Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Merry Christmas, Mama

Merry Christmas, Mama

It was Christmas when two men in uniform walked smartly upon our front porch, rapped on the door, then told my mama, Carrie Mae Hamilton Dillahey, that her husband, my father, James Harold Dillahey, had been killed in action in a place I never heard of.  

He was a good Marine and died a hero fighting for his country, they said, and left.  I became the man of the house.

My name is McQueen Hamilton Dillahey, Mama's oldest son at the time.  I was 12.   My little brother, Peter Hamilton Dillahey was six.    They said a twelve year old isn't old enough to be anything but a twelve year old, that he is too young to know what life is about.  What they did not understand is a twelve year old grows up fast when he has to.

Mama figured it best we pack up and head back to Doaksville where we would be closer to some of my father's family.  We came in on the bus a week before Christmas.  At the bus station Mama made a phone call and we all settled down to wait for someone to pick us up.

The bald headed man behind the counter turned on his radio so we could all listen to Christmas carols.  That worked for a while but it did not contribute to Mama's Christmas spirit.  She loved Christmas and needed no prodding.

"Do you mind if I fix your decorations?" Mama said to the ticket master.

"No, mam, you go right ahead."  Now, Mama was like that.  Not only was she pretty she had a way with folks and she always made things brighter.

At that time, I saw nothing to be happy about. Deddy gone and his family in the middle of a cold night without a place to stay. It was his fault. Why would anybody leave a lady like my Mama and go off to fight in a place nobody ever heard of?   As I saw it nobody cared if he or we lived or died.  We were in a mess; Christmas carols and tinsel would not fix it.

"McQueen,"  Mama said, "would you help me, please," holding her hands out to me like I aught to be pleased to death to fix up a messy wall of tangled and tacky decorations.  I looked at the ticket master then to Petey.

"Please," Mama repeated and I went to her.  We took the mess down and rearranged it, singing along with the Christmas music.  Petey tried to sing Jingle Bells but Mama shushed him while I frowned.

"There," Mama piped like a little girl, clapping her hands and standing back to look at the miracle she just created.  The ticket master said it was beautiful and real Christmassy.   And as always Petey just squealed.

 "Now," Mama said, her voice gentle but commanding, "let's sing a
Christmas carol.  Yes, let us sing "Oh Come All Ye Faithful."  With falling  snow  turning colors in the neon glow outside the window, we tried to sing along with her.  We stopped and listened.

If there are angels, Mama was the leader.  She never seemed to cry or look sad.  She always found the sunshine.

"That was lovely," said the ticket master.

"Boy, my Mama can sing, huh?"  Petey yelled.

I curled up in a folding seat and Mama sat next to me, Petey snuggled up like a puppy in her lap.  She hummed.  The ticket man nodded.  The snow fell.

When I woke  Mama and a big fat lady whispered by the door.  Mama frowned and I knew something was wrong.  Petey stirred and before I could stop him yelled "Wow,  McQueen, there's Santa!"  The fat lady's face lit up like a Christmas tree.  Mama's look told me to get us ready to leave so I yanked on my jacket and bundled up Petey whispering in his ear to keep his mouth shut.

The driver complained all the way to the house. Mama sat straight between me and Petey in the back seat.  She wiped Petey's always snotty face then took my hand.  Her touch told me she was concerned, not afraid, concerned.

Mama sent us to the porch while she talked to the fat lady who stayed inside the big car.  The  grumbling driver got out and carried a big paper bag to the front porch and plopped it down by the door.  He mumbled something about Christmas, slouched back to the car and they roared off into the swirling snow.

"Oh, we're going to have a wonderful time here,"  Mama said, clapping her hands, "McQueen, please build us a fire."  To me it was an ugly old ratty house that nobody wanted to live in anymore.  It stunk like old meals and burnt out fireplaces. "McQueen, please help me."  And that's all it took.

I built a roaring fire from firewood stacked along the wall. Mama emptied the bag on the floor and by the firelight made us a decent supper from canned green beans, little round potatoes, and light bread, which she heated on the hearth.  We topped it off with canned peaches.

