Sunday, December 17, 2006

THE SECRET NAME: MY FAVORITE CHRISTMAS STORY


Vintage Christmas Postcard, originally uploaded by riptheskull.

My mother grew up as one of seven children in the Depression. Hers was one of those rare families in which the children were raised with so much love, and intelligence and respect that everyone who's ever known them has felt its benevolent influence.

Though my grandfather was fortunate enough to keep a job throughout those years, many family members weren't, and his earnings were stretched thin. My mother remembers being rationed one third of a cup of milk a day. She can still remember how she savored it.

She was about six when her Christmas story occurred. A week before, she and her siblings were playing hide and seek in the house when she discovered a cache of Christmas gifts in the attic, one for each child.

While her brothers and sisters scurried through the rooms below calling her name, she peered into each forbidden box until she found her heart's desire.

She describes it as "a doll that rolled its eyes and squeaked its legs". Note the active verbs; that's how alive the doll was to the little girl my mother once was; it's also how she describes it to this day. Months earlier, she had admired it in the window of the toy store, but hadn't even dared to dream that it could ever be hers.

However, in that moment, she began to dream and wildly. Every day of the ensuing week, she slipped up to the attic to visit "her" doll. She even gave it a secret name. Her anticipation grew by the day. In the evenings, when my grandmother lined the children up to say their prayers, my mother prayed that the doll with the secret name would be hers.

But on Christmas morning, as soon as she saw the shape of the package and the tag on it, she knew that her doll had been chosen for her sister Elizabeth. Not wanting to spoil Elizabeth's happiness or to hurt her parents' feelings, my mother hid her disappointment, and accepted her gift with gratitude.

She saved her grief until later that night when Elizabeth clutched the doll she had renamed in her bed. Convinced everyone was asleep, my mother cried quietly. Not quietly enough, however, to elude her father who was still awake and listening.

When he asked what was wrong, my mother said she had a leg ache, as she often did. My grandfather lifted her out of bed and carried her to a chair in the darkened living room, where he held her for a long time. My mother says she can still remember the brightness of the moon outside the window; the warmth and safety she felt that night in her father's arms have never left her.

"Does it feel better?" my grandfather said as he massaged her calf muscle with lineament.

And to this day, my mother swears that it did.

That Christmas when my mother did not get the thing she most longed for happened seventy-five years ago. My grandparents are long dead, as are two of my mother's siblings, and the doll with the secret name is probably dust and ash. But I like to think that the gift my grandfather gave her that night--and the one she gave him in return--still remain. They have been silently passed from one generation to another; they have enriched many lives.

One unanswerable question has always haunted me: Did my grandfather, wise and loving and shrewd in equal measure, ever know the real reason for her tears?

72 comments:

Angela said...

Your mother displayed a great deal of character and kindness at such a young age. Tender story. Would you please take a look at the last paragraph? I believe some words were inadvertently deleted. Thanks for sharing.

Matt said...

Beautiful -- thank you so much for sharing that with us.

- Matt

Darlene said...

Yeah!!! Blogger is finally up and running....Hi YOU :D

Thank you for sharing this charming story.

xox darlene

Jane Poe (aka Deborah) said...

What a beautiful story, Patry. Thank you for sharing ... love and generosity of spirit are true gifts of the holiday season. Much peace and love, JP

Susan Henderson said...

I love this story.

robin andrea said...

Such a lovely, sweet story. It's amazing to consider which experiences we have as children will be the ones we remember for a lifetime.

rdl said...

Yes!! (almost in tears).

Patry Francis said...

Angela, Thanks for picking up the typos and for stopping by to read today.

matt: Glad you enjoyed it.

Darlene: Good to see you again! Blogger seems to take turns picking on all of us.

Deborah: I couldn't have said it better.

susan: Thank you!

R.A.: I tend to think that we don't choose the memorable experiences; they choose us.

r: Sorry we didn't get a chance to chat today...

KG said...

Almost in tears, too. That really captures the true spirit of this time. Thanks for sharing this moment of love and caring.

zhoen said...

The anguish, the generosity, the love of your story has me in tears.

Thank you.

Patry Francis said...

kg: This story has always meant so much to me; it's wonderful to hear that someone else could love it too.

zhoen: Thank you for your tears. I've always wondered whether my grandfather knew the real reason his daughter was crying.

kenju said...

What a wonderful father he was and what a good child she was - not to have thrown a temper tantrum about the doll.

sundaycynce said...

Very beautiful story which shows definitively what a truly mature and loving spirit your mother had and how truly rich in love her childhood and upbringing were.

Lorna said...

We should all have such a lovely family story. And the vintage card is perfect with it.

Tinker said...

Such a sweet story! Your mother showed so much character at such a young age, to hide her disappointment. This was lovely, Patry - thank you for sharing!

Stacy said...

I'll be adding this to my cache of Christmas stories. Thanks.

