Arts featured Poverty

My father’s gift, a Christmas memory

“When you kids were little” my mother often says, “we didn’t have two cents to rub together.” That was never truer than the Christmas of 1964. Because of a job transfer my parents paid a mortgage on a house, rent on a lease of a house that had proved too cold to winter in, and rent on a tiny but warm apartment. Plus they scrapped together twenty dollars a month to help out Dad’s mother—and they fed and clothed a family of six all on the salary of a telephone man. The mortgage was on the house that they had built in the Annapolis valley and was terribly longed for by my mother from the hinterland of Barrington. How homesick she was in that fog shrouded place.   

Illustration by Kate Phillips

How my parents managed to pull a Christmas together for my three brothers and I that year I have no idea. I may have even got the wished-for Barbie, I don’t remember. For this was the year that my gift was the gift of seeing my father’s pleasure of giving to my mother at Christmas.

During these years Mom never had “her own money” so her gifts to Dad were of the practical bent—things he needed anyway which she repeated as he declared the undershirts and work shirts were great. “Well you needed them, Garnet.” “I sure did, Mom!” he would say as though they were just exactly what he had wanted too.

I remember her stocking that year contained only an orange and a half-moon coffee cup with the words “you asked for half a cup of coffee” written on it. My seven-year-old self found it hilarious that Santa would know that she did always ask for just a ½ a cup more—while wondering why Santa had only given her one thing in her stocking while us kids stockings were full.

When present opening time came around Mom had the smallest pile of presents by her feet —opening one to our two or three even —socks, panties and nylons, things no doubt she had picked out for herself and wrapped so she would have presents under the tree.  In the thick of things though Dad passed her a large flat box that she saved till last and when we were all finished with our own unwrapping she took the box onto her lap.

We all or maybe only I watched as she slowly took off the wrapping folding it for next year and then slid off the lid of a boot box from an expensive shoe store in Yarmouth. She reached in and took out from the box the most delicious pair of pointy toed, winter-white soft leather high-heel short boots.

Garnet, when I said I needed boots I meant ones I could wear to shovel the driveway.

Those boots were definitely not for shoveling the driveway. She put them back in the box.

Don’t you like them?

Of course I do but Garnet…The silence said everything—it said what you paid for those boots could buy all four kids new boots.

I wanted to get them for you and if you like them keep them. Something in his voice perhaps—some lover’s note made her hand slip again into the box and touch the soft leather.

Try them on. See if they fit.

She took one out of the box and slipped her bare, slender size 6 foot into it.

Does it fit?

like it was made for me.

Good. Such pride in his voice that he had guessed the size just right.

Mom whispered softly, but Garnet, the money—you can still take them back.

Why would I do that? I bought them because I wanted you to have nice boots.

From that Christmas on my favourite moment was Mom opening her gift from Dad. He never failed to buy something extravagant, a little beyond a Telephone man’s salary that said, “ For all the material things I can’t give you all year long on this day I give you something that I have chosen carefully, thoughtfully and with love to show you that you are cherished.” Of course each time he only said, “I saw it and I wanted you to have it”—and he, they, never saw the gift his Christmas gifts to her, gave to a watching daughter.

Plays by Catherine Banks include It Is Solved By Walking; Bone Cage; Three Storey, Ocean View; Bitter Rose; Miss N Me and a stage adaptation of Ernest Buckler’s novel The Mountain and the Valley. Bone Cage and It is Solved by Walking won the Governor General’s Award (English Drama) in 2008 and 2012 respectively.  Catherine lives in a 250-year-old fishing village, Sambro, N.S.

After a brief time living in Ontario, Kate Phillips is now back in the Maritimes, freelancing illustration and design while occasionally experimenting with personal projects and sketchbooks. Kate’s inspiration is drawn from a variety of subjects, such as her Cape Breton roots, family ties, and strong sentimentality towards places and objects. 





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