Later, after we burrowed  into the army blankets, Mama led us in Jingle Bells.  The way she sang "Oh Holy Night," almost made me believe it. Thank God, she believed, I didn't and Petey didn't know any better.

During the night the cold woke me.  I poked up the fire and added more wood.   Mama had fallen asleep reading her Bible and it lay near her head. In the firelight she looked young but sad.  Petey, snotty faced as usual, curled in his blanket near Mama's knees. I wondered if visions of sugaplums danced in his head.  When I woke again it was morning, dark, and cold.  Mama was already up in
the shabby kitchen boiling oatmeal.

"McQueen, hurry now, get Petey ready, school starts at nine."

I stoked the fire, put more wood on, and yanked a squalling Petey from his covers.

"Mama," I called back over Petey's howling,  "there ain't three days left before time school lets out for the holidays.  Ain't no need in going back now, is there?"  After that last school I hoped I would never have to go back again.

"Isn't, young man.  Why, the way you talk you'd think you'd never been to school.  Now hurry up, please."  And she started caroling again.

When I finally got Petey awake and into his knickers and half way dressed I pushed him into the kitchen where Mama sat at the spindly legged table, hands folded in prayer, waiting for us.

"McQueen Hamiliton Dillahey, would you say grace please."  I glanced at Petey who stuck his tongue out then tried to pray like I meant it.  But it was hard.  I really didn't see anything to be thankful for.  Here we were in a strange cold place, little money, no home and Christmas a week away. When I said amen and looked at her she wiped the back of her hand across her eyes.

"Now, see what you did, McQueen?  You made Mama cry.  I hope Santa Claus leaves you a bunch of switches."  I started to tell him the truth about Santa but Mama lowered her eyes and I dropped it.

We ate the steaming oatmeal then got all bundled up.  Ice and snow pushed around by a snappy wind had fallen most of the night. Out on the little flat front porch Mama laid down the law:  "Now, McQueen, you know how important education is.  We must not miss one single day if we can help it. You are in charge and it's your responsibility to get you and your brother to school.   You go down this street then up it and the school is on your left.  You can't miss it. Once there you must get both of you enrolled. Even though you only have three days left, you must get enrolled.  Do you understand, McQueen Hamiliton Dillahey?"

"Yeah," grunted Petey, "unnerstan?"  A hard hand squeeze shut him up.

"Yes, mam."  At that time I did not understand.  In the first place didn't like school.  What good was it when what we needed was money to live on?  What I needed was a job.  Not a bunch of kids making fun of the brothers with the mile long names: McQueen Hamiliton Dillahey and Peter Hamilton Dillahey.  Reading, writing, arithmetic.  Bullshit.  I was twelve years old and I could work and we could have a nice Christmas.  I could buy Petey Santa Clause and a present for Mama.  Maybe a new Bible or a
warm over coat.  Mama kissed us both and we started down the hill.

Front porch lights glowed yellow in the gloom.  The snow and ice had turned to a chilly fog.  As we passed the houses Christmas tree lights twinkled through the windows.  Petey got excited and tried to stop and gawk at every window but a good squeeze got him going again.  Other bundled kids trudged up the hill and we followed them.

I thought about Mama and the gift I would not get her.  But maybe I could get her something.  Maybe there was something at the school.  Like a drawing or a card they would let me make to take home.  Little kid's stuff but it would do.  It didn't take big things to make Mama happy; any show of love pleased her.  I guess it was because she never thought of herself. Just me and Petey.

At the top of the hill, on the left, just like Mama said stood the school, a massive, Frankenstein  looking place protected by an iron railed fence that looked like a hideout for King Arthur and his knights.  Petey was dragging now and not responding to my hand crushing.  Glad and relieved we passed through the large iron gate.

"What you doin' here?"  I was digging Petey's head out of his scarf and not sure what I heard.

"You hear me, white boy, I said what you doing here?  Ain't no white boys allowed in here."

Both my feet came off the ground and I hung in the air like a puppet.

"Put my brother down," Petey howled.  When I finally stopped spinning  I saw  I was held at arm's length by the biggest kid I had ever seen. The other catcher's mitt fist he had drawn back aiming it at my face. White teeth flashed in his basketball sized dark head.

