“You are the sum total of your experiences and your upbringing.” — Jeanne Phillips
When I was eleven, my mother left us two weeks before Christmas. She left the four of us children in the care of our father. I asked her years later how she could have done this to us and she said simply that she didn’t think she could take care of us. She said she felt that leaving us with our father was the best choice. Judging by what happened to us in the ensuing years, I would argue otherwise. But she made the best decision she could make. We had no contact with her for the next six years. Not a single letter or phone call. I don’t know if it was her choice or if my father would not let her communicate with us.
My mother had four children in six years. This was the time before reliable birth control. It was also before the days of microwaves and disposable diapers. We didn’t even have a dryer then. For years there were two babies in diapers at the same time. That’s a lot of diapers to soak in the toilet, wash and then pin on the clothesline to dry. Typical of the times, my father went to work and my mother stayed home and took care of the house and the kids. I doubt my father ever changed a diaper, let alone wash one.
My mother was a creative and talented person. She played the piano, painted and made pottery. She learned how to make clothes patterns and sewed all of our clothes. I would pick out a dress from the Montgomery Wards catalog and she could replicate it. I remember one dress in particular I loved so much that she made it three times as I grew older. One year she made matching Easter outfits for my sister and I, which consisted of a dress and matching coat. We looked like miniature Jackie Kennedys without the pillbox hats.
My mother was a quiet and shy woman who never liked to be the center of attention. She lacked stamina as I remember. I don’t think she had much self esteem to begin with, and my father didn’t make it any better. He would taunt her until she would get so angry she would scream and throw dinner plates against the kitchen wall. Then my dad would sit back and calmly and tell her she was the crazy one.
Back in the 1960’s, we had one car, which was not unusual at the time. My father also owned a motorcycle, which he would drive to work on the days she needed the car. She had to ask his permission to use the car. He would play a game with her when she asked for the car. If she asked the day before, he would say he didn’t know what his plans were. If she asked in the morning of the same day, he would say it was too late and his plans were already made. She could not win.
One day she got the car and was running several errands. She went to the commissary to get groceries and then came home to put them away before going back out again. While she was in the kitchen, she heard a noise outside. She looked out the window and saw my dad driving away in the car. He had driven down the street on his motorcycle, saw that she was home, and took the car without even talking to her. When she asked him about it later, he said he assumed she was done with it. He told her it was his car because he paid for it.
Eventually she could not take it any more and went back to Canada. Our parents did not explain anything to us. My dad told us one day she was going, and then she was gone. My sister cried but I was numb.
The timing could not have been worse. It was two weeks before Christmas, my dad was retiring from the Air Force and we were moving from Maryland to California a couple of days after Christmas. The house was full of half-filled moving boxes. My dad told us there would be no Christmas tree. I was disappointed because the Christmas tree was the only Christmas decoration we ever had in our house. My parents did not put up lights or a wreath. The only sign of Christmas in our house I ever saw besides the tree was a bowl of mixed nuts in the shell on the coffee table. I asked my mom once why she did not decorate the house and she said she was too tired to decorate in addition to buying presents and making Christmas dinner.
That year, my sister was 9 and I was 11. Even though we did not believe in Santa Claus, we both wrote out our Christmas lists and gave them to our father. On Christmas Eve, we hung up our stockings, which were really my dad’s gray hunting socks. The real stockings weren’t packed; these were our stockings every year.
I was the first one to wake up the next morning. The stocking lay at the foot of my bed. It contained an orange, a couple of the nuts from the bowl and a small sealing wax kit that I had asked for.
I went out to the living room to see my gifts. I saw a small pile for my sister, but nothing for me. I did not understand what was going on. I thought my dad was playing a joke on me, not that he was the kind to do so. I looked all over that little ranch on Nelson Loop for my Christmas presents. I looked in the teak stereo cabinet that my dad had specially made for himself when we lived in Japan. I looked in the bottom of the matching side tables and gun cabinet. (Don’t worry, the guns were locked up). I opened every cabinet and drawer in the kitchen. Nothing.
I waited for the rest of my family to wake up. My brothers, who were older, didn’t seem to mind that they didn’t get anything. My father had apparently already told them that they would not get any gifts that year, presumably because of the move. My sister was delighted with her presents and didn’t notice at first that I didn’t get any. (She soon got her turn. During the years my parents were divorced, she never got a single birthday present. My dad forgot her birthday every year.)
My dad wished me a Merry Christmas. I asked him where my toys were.
“Oh,” he said casually. “Did I not get anything on your list?” That was all he said. He didn’t apologize or seem the least bit concerned.
As an adult I understand that he was going through a rough time, having been left with four children to raise. But I was eleven then.
The day only got worse. We went to one of his Air Force buddy’s house for Christmas dinner. We ate dinner, and the wife said she was not feeling well.
“Go lie down,” my father said. “We will take care of the dishes.” She went into her bedroom and my dad promptly told my sister and I to wash the dishes, which we did, by hand because there was no dishwasher. Merry Christmas.