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
My little brother, Peter Hamilton Dillahey was six. They
a twelve year old isn't old enough to be anything but a twelve
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
Mama figured it best we pack up and head back to Doaksville where
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
The bald headed man behind the counter turned on his radio so we
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
"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
had a way with folks and she always made things brighter.
time, I saw nothing to be happy about. Deddy gone and his family
middle of a cold night without a place to stay. It was his fault.
would anybody leave a lady like my Mama and go off to fight in a
nobody ever heard of? As I saw it nobody cared if he or we
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
"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.
Mama said, her voice gentle but commanding, "let's sing a
carol. Yes, let us sing "Oh Come All Ye Faithful."
falling snow turning colors in the neon glow
outside the window, we
tried to sing along with her. We stopped and
If there are angels, Mama was the leader. She never
seemed to cry or look
sad. She always found the
"That was lovely," said the ticket master.
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
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
Mama's look told me to get us ready to leave so I yanked
jacket and bundled up Petey whispering in his ear to keep his
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
Christmas, slouched back to the car and they roared off
into the swirling
"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
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
The way she sang "Oh Holy Night," almost made me believe
Thank God, she believed, I didn't and Petey didn't know any
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 sugar
plums danced in his
When I woke again it was morning, dark, and cold. Mama
was already up in
the shabby kitchen boiling oatmeal.
hurry now, get Petey ready, school starts at nine."
I stoked the
fire, put more wood on, and yanked a squalling Petey from
"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
"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
"McQueen Hamiliton Dillahey, would you say grace please." I
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
"Now, see what you
did, McQueen? You made Mama cry. I hope Santa Claus
you a bunch of switches." I started to tell him the truth
Santa but Mama lowered her eyes and I dropped it.
We ate the
steaming oatmeal then got all bundled up. Ice and snow
around by a snappy wind had fallen most of the night. Out on
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
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
"Yeah," grunted Petey, "unnerstan?" A hard
hand squeeze shut him up.
"Yes, mam." At that time I did not
understand. In the first place I
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
Dillahey. Reading, writing, arithmetic. Bullshit. I was
years old and I could work and we could have a nice Christmas.
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
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.
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
"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
Both my feet came off the ground and I hung in the air like a
"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
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
mind on Petey.
"Petey, where are you?" I scrambled around
looking for him.
"Over here, McQueen. Over
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
squealed just as I charged. Too late. The boy with the
of a gifted bullfighter turned sideways still holding Petey's hand
whizzed past him into the fence. It stopped me cold as I
it like a fly caught in a spider web. I slid down,
"I told you no," said Petey at my side.
"This is Bobby Joe and he's on
"Come on, champ,
let me help you up," Petey's new friend said, pulling at
"I can help myself. I'm in the seventh grade and I don't need
I said, snatching my arm away and staggering to my feet.
He just stood
there smiling and holding Petey's
"Turn my little brother loose. We don't need your help.
Petey." Petey didn't move, just hung on to Bobby
"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
We went up the steps and into a hallway bustling with
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
"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
About fifteen or sixteen he had a smile that said what he was.
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
"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
"Glad to know you
McQueen Hamilton Dillahey and Peter Hamilton Dillahey."
And he was
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
"What do you
"Mam, I want to register me and my brother for
"Sit," the lady said, leaning over the counter and
looking down at us.
"I'll get Miss Barnes, the principal."
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,
didn't like this school at all. Well, I didn't like any school,
this one was the worst, it'd be like all the rest. Teaching one
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
"Look, McQueen," he said, pointing, "there's a colored
I wrestled him back to the bench and stuffed him onto
"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
"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
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
"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
from around the desk her hands folded and waited for me
to get us
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
say things that made you think. He wasn't really as dumb as
thought he was. I waited for her answer.
"I don't know,
Mister Peter Hamilton Dillahey. I guess he's what color
him to be." That satisfied Petey and he smiled. Then he
"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
But that little rat just kept on smiling.
Barnes got finished with us she walked us back to the outer
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
"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
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,"
extending my hand. She shook it and said "You are welcome,
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
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
On the last day before the Christmas holidays the school held
Christmas play. Bobby Joe played Santa and read the
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
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
it hit me that there would be no gift for me or Petey. I
concerned about me but it would break Petey's heart. How could
the man of the house, let this happen to a little guy who had never
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
"From Santa to Peter Hamilton Dillahey!"
time wrappings filled the air and it was hard to hear over the
Again "From Santa to Peter Hamilton Dillahey!"
I heard it
this time and so did Petey who stopped dead and stared at
Oh, no, I thought, he's going to bawl. But he just
there, smiling, then dropped his chin. Bobby Joe went to him,
and gently nudged the little guy's chin up.
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
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
Barlow knife. I looked for Big Banks but he was gone. Bobby
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
nothing. I even tried praying for the first time in my
I mean honest to goodness praying but I got no answer.
times I got up and put wood on the fire. At least I
could see she stayed
Her pretty face glowed 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
She seemed so happy and peaceful and I tried to figure out why.
stayed that way until I had to stoke the fire again.
squirmed, searching for his Hopalongs. I helped him find them
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
long ago Christmas Eve, I realized the difference. A
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
"Merry Christmas, Mama."
"Merry Christmas, McQueen
Hamilton Dillahey...my son."
Author: Rocky Rutherford