The year was 1961. I was ten years old, and I knew Santa wasn’t coming. It was a Saturday in mid-December, and I was working with my dad at the Lark Foods convenient store he managed. I made 25 cents an hour, taking out trash, sweeping floors, and stocking shelves. The store was unusual in that it was inside of an independent meat market – Capital Meats.
I don’t know how long the meat market had been in business, but in 1961 the owner Max was an old man in my eyes. He was also the first Jewish person I’d ever met. However, Max celebrated the Holidays in his own way. He honored his religious traditions as well as Christmas. He said it was good for business, and he had married a Catholic more than 40 years before. I helped Max put up Christmas decorations in the store.
Man to Man
Near the end of the day, my father took me aside, bought me a coke, and sat me down. He told me that what he was about to share was strictly between him and me, man to man. My father had recently left a job that was better paying and took the Lark Foods position in hopes of securing a franchise, a family store we would own. But there was a problem. Money was tight. It wasn’t going to be much of a Christmas for me or my little brother and sister.
Dad needed my help and understanding. As the eldest child, he asked me to help make the best of Christmas morning, not only for myself but for my mom and my two siblings. My sister Vicki was eight, and my brother Malcolm six. Malcolm was certain of Santa Claus, and although Vicki suspected that Santa was a fraud, she wanted to believe. I understood and promised my father that I would be on my best behavior.
The Toy Rack
Lark Foods had a small section of cheap toys. They were in plastic bags and hung from hooks on a rack. Paper dolls, plastic yo-yo’s, and balsam model airplanes filled the rack. My father asked me to choose two or three each for my brother, sister, and myself, so we’d all have something to unwrap on Christmas morning. I did.
My dad’s dad stayed with us Christmas weekend. He lived in Van Buren, Indiana, where I was born, and much of my father’s family still lived. We had gone to Aunt Betty’s and Uncle Paul’s farm off state road 5 for Thanksgiving that year. Next year it would be held at Aunt Sissy’s in Fairmont. It was a rare occasion that Papaw stayed with us, and especially over Christmas.
Christmas morning arrived, my mom put on a pot of coffee for the adults while my younger brother and sister anxiously pleaded to open presents. We went to the living room, and mom and dad handed out presents. Dad looked at me and gave me a nod and a wink. I knew my role. When my brother opened a bag of marbles, I excitedly told him how much fun we’d have playing together, and when my sister opened a bag of hair ribbons, I picked one, put it in her hair, and told her how pretty it was. I feigned the same level of excitement when I opened my gifts.
We Wish You a Merry Christmas!
Dad and Papaw left the room. Suddenly, I heard a racket in the garage and then Papaw singing “We wish you a Merry Christmas!”, as he and dad rolled three brand spanking new bicycles into the living room. It took my breath away. I didn’t know what to say, but my little brother did. He shouted, “I knew Santa Claus didn’t forget us!” And then asked if he could ride his bike. All three of us kids scrambled to put on coats and boots over our pajamas. We rode our bikes on this cold and happy Christmas morning.
I learned later that Papaw had come down to stay with us to help assemble the bikes. Dad and my grandfather had stayed up late into the night building the bikes.
Two years later, in 1963, Papaw passed at the age of 63 from an accident, mom and dad had bought a store, and none of us kids believed in Santa Claus. But we believed in our mom and dad, we knew that if you were patient, things would be okay, and we celebrated a Christmas that more than 50 years later is still fresh in our minds.