Parisparfait said...

That's a beautiful story, Patry. For such a young age, your mother showed character, strength and generosity.

Left-handed Trees... said...

This was just amazing--I think now of what Christmas can be, kids not only wanting but expecting so many different treasures that morning! It is cliche to say "some things cannot be bought" but, it is also so true! Your mother was a graceful child, how wonderful to hear she has carried that with her throughout her life...

Anonymous said...

Beautiful story, Patry. Your mother sounds like a wonderful person.

Tish

The Curmudgeon said...

A wonderful story. Thank you.

Alexandra S said...

What an extraordinary story. It says so,so much. Very moving indeed. Thank you!

marja-leena said...

What a heat-warming story about love and sharing, Patry - thank you!! You've been blessed with a very loving family, something I've learned that is not always there in every family. I wish every child had that love this Christmas.

Patry Francis said...

kenju: I wonder if kids were allowed the "luxury" of temper tantrums back then...

sundaysynce: Sometimes I don't think I have that kind of maturity YET. Thanks for your comment and welcome to my blog!

lorna: I'm willing to bed you DO have such a story in the mental archives.

stacy: A good thing to collect!

tara: As a child and all of her life...thank you!

delia: "Graceful" is the perfect word--in every sense. Thank you for finding it.

Tish: She is. You probably remember the dedication to the novel?

curmudgeon: Another story about the old Irish family. You probably have a few of your own.

alexandra g: Thank you!

Patry Francis said...

marja-leena: You've said the most important thing--that not every child has that kind of love, and that the holidays are the time when they most acutely feel its lack.

I myself didn't grow up in the kind of family my mother did--though I'm grateful for the home and life we had--what I would describe as "loving, but turbulent and troubled."

I, too, wish that every child would be held on someone's lap, and feel his or her unique value in someone's eyes during the holidays. (Every adult, too!)

Fred Garber said...

This was a beautiful post. This Christmas will be a sad one for lots of hispanic kids in the Midwest. Last week La Migra(Immigration) raided some Swift packing plants and arrested some 1300 workers. They are accused of identity theft(working under a social security number that is not theirs). These workers were arrested at their jobs. In many cases children went home and their parents were not there. Lots of families were seperated. Yesterday at mass(the Spanish one) we had a second collection to help the kids. There will also be a special mass on tuesday for the dispossessed and seperated.

I think that your grandfather knew about your mother's hpoes for the doll...

Jordan E. Rosenfeld said...

You come from GOOD people...and it shows.

Jordan E. Rosenfeld said...

You come from GOOD people...and it shows.

AscenderRisesAbove said...

A very sad thought provoking story

Patry Francis said...

fred: What a heart-wrenching story about the Swift workers and their children. It sounds as if you have a wonderful church community around you though.

jordan: What a lovely thing to say!
Thank you.

ascender: Whenever my mother told this story, I've always felt so sorry that I, who have thrown away so many children's toys, couldn't go back in time and give my mother a doll, but then I realize that she had what many of us, in or abundance, lack. Now I no longer see it as sad at all.

colleen said...

I think that if children are supported when they cry ... without judgement or without the need to make it all better for them, they would grow up not to need therapy.

This story really touched me because I have a doll story of my own that involves a similiar kind of formative grief but that doesn't have such a loving touch or ending.

Patry Francis said...

colleen: Your first paragraph is very intriguing. I'll have to think about that some. Of course, you've also got me interested in your doll story. Will you or have you posted it?

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Jean said...

What a lovely story - thank you. It's kind of a parable for the whole of life, isn't it? The doll could be absolutely anything we set our hearts on.

Avus said...

A most affecting and affectionate Christmas story, beautifully told.
It brought tears to my eyes.

Ivy said...

I love this story, Patry. Thank you for sharing it.

Patry Francis said...

Jean: Kind of like the Buddhist concept about desire...setting our hearts on the false object, when the true is right here.

avus: I'm glad you felt the affection. Thank you and welcome--

Ivy: Seeing your "face" here always makes me smile. Thank you.

herhimnbryn said...

Oh pf. Tears in my eyes.... I haven't dropped by for a while and avus alerted me. Thankyou pf, your story is the crystalization of Christmas.

owlhaven said...

wonderful story!!

Mary, mom to many

Becca said...

What a difficult story to read ... for me. It's heartbreaking as well as touching and loving. Merry Christmas to you and thank you for all your marvelous posts which are a gift to so many of us all year long.

Patry Francis said...

herhimnbryn: Happy to see you again--and love your word--"crystalization"

owlhaven: ooh, a new friend! Welcome and glad you liked the story.

becca: Thank you for your lovely words. I, too, send good wishes!

colleen said...

Oh, the doll story is one about loss that is long story and is probably best dealt with in therapy! Maybe I'll tackle it someday, but then again it may be too personal. Maybe one of my children or grandchildren will have to tell it ... or maybe I could tell it in 3rd person.

