Pa rum pum pum pum

No matter what, my parents made sure the toys were under the Christmas tree

Jaime O’Neill is a freelance writer and regular SN&R contributor

Recently, a whiff of smoke from the wood stove wafted me back to childhood, back to some post-Christmas days I spent searing my name into 1-by-6-inch pieces of pine with a wood-burning set Santa had brought, back when my parents were young, doing all they could to ensure that, no matter the challenges, their children had dolls, and cap guns, and wood burning sets, all ordered from the dog-eared Montgomery Ward catalog their kids had been fighting over for weeks, making their lists for Santa, the bountiful.

We were not stupid children. We knew about money, knew there was never enough of it. We knew that “laid off” was a phrase portending trouble, and we knew the anxious tones in our parents’ voices when things were about to get thin in our house.

But Santa’s stuff was free, if we were good. And so we tried hard to meet that requirement, especially in the months leading up to Christmas, suppressing the impulses to be mean to one another, or to shirk our chores. The prospect of a bare space under the Christmas tree represented a fierce recrimination from the most benevolent entity on the planet.

But those toys were always there on Christmas morning, the lights from the tree glistening off their packaging. The toys my siblings and I broke, or grew bored of within an hour, soon found their way to some bird-haunted landfill, but they were purchased at the far extremes of what my mother and father could afford. They came, not from Santa, but from that catalog we held in our laps in the months before Christmas. My mother, in secrecy, sent off those orders, then hid them as they arrived in the mail. It was my father’s labor—and mom’s, too—that paid those bills with money made working on relentless assembly lines, or in the sub-freezing cold of the service stations where Dad worked pumping gas when he got laid off from factory work.

My father’s been gone nearly a decade, and this is the second Christmas without my mother in the world. I wish I had written this piece when she and Dad were alive to read it and know what it took me so long to know, to transfer the understanding of their devotion from my head to the warmer repository of my heart.

Lots of children’s dreams won’t come true this year. But those that do will be realized by parents who, as mine did, buck the odds to spread dreams under uncounted Christmas trees across our weary land.

I just might buy myself a child’s wood-burning kit for Christmas this year. Then I’ll burn the words “Thank you” into a piece of white pine while letting the smoke drift off to some place in the cosmos, where departed spirits of long-dead parents might know the gratitude offered in that ephemeral smoke.