Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Tough Guy's Christmas Promise

The scream ripped away the comfort of his blanket and his dream. Suddenly, Max was awake and aware that something was not quite right.
"Is it Christmas, already?" He questioned. Waking his thoughts by rolling through a battery of questions to himself, Max rattled off the answers,
I'm Max.
I'm seven years old.  No, just turned eight!
My big brother is still sleeping next to me.
I'm in my house in Paducah, Texas."
Well, everything seemed in order. He slowly began to lie back down, but then, as before, a scream pierced the air. It was Mama.
"Jack! Jack! Wake up!"
Max scrambled out of bed and down the stairs thinking Santa must be stuck in the chimney. Mama blurred past him on the way to the kitchen. As he stood in a sleepy freeze, he watched her run to the water pump and with one hand begin the pumping motion to bring the slow moving water to the sink spout. In one sweeping second her other hand whipped open the cabinet door and brought out a glass.
As Max watched from the doorway, he saw her grow older. Although she was already fifty-two, he never thought of her as old. Her gray hair was not in it usual bun, but instead, partially covering her face in uneven strands like an old mop. Her robe hung unevenly on her shoulders, and the belt drooped lifelessly by her side.
The breeze cause by her rushing passed him interrupted his thoughts. He finally found his feet and walked to her bedroom door. She stood by the bed. She seemed to hesitate, and then with a piston move of her arm, splashed the whole contents of the water glass on Papa's face. They both hoped . . .expected Papa to jump up spittin' and coughin' and yellin' at Mama that she must be crazy.
The bed didn't move.
Papa didn't move.
The water dripped off his face like tears in a rain shower.
Max's Papa, who could sternly lecture him, give him a fierce thrashing, but gently tousle his hair and wink an eye, would never move again.
His Papa, whose laugh could travel out the kitchen and into the street, would never laugh again.
There was a Christmas morning celebration, because lots of people came over and brought all kinds of delicious food. But instead of the expected laughter, a strange silence hovered only to be interrupted by stifled sobs.
Last Christmas, Max remembered his big brother Jackie hoisting him on his shoulders and bounding down the stairs. The bouncing came to an abrupt stop in front of the Christmas tree. Below was a shimmering pool of brilliantly wrapped packages. The storm of bows and ribbon and wrapping paper echoed in Max's ears as the memory wave brought him back to this day. Why did this Christmas have to be so different?
After getting his hand slapped reaching for an apple dumpling, Max was told to go into the parlor and sit on the piano bench. The scratchy woolen suit that Mama told him to wear gnawed at his skin. The hard leather shoes trapped and cramped his toes.
His sister Elma came in with Little John. They were supposed to be friends. John was his nephew. Little John was seated next to Max.
'You are so prissy," Max mumbled to himself. Six years old and he looked forty.  Little John sat perfectly still. His hair was plastered into place and his fingernails were trimmed and shiny.
Max glanced at his own ragged nails and scraped fingers. Mama's attempts to civilize him usually resulted in her rolling her eyes and shaking her
head in defeat.  He couldn’t help it. As he rubbed the still red bruises on his middle knuckle, he remembered how good it felt to punch Joey Thompson yesterday when he had said Max’s momma looked like an old granny. After bloodying his nose and mouth, just a little, Max made him take it back. Which he did, knowing Max had more to give.
     Little John nudged him back to the present.
“My Grandpappa’s dead!”
“GRANDpappa? That was my papa! I’m only two year older than you and that’s my daddy!”
Confusion flushed both their faces. One man, two little boys. A grandfather to one and a father to the other?
Max was just about to tell Little John that he didn’t know what he was talking about, when a familiar smell snatched his attention. His sister Rose had arrived with her boyfriend, Edgar. Nothing, not even an easy-win argument with that little priss would keep Max from his Rosie. Before she could completely get into the doorway, he had flown into her arms and buried his face into the side of her Evening in Paris neck.
Rosy always carried the aroma of flowers about her. He wondered if she would ever smell like flour or soap or bleach like Mama.  He really believed that’s why she was called Rose. For the first time today, the scenes, the scents and the feel was finally right.
“Say now, Maxy, I’ve come back home. It’s okay. Don’t you worry about a thing.”  Tears were glistening in her eyes, and Max began to feel angry and unhappy at the same time.
As Max sat and dosed on Rose’s lap that afternoon, he listened to the bits and pieces of conversation that swirled around the room like the smoke from all the men’s pipes and cigars. Harsh and pungent at first, and then dissolving into resignation.
“Why didn’t she call the doctor right away?...I hear that the store is in trouble….You and Edgar just can’t get married next week, not now…Momma and Maxy won’t be able to stay here very long…You can’t expect me to watch over them; John is too much of a handful as it is …Well, somehow, things will have to work out”…
Later that evening, Max was sent to the back bedroom to play with  Little John.  Reluctantly, he accepted the new chore. The play drifted into one of Little John’s “Know-It-All” conversations.
“My mommy says you and Grandmother have to leave here.”
“You don’t know nothin’, Johnny.”
“Uh-huh! I bet you and Grandmother won’t even live together anymore. Mommy said so.”
“Well, She don’t know nothing either! I’d never leave Mama, Jackie, or Rosy! They’re my family, and families don’t get split up.!
“My Mommy is your family and she doesn’t live here.”
Anger and fear battled inside Max’s head while John ran out of the room. He yelled back to have the last word and maybe more so to convince himself,
“Anyway, when I grow up, I’m never going to die! And even if I do, I’m not going until all my kids are grow’d up. I’m going to have a big family, but nothing is going to separate us. We’ll always be together. Just you wait and see.”