Laughing , he let me struggle, my arms flailing away.  He shook me hard enough to knock both my eyes in to the same socket.  All the while aiming that fist at my face.  The more I flailed the more he laughed.  I called him a son of a bitch but that just made him laugh harder.

When Petey bit him on the leg he decided to finish me.  I spit at him as he drew back.

"Put him down."  He dropped me and I hit the frozen ground hard my butt hurting, my mind on Petey.

"Petey, where are you?"  I scrambled around looking for him.

"Over here, McQueen.  Over here."

Another older boy, but not as big, had  Petey by the hand.  From my hands and knees I charged like a wild bull, head down, aiming to  run over Petey's captor.

"No," Petey squealed just as I charged.  Too late.  The boy with the grace of a gifted bullfighter turned sideways still holding Petey's hand and I whizzed past him into the fence.  It stopped me cold as I sprawled against it like a fly caught in a spider web.  I slid down, crumpled, knocked cucoo.

"I told you no," said Petey at my side.  "This is Bobby Joe and he's on our side."

"Come on, champ, let me help you up," Petey's new friend said, pulling at my elbow.

"I can help myself. I'm in the seventh grade and I don't need your help," I said, snatching my arm away and staggering to my feet.  He just stood there smiling and  holding Petey's hand.

"Turn my little brother loose. We don't need your help.  Come here, Petey."  Petey didn't move, just hung on to Bobby Joe's hand.

"Come on, guys, I'll show you the way to the principal's office, Her name is  Miss Barnes," he said, turning toward the front door with Petey traipsing right along like nothing happened.

We went up the steps and into a hallway bustling with students. Some gawked at us.  The big boy who had threatened to kill me stood by the front door with two other scowling buddies but they made no move toward us or said anything.  Just growled and frowned.  Petey took a new grip on Bobby Joe's hand and stuck his tongue out at the bullies as we started down the hall to the principle's office.

"Well, here it is, guys," Bobbie Joe said,  "Miss Barnes will take care of you.  And don't worry about those guys.  They won't bother you."  He pried his hand away from Petey's.  "It's okay," Bobby Joe told him and tousled his hair.  For a second he just stood there looking at us and that's when I got a good look at him.

About fifteen or sixteen he had a smile that said what he was. He wore green cordoroy knickers and dark knee socks and a gray sweater with the collar buttoned neatly at his neck.  Perched almost squarely on his head was a Ben Hogan courdoray golf cap. He moved gracefully, spoke calmly, his voice deep and rich.  Petey liked him.

"My name is Bobby Joe Bohanon," he said extending his hand to me. When I hesitated taking it Petey said "Shake his hand, McQueen, he's our friend."

"My name is McQueen Hamilton Dillahey and this is my brother Peter Hamilton Dillahey," I said expecting him to laugh.  He didn't.  I took his hand.

"Glad to know you McQueen Hamilton Dillahey and Peter Hamilton Dillahey." And he was gone.

We went inside the glass paneled room  to a counter I could just barely see over. I plopped Petey down on a bench against the wall and went to the counter.  I guess we made too much noise because as soon as I got there and looked over,  a huge round head said "Shhhhhh."  Then it's eyes grew wide and rolled toward the ceiling, nose up.

"Mam," I said, "We may be poor but we don't stink."  Her eyes got bigger when she heard Petey say "Yeah, we don't stink.  Mama gave us a spit bath."

"What  do you want?"

"Mam, I want to register me and my brother for school."

"Sit," the lady said, leaning over the counter and looking down at us. "I'll get Miss Barnes, the principal."

"Merry Christmas," said Petey.

 She disappeared and we sat back down with nothing to do but look around. About every two minutes I wiped Petey's nose.  Christmas music drifted in from somewhere and it made me think hateful thoughts of not having a gift for Mama.  I hoped they would kick us out then I could get a job to buy her and Petey a present. Still plenty of time before Christmas.  Besides, I didn't like this school at all.  Well, I didn't like any school, but
this one was the worst, it'd be like all the rest.  Teaching one thing and doing another.

Then I noticed a manger scene with little figurines at the end of the counter near the wall.  I stood up to get a closer look which made Petey squirm.  So I held him up to see.

