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Four Piles Under the Tree

My Christmas Story

by MICHAEL YATES
For Tatiana.
When I was a boy, I wore mostly hand-me-down clothes. The neighbors next door had a son a year or two older than I, about my size, and I got his discarded shirts and pants. Grandma or my mother would alter them to fit me better. Maybe some cousins’ outgrown outfits found their way into my closet too. I don’t remember now.

I didn’t like wearing old garments, but lots of other kids wore them so there was no shame in it. Besides, I spent my days playing baseball, reading dime novels and comic books, building my train set, and inventing games connected in one way or another to sports. Who cared about old flannel shirts with two pockets and pants that didn’t quite match the size and shape of my legs?

Things changed when puberty reared its strange and disconcerting head, somewhere between the age of twelve and thirteen. All of a sudden, what hadn’t mattered before did now. Girls, cars, clothes. Games and toy trains didn’t seem to hold my attention like they used to.

At my parents’ urging, I got a job delivering newspapers. The route was large, 105 customers spread out over more than three miles. The weight of the papers carved grooves in my shoulders, especially on Thursdays when advertisement inserts nearly doubled the size of the bundles Old Man Nelson delivered to our front porch every afternoon. The pay was a meager $6 every two weeks. It was so low and the work so hard that within a short time, I confronted my bosses at the local newsstand and insisted on a raise. The boy who had taught me the route was now in college, and I figured that they wouldn’t be able to teach anyone else since only I knew it. Remarkably, they met my demand, boosting my wages to $9.80.

Most of my pay went straight into a bank account, to help finance part of the college education it was assumed I’d get someday. Mom and dad also hired me out to neighbors to mow their lawns. They must have figured that if I was willing to lug those heavy paper sacks around the nearby hillsides for two to three hours six days a week, there might be no end to my ambition, to my desire to make an honest living by the sweat of my brow.

I didn’t relish my labors. But I did enjoy having money. I spent what I was allowed to keep at the bowling alley, on a baseball glove, and on two brand new Arrow shirts. Shirts made of cotton, with one pocket. Button-down shirts! Five dollars each. When I wore the green one to high school that fall of 1959, I felt just like everyone else. Maybe better, especially when the pretty girl who sat behind me in Latin class said she liked it. I had a crush on her that entire year.

Clothing ads in magazines soon became an obsession. Arrow and Van Heusen shirts, or better yet, Hathaways and Manhattans. And the holy grail—a striped shirt from Brooks Brothers. One of these, with a pair of Florsheim penny loafers, well, that would have been paradise. If clothes made the man, then I wanted to be swathed in fine fabrics.

Except for the girl in Latin class, not much went well that first year in high school. For a month, two guys beat me up every day after Science class. I didn’t make the Freshman basketball team. It was confusing to keep changing rooms for each class. I was the youngest guy in ninth grade, and that didn’t help my self-confidence. I found myself longing for the weekends. In November, I couldn’t wait for Thanksgiving and then the wonderfully long break for Christmas.

When you’re young, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas seems an eternity. As the days ticked slowly by, I started looking for where my parents hid our presents. I begged my mother to let me open one early, but she wouldn’t give in. I was hoping for, aching for, some new clothes. Tapered shirts, chino pants, a nice pair of gloves, maybe those penny loafers. No doubt my parents had noticed that I was no longer a kid. I had a job. My voice was changing, and my chubby body had grown lean and strong. I wasn’t a man, but I wasn’t a child either. Surely they saw that I had outgrown the gifts you’d give a boy.

There were four children in the house then, two sisters, a brother, and me. We opened our presents on Christmas morning, which usually began about 3:00 AM, with us trying to sneak down the stairs and Mom ordering us back to bed. She’d always relent about 5:00, and we’d make a beeline for the living room and start to rip the wrapping paper and ribbons from our packages, arrayed in four piles under the tree.

As I surveyed my booty, my heart sank. The size of the boxes wasn’t right; too big or too small for those things I wanted so badly. I opened them in a daze, trying to keep a smile on my face. A couple of dumb board games, a plastic model kit of an aircraft carrier, and in the biggest box a set of plastic bowling pins and two balls. What? For a thirteen-year old? This was a game for a small child, not a teenager. What a stupid Christmas. I pretended to be happy and thanked Mom and Dad for everything. But I quickly put that bowling set in the cellar, lest the relatives who would soon enough be visiting saw them. I spent the next couple of days in a state of anxiety, worrying that I would be forced to show someone my childish presents. For a change, I was grateful that my mother always took down the decorations and the tree a few days after Christmas and soon had the house looking like the holidays had never come.

I am glad now that I didn’t let my parents see my disappointment. I was embarrassed to get those presents, and I never told my friends what they were. But I put that model aircraft carrier together and displayed it proudly on my bedroom desk. I was pleased to show it to my uncle, who had been a cook on just such a ship during the Korean War. As for that silly bowling game, I wore out the plastic balls and pins practicing in the cellar. It was as much fun as the imaginary baseball games I had invented, and I know it improved my bowling considerably. My parents must have been annoyed at all the noise I made, but what could they say? They’d bought it for me! And surprisingly, my infatuation with clothes soon ended. I spent the money I managed to keep out of that bank account on pizzas and hot sausage sandwiches downtown, and on baseball and bowling gear. I didn’t buy another shirt until the summer before I left for college. I wore plenty more hand-me-downs. My only sports coat, the one in my high school yearbook photo, came from that next door neighbor, as did the clip-on tie.

 

I’ve thought about that Christmas many times. When I had kids and didn’t want them to grow up so fast, I gained a new appreciation for the perils of parenthood. How can you guide your children and please them at the same time? How can you relinquish the joys you feel when they are young, and innocent of the bittersweet things the world has in store for them? You can’t. There is a song I like by Loudon Wainwright III titled “Your Mother and I.” A father is talking to his son, trying to explain his divorce. The last line is something I try to remember. I think it’s true for most of us. “Your parents are people and that’s all they can be.”

MICHAEL D. YATES is Associate Editor of Monthly review magazine.He is the author of Cheap Motels and Hot Plates: an Economist’s Travelogue and Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global Economy. He is the editor of Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back. Yates can be reached at mikedjyates@msn.com