Max kept his promise, at least until November, 1980 at the too young age of 62 he let go of his four grown children to once again join the love of his life.  Although the four of us have rarely lived near each other, our closeness is one that never makes the miles separate us.


  1. What a poignant story. Your Aunt Elma still sounds like she was a bully and her little demon child sounds like he was just like her. Your Aunt Rose was obviously the saving grace in the family until your mother, mentioned in lovely previous pieces, came along. You and your siblings are so fortunate to have each other - a true credit to both of your parents. This is the best legacy a child can have - the loyalty and love of a family to carry on. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Yes, yes, but dear people more than balance out the negatrons. This is so representative of many families before the Depression. The spirit of a determined little boy is magic but can leave scars. Certainly, he didn't want his children to have the same. This is a heart-rendering post.

  3. Gabby, if you check out an older post in July, I wrote a little more about Aunt Elma and how I was always compared to her. When you are the children of a last son, like we were, most of the aunts and uncles were gone before we had a chance to really develop a rounded understanding of these individuals. We seemed to be fixed on the one or two comments we heard as youngsters. I doubt I was being fair, but as Anonymous added there was certainly a balance. What I have learned is that all people impress us two ways - we want to be like them, or we DON'T want to be anything like them. I'm grateful to all that came before me to teach me that lesson. Thanks so much for your clear insight. ~ Suzanne

  4. Suzanne, You are a fair and diplomatic person. I can learn, rather than being a bull in a china shop - regarding people I don't know, or anyone. I once had an aunt and young cousins who were outwardly unkind and exclusionary. They placed a higher value on what they wanted people to think of them rather than blending in and being fun. We wanted very much to include them, playing cards, pots lucks, camping and fishing, summer canning and family stories. As a young person, I took it personally because I saw how it hurt my dad. These relatives fancied themselves white collar and though my dad was very successful, he was definitely a blue collar person. These folks ended up rather lonely in their old age. They lost their money and found they had nothing on the inside to sustain them. I can't imagine you were anything like your Aunt Elma! I can't miss the real story and it is your father. I will post later after I read it again and this knee jerk tangent. It does strike me now that the thoughtless chatter about what would become of your grandmother and dad must have sounded to him.

  5. Gabby, I really did appreciate your initial reactions. I was portraying them as I remember them and you were spot on. This particular family did the exact same thing as you described, and it was taken personally here, too. In my "old" age I hope I have become less judgmental, but as you can see, I still write about them as I remember them. It brings up another topic I have been grappling with --good vs evil -- in stories. Makes for a great read, and is almost necessary to have it. As I am trying to develop a larger piece I have a hard time trying to create a truly evil person. Some visitors to this site have talked about this, and that they have known such people. I haven't. Sure have met my share of egotistical, self-serving, controlling, and abusive people, but I can't see them as evil. I guess I'll never be able to write a best seller. Oh, well, thank you so much for your wonderful input! ~Suzanne