"Look, McQueen," he said, pointing, "there's a colored Jesus"

I wrestled him back to the bench and stuffed him onto it.

"Boy, what's wrong with you, Jesus ain't colored."  Before he could answer the big head appeared over the counter again and said Miss Barnes would see us now.  She motioned us around the counter and we followed her pointing finger to an office that had Principal on it.  We stopped at the door and she motioned for me to knock.  I wiped Petey's nose again and patted down my hair.  I guess the lady still thought we stunk because she stood way back from us.

"Come in," a voice called and I did,  dragging Petey who kept looking back for Bobby Joe.  I guess we did look like a pair of ragamuffins.

A tall skinny  lady in a red dress stood behind a great big desk. Her eyes bulged behind her glasses.  She looked like all the principals I had seen except she didn't have a 3 foot ruler in her hand.  I looked around for it but there was none.  I had already made up my mind that she or anybody else in that school hadn't earned the right to whip us yet.  So she'd best leave the ruler be.

"May I help you, gentlemen?"

I looked at myself, brushed my hair down then Petey's.  She didn't talk loud like those other principals.

"Mam, my name is McQueen Hamilton Dillahey and this is my brother Peter Hamilton Dillahey.  My mama, Carrie Mae Hamilton Dillahey, sent me to register us for school.  I know there's only three days left before the holidays but my mama says education is important and we should go to school every chance we get.  It's okay with me if you don't want us.  Then I can go and get a job so I can buy Mama and Petey a Christmas present. That's more important to me than going to school especially in a place
that doesn't want us in the first place...we don't stink...."

"Please, Mister Dillahey, sit down."  We shuffled backwards into chairs along the wall.  Petey had trouble getting on his so I yanked him by the arms and pulled him up.  He howled like I was killing him.  The lady principal walked from around the desk her hands folded and waited for me to get us situated.

She smiled at Petey and he smiled back, trying not to use the back of his hand as a handkerchief.

"Is Jesus colored?"  Petey said.  Sometimes he made a whole lot of sense or could say things that made you think.  He wasn't really as dumb as you thought he was.  I waited for her answer.

"I don't know, Mister Peter Hamilton Dillahey.  I guess he's what color you want him to be."  That satisfied Petey and he smiled.  Then he turned to me.

"She's nice, McQueen.  Do you think you could be nice back?"

I threatened Petey with my eyes but he kept smiling waiting for me to answer.  I felt Miss Barnes eyes on me and when I looked up at her they were not principal eyes.

"Yes, Petey, I'll be nice back but I don't take orders from a snot nosed kid like you.  I'll be nice because I want to.  Not because you tell me to."  But that little rat  just kept on smiling.

When Miss Barnes got finished with us she walked us back to the outer office.  Bobby Joe sat on the bench.

"We hope you both enjoy your stay with us," she said.  "This is Bobby Joe Bohannon.  He'll escort you to your classrooms."

Petey ran to her and wrapped his arms around her.  Oh, no, I thought, snotty hands and all.  She let him hug her then tilted his head back and wiped his nose with a tissue.

"See, McQueen, she don't hurt like you do."  Then he strutted over to Bobby Joe, took his hand and stood waiting for me.  And I could just hear that little rat saying "be nice, McQueen, be nice."

Since I was now the head of the Dillahey house I would have to act like a man. A man doesn't cry or whimper or beg.  He looks you straight in the eye as he shakes your hand and thanks you for what you need thanking for. If he doesn't get what he wants he takes it like a man and goes on.  He keeps on keeping on.

I marched straight to her and looked up into her eyes.  "Thank you, Mam," I said, extending my hand.  She shook it and said "You are welcome, Mister McQueen Hamilton Dillahey."

I had done my duty.  I did like mama wanted.  Petey and I'd spend the next three days in school like she wanted.  Maybe that could be a Christmas present.  But it wouldn't be much under the tree.

So Petey and I spent the next three days at Church Street School. We had a good time and no one, not even Big Banks, was mean to us. Bobbie Joe Bohannon  seemed to be every where.  And every chance he could Petey had him by the hand.

