barbara.
She knew I meant Glen Allan. I wanted him to experience, in some fashion, the kind of holiday season I always cherished, even if it might not be exactly the way I remembered. The issue was quickly settled: We would drive home to the Mississippi Delta for the holidays and visit friends and family the same way I had many, many years earlier as a child. I knew from previous trips that much of what I loved and remembered was changing. Death had taken away many of the people who were the most important to me and whom I would have most wanted Marshall to know.
Ma Ponk, for example, would no longer welcome him with wide outstretched arms. He wouldn't be able to walk around the corner as I always had, past Miss Big Dump's house, to visit Aunt Mozella and Poppa. It was important for me to outrun time so that Marshall could at least meet some of the people and see some of the places that hold such prominent positions in my mind and heart. I wanted Marshall to share whatever was left of that world, to have a sense of what it had been. This year, I thought, Christmas would be an opportunity to give Marshall a truly valuable gift: the people who had made the holiday season a very real time of joy for me.