Saturday, December 22, 2012

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

"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

"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

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

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 sugar
plums 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

"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
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 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
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

"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

"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

"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

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

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
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 son."



Author: Rocky Rutherford