What I meant by my comment on crying is that children often just need to be comforted. With comfort they can handle loss. Crying is a way for them to use their voice and it shouldn't be squelched (as your mother's wasn't).

Actually, I told the doll story to my husband tonight, afer telling him about your mother's one. He had heard it before but not in a long time and he was touched by your mother's story. Amazing how what we do here can ripple out...

Peter said...

What a welcoming story.

I remember rubbing my daughter's calves for what seemed hours on end at night. As my hands cramped, I consoled myself that perhaps she would have the kind of memories your mother relates here.

Patry Francis said...

colleen: If and when the time is right for your doll story, you will tell it. Or as you say, one of your children will.

It's strange: I didn't tell my mother that I wrote her story here. If I did, I know she would be supportive because she always is. But it's such an intensely personal piece--one that peers directly into her heart--and she is a private person. In some important way, however, it's not just her story; it's a human story, and one I felt compelled to share.

Thank you for passsing it on to Joe.

peter: Though I've never met you, I feel I've been enjoying your stories about and your celebration of your daughter for some time. Thus I can say with near certainty: she will.

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MB said...

Patry, this is a wonderful story, rich in the ways that stories dealing with complex and conflicting emotions are. I found it very moving and, though sad in some ways, very consoling to be reminded that there are people in this world willing to comfort each other in unspoken ways. Sometimes that's just what's needed.

Patry Francis said...

mb: "people willing to comfort each other in unspoken ways"--definitely what the world needs more of.

Dave said...

That was beautiful, Patry.

Irene said...

beautiful, beautiful story.

Patry Francis said...

Thank you, Dave and Irene.I finally told my mother I had shared this on-line and she was really pleased.

colleen said...

Maybe personal wasn't the right word, or only part of what I meant, because surely all our stories are personal. I may have meant that my doll story may be hard to tell because it's sad without any obvious redemption to it. Your story does touch to the human core, but it doesn't just make us sad. It also gives us hope.

I'll let you know if I figure out a way and a voice to tell mine. Thanks for your encrouagement, Patry.

Sky said...

patry, i am touched deeply by your story. thanks for sharing. i am glad the love which surrounded your mother as a child was consolation to her in the midst of her huge disappointment and that she found enough comfort there to focus on that instead of her loss. she was a lucky little girl in so many ways. and, you being raised by this woman who came from such emotional abundance...lucky you!

happiest holidays, patry, to you and your family, and many good wishes for the coming year. (february is almost here! will you be coming to seattle during your book promotion?)

Patry Francis said...

colleen: Good to hear you're still thinking about it--and obviously have been for a long time. You've really got me intrigued now.

sky: I feel incredibly blessed to have been raised by one of the most unselfish and loving souls I've ever met. As for Seattle, there's no official West coast tour, but I have some of my own ideas. Stay tuned! And Merry Christmas to you, too!

Laini Taylor said...

What a beautiful, beautiful story, Patry! I am always so moved by these old-fashioned Christmas stories of a time when kids didn't get every toy they saw a commercial for and a million other things. And your grandfather sounds very special.

chiefbiscuit said...

That's just beautiful. I vote yes he knew. Somehow. What a lovely man.

Patry Francis said...

Laini: It's true. I bet my mother loved the doll that was hers only for a week more than I ever loved any of the countless dolls and toys I owned in childhood.

chiefbiscuit: Thank you for saying that. I think he knew, too. Though I've heard the story many times, it wasn't till I wrote it down that I really entered it and saw the truth. That's the power of writing: it teaches us things we never knew.

Yen said...

Thank you for sharing such a beautiful story, Patry. This is a wonderful tribute to your mother.

Aphra Behn said...

It made me cry. A deeply truthful story beautifully told. And I vote that he knew. There is such quiet dignity in that story.

Thank you for telling it.

Aphra

Patry Francis said...

yen: Thank you!

aphra behn: "Quiet dignity"--I'm so happy you saw that in the story.

Sara said...

I want to know if Elizabeth ever found out about it, and if so, how that did eventually make her feel.

Patry Francis said...

sara: I'm pretty sure she never knew.

Pamela said...

I found this on Christmas Eve! Thanks for sharing this poignant story--it would make a beautiful illustrated Christmas book--and one not just for children, either.

When I first read this post, I thought, "I'd give more than my eyeteeth to have someone like her grandfather in my life"--and then I remember that I do-I married him. Thanks for making me appreciate what I do have--amd isn't that the one of the reasons for every Christmas story?

Patry Francis said...

pamela: I love your reason for every Christmas story--and yes, I think you're right. Thank you for your kind words.

chosha said...

The would have been treasured, I'm sure, but the strength she gained that day to put someone else's feelings before her own (when appropriate) is worth so much more. I'm sure she was a better mother because of experiences like that. It probably made her more observant when it came to your own presents, too.

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Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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