On the last day before the Christmas holidays the school held its annual Christmas play.  Bobby Joe played Santa and read the Night Before Christmas.  When he finished all the kids clapped and yelled as he went to Petey, took his hand and led him to the tall Christmas tree in the hall. He whispered to Petey who smiled like I'd never seen him do before.  They stood holding hands while a pretty girl sang O Holy Night.  I almost cried.

As soon as the last note ended Petey scrambled among the gifts under the tree, grabbed one, and beaming like a Carolina moon, handed it to Bobby Joe who called out the name it belonged to. They had handed out maybe ten gifts when it hit me that there would be no gift for me or Petey.  I wasn't concerned about me but it would break Petey's heart.  How could I, the man of the house, let this happen to a little guy who had never hurt
anyone.  God, I wished I had told him the truth about Santa Claus a long time ago.  Too late now.  And Mama, no present for Mama.

"From Santa to Peter Hamilton Dillahey!"

 By this time wrappings filled the air and it was hard to hear over the racket.  Again "From Santa to Peter Hamilton Dillahey!"

 I heard it this time and so did Petey who stopped dead and stared at Bobby Joe.   Oh, no, I thought, he's going to bawl. But he just stood there, smiling, then dropped his chin.  Bobby Joe went to him, bent down and gently nudged the little guy's chin up.

"Open it, Petey, it's from Santa to you."

Another boy about Petey's age took over Petey's job while he tore open the present.  He pulled out a matching two gun set of Hopalong Cassidy cap busters.  Bobby Joe strapped them on  Petey who was jumping up and down like a Mexican jumping bean.  I almost said "Thank you, Lord."  But what about Mama?

I was so happy for Petey I didn't feel the big hand pressing down on my shoulder.  Big Banks.

"Merry Christmas, white boy," he whispered patting my shoulder and letting a small slender package slide down into my lap.  I opened it and found a brand new Barlow knife.  I looked for Big Banks but he was gone. Bobby Joe smiled and winked at me.

Mama was so happy when I told her about our last day at school.

"You are a  wonderful gift from God, McQueen Hamilton Dillahey" she said that Christmas Eve as we bunched around that stinky old fire place roasting marsh mellows. "My son, you are a blessing."

"Yeah, McQueen, you ain't mean all the time," Petey cut in, drawing a bead on me with his Hopalongs.  My Barlow felt solid, substantial, in my pocket and I fingered it just to make sure it was real.  It was.

Just before we settled down for the night Mama read us the Christmas story from the gospel of Saint Luke, something she did every Christmas Eve.  I could never get beyond the thees and thous but Mama believed it.Every word.  You could see the joy busting out of her.

My heart ached for Mama.  I did not want to do it but when I got around my selfishness I made up my mind to go out tomorrow, sell my Barlow to get her a present.  After all, I'd had it for a whole day and the man of the house can't let childish feelings get in the way of doing his duty.  It would be late coming but at least she'd have the present she deserved.

All through the night I worried and wondered why Petey and I had presents but she didn't.  The one person in the world who really deserved something, got nothing.  I even tried praying for the first time in my life.  I mean honest to goodness praying but I got no answer.  Several times I got up and put wood on the fire.
At least I could see she stayed warm.

Her pretty face softened  in the firelight.  I fixed the army blanket up under her chin  and lay down close and put my face almost to hers.  A little smile kept coming and going on her young lips. Her gentle breath kissed my cheek.  Everything about her gentle, kind.  I watched her for a while.  She seemed so happy and peaceful and I tried to figure out why.  I stayed that way until I had to stoke the fire again.

Petey squirmed, searching for his Hopalongs.  I helped him find them and he went back to sleep, smiling.

Just before dawn the truth came to me.  Mama didn't want presents.  She had rather have a gift.  I guess I was growing up because suddenly, deep into that long ago Christmas Eve, I realized the difference.  A present is of the world.  A gift is of  love.  Though presents are given with love, gifts are love, come from the heart,  and give a part of oneself to another.  I had given her the most beautiful gift possible: doing what she asked and trusted me to do.  I had given myself, my love to her.

As Christmas morning slipped in around the faded shades I leaned over and kissed her.

"Merry Christmas, Mama."

"Merry Christmas, McQueen Hamilton Dillahey...my son."



Rocky Rutherford
Silver Valley, North Caroilina