  6. Suzanne, Could Max, as a child or gone from this earth, envision how your writing about family could spark conversations? Your story about him in 1926 has the makings of the Truman Capote stories of the South - The Thanksgiving Visitor and The Christmas Story. Didn't Capote's family deny his difficult childhood and paint themselves in flattering ways? In our lifetimes we've seen circumstances all over the world where evil exists. It can seem unreal - like the old news reels on the History Channel. The other night I saw Jeff Bridges talk about hunger among children in America. To look away and not participate in a solution where we might make a difference can be a question. Ayn Rand: "Thinking is man’s only basic virtue, from which all the others proceed. And his basic vice, the source of all his evils, is that nameless act which all of you practice, but struggle never to admit: the act of blanking out, the willful suspension of one’s consciousness, the refusal to think—not blindness, but the refusal to see; not ignorance, but the refusal to know. It is the act of unfocusing your mind and inducing an inner fog to escape the responsibility of judgment—on the unstated premise that a thing will not exist if only you refuse to identify it, that A will not be A so long as you do not pronounce the verdict “It is.”
    This evil question, since you're delving, might be another day. We all grapple with it in one way or the other. Beginning in childhood, I have known a truly evil person. It will affect me the rest of my life. I am blessed to have survived. It became a lifetime of terror. Now passed. I am also continuing to feel like things are detracting from your story about your dad. We hear about so many leaders in the world who became misguided due to horrible childhoods. Nice excuse. Lots of people have unspeakable childhoods and don’t become abusers.
    As you've shared about your dad’s life, it is a form of evil that he was so often dismissed in favor of others' needs during his own lowest times. His experiences became the choices he made as the years went on. It seems that the most important choices he made were to be a good husband and wonderful father. Perhaps, he "turned evils into good."

  7. OHHHH boy, Elise, thanks for the whop side the head. You knew exactly what I was doing - "the blanking out, the refusal to know" - I'm not necessarily going to defend or re-direct my thinking right now, but your honesty was breath taking -literally. I do appreciate the wake-up call to knock me out of my lofty place, friend. I needed it. ~Suzanne

  8. Oh my gosh. I hope I didn't say something coarse. I hope it wasn't a whop about Max or your perceptions of people who fell short. The more I read about your family, I appreciate that others deal with such a spectrum of family members. As many people as I've met and loved who aren't worthy of affection or loyalty, there have been dozens more that I couldn't begin to repay their place in my life. There were many people like your mother who took time with people. They were true angels. You are not lofty. I look forward to your honesty and calling it what it is in a variety of things. I guess I no longer look for acceptance, except from my husband and children. They keep me straight. I don't grovel but I give it all I've got. When it comes to little children like your dad or my own father who lost both his parents before he was a teenager, there is no excuse for letting a child feel alone and not of value. I am sorry if the adults had issues but they were responsible to go the extra mile in both families. Something that seems to be new to our generation is that it's o.k. to be accountable. I've had to do this with my own children. We're still working out some things. I hope somewhere along the way, your dad had someone say they look back and regret their carelessness. Of course, you talk about your Aunt Rose and others. My dad also had siblings who loved him but they were all already grown. Very similar. When my dad was 8 years old and his mother died, he ran home from the hospital and hid under the bed. The day of the funeral, he tried again to run away. Yet, like your dad, he did everything for us. He broke the family system and was real. We was never afraid to cry in front of us. This blog is a gift and I hope I never come across as a know-it-all. I'm just processing life, too, at 60! I need some chocolate. Leaving for the store...really.

  9. Must chime in. Many people have tender things happen in their families - some don't. Others may say that everyone has their dilemmas, however, I do know people up close who don't get tested as others do. Parent's heartaches and successes are meaningful to children - no matter how old we get - we are part of them. I wish I knew more about my family. People were very reluctant to reminisce. I don't know why. They were free in sharing recipes, knowledge of any number of things like gardening, their professions and the like but when it came to feelings and the past, that was a different story. By bits and pieces and once when I was about 12, being able to visit the neighbor of my grandmother, who I never knew, I was able to put together some probables. There was a strong thread of alcoholism, chronic depression and plain old bad luck. There was also a lot of laughter and spirit of survival. Play hard. Work hard. Little Max really made the proverbial lemonade out of the lemons. While I can't vilify others, I will never understand why children have to suffer. It tests my faith. There are many forms of abuse and neglect but each child's is his only reality at the time. Your dad must have been a tough little customer. He's fortunate your memories are so loving.

  10. This has been such a horrible last couple of weeks with everything in the news about the well-being of children. Your blog post really hits a lot of nerves in people. If anything good can come from all of it, maybe there can be fewer, or no, children left to feel alone. Whether it's little children like your dad who got lost in the shuffle or those who go through even more, we can only hope the world will change. If your writing has sparked some more awareness, there you have it.

  11. Suzanne, I read again this piece about your dad. The loftiness I was referring to was that of those around him - not yours. I don't know what challenges and aloneness your father felt into adulthood but childhood builds many foundations that are hard to change as far as trust and the ways we build security. I don't have the impression your family was horrid, but in terms of what was expected of your dad during his early years, it is very sad. While most people love their parents, few try to put themselves into their parent's shoes and champion them, even in death. A lesson this is for some of us. Thank you again for this post.


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Blessings to you,