CHRISTMAS WITH THE UNIONS (A LEGACY STORY)
The author that fateful year, and her sister.
The truth is, Christmas joy ebbs and flows. As a child it was truly a time of wonder but I always had a greater worry. When you are poor you are constantly reminded that Christmas is a hardship for Santa; who might not be able to find you, or have room for much in his sleigh, or even that Santa would be looking long and hard at your behavior.
After all, the song, “You better watch out, you better not pout” was literally from my generation. And there was a reason for it. There were few Christmas movies or traditional stories of encouragement available to me. Others more privileged than I was at the time, tell me there were positive things out there, but not in my corner of the world. It was pretty much the church Nativity story told from the King James Version in the Bible, and the poem of the Night Before Christmas, as heard on the radio. So, there were definitely periods of my life where I looked forward to the holidays with trepidation, and some I looked forward to with anticipation. Mostly, it was with a sense of “I have no idea what this year will bring”.
As an adult, I became an addict. A Christmas Junkie. I was the one who sang the carols throughout the year and thought it odd that people thought it odd. Anytime of the year was identified by whether or not it was “before Christmas”, “close to Christmas” or “after Christmas“. I had a passionate commitment to Christmas with all the little nuances that make it the “magical” holiday; when everyone gets something, or everyone is remembered, and often not by anyone that they could identify. The recipient had to suppose it was done by an elf or helper on Santa’s behalf.
There have been memorable Christmas holidays through the years. Many for varied reasons. Some good, some sad, some just unforgettable. But at the crux of all of the celebrations has been the magic of those Christmas celebrations that were truly magic, because they shouldn’t have happened.
Clearly, one stands out in my mind for many reasons. My parents, meaning my mother and biological father were young at that time. As mentioned previously, they were so poor the prospects of a gift were about slim to none. My parents were a young couple who struggled due to only dad working outside the home. They were rocked with stressful personal issues which developed from their long list of life disasters that routinely befell them. Dad had been sick and was in a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients almost from the onset of their marriage. They lost their first two babies. They almost lost my sister due to a freak accident when she rode her tricycle off the front porch causing a handlebar to puncture her abdomen.
When I came along, mercifully I was alright, but my mother suffered complications so a hysterectomy performed in the home, followed. They experienced debt, and debt upon debt. Living with my sharecropping grandparents was difficult. Especially for dad who did not get along at all with his father-in-law. They moved out on their own as quickly as possible.
It was a struggle just to put food on the table. Holidays and birthdays were below low key, so they were just passed over verbally for the first few years. But this particular Christmas stood out because it was the first time that the “magic” appeared.
My dad apparently was a good worker and had been taken under the wing by some of his friends who worked in a welding shop. They taught him so many things and he was very adept at the techniques. He quickly caught on. Then and there he was introduced to this amazing thing called a “union”. It was the early forties and there weren’t a lot of workplaces that had unions. Some didn’t live up to the original concepts of “union” brotherhood. But this union did.
I still remember the reverence in my dad’s voice when he talked about “Tommy”. Tommy was the union boss who ran the jobs and the union in Oklahoma. Everything seemed to revolve around him and whenever his name was invoked, I listened to see what followed. It didn’t take me long to realize this “Tommy” had the power to influence our lives and could keep my daddy working and food on our table. Soon, he was sending my dad out on union jobs all over the United States and Canada. I think that if he were of this generation, they would say of him, “When Tommy speaks, everyone listens”.
In the first year that my dad worked for “Tommy” and the union, there began to be just a glimmer of hope that maybe this would be the year that Santa would visit our house as he did the homes of others. My mom wasn’t very encouraging when I expressed this thought. She cautioned me, explaining we were still paying off debts and things were very “lean” (a special word of my mother’s.) Still I hoped.
As Christmas neared there appeared a small Christmas tree with ornaments. I was enthralled by its beauty . In the day time you could see all of them ( probably only about ten or less in hind sight.) My mom showed us how to string popcorn, and at school my sister made a paper link chain to put on it. The paper was green and red and she had colored the links with great care using her crayons at school. It was great, but the thrill was when I found out the tree came from “Tommy” and the union. I was in awe. Wow, they thought of us and were so rich they could give us a tree with ornaments. It was hard to take in.
A greater surprise lay ahead. Mother told us that there was going to be a party and we were going to be able to go. We would travel 24 miles to Muskogee, OK where Tommy was, and we were going to the “union hall” where dad always went to do business with the union. That was where he got his jobs and where his pay came from. I had no idea what a union hall was, but thought this must be some fancy castle-like place one would find in the storybook of fairy tales. I couldn’t wait.
The night arrived for the party and we left as soon as dad was off work. We traveled to the union hall; a trip which held some challenges for me as I was always carsick. This was no exception but I recovered quickly when we got there.
The old brick building was dark and on a dark street. But when the doors opened, the smell of food and the sounds of music immediately enveloped us. Not even the cigarette smoke which hung thickly over the room could dampen the impressions of lights and magic.
When I turned into the main room, which was bordered by tables filled with laughing and loud people, I stopped in my tracks. There in the front of the room by a little stage was the biggest Christmas tree I had ever seen. It was taller than my dad and with so many colors and sparkling things on it that I thought it must be covered in jewels. The most amazing thing was that on several branch tips there were what looked like candles with bubbles bubbling up to the top of the light. They were glowing like lights and yet like candles. I was sure only castles had trees like this and now I had seen them.
My knobby knees began to shake and I then realized I was shaking all over. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I had never seen anything so beautiful and I knew if no one stopped me I could have gone the distance across the room and actually touched this phenomenon. It wasn’t a picture, and it wasn’t a movie, it was real and I was here. I felt my mother reach for me and guide me toward a table not far from the spectacular site.
Misinterpreting my shaking for hunger she set about gathering food on a plate from the pot luck buffet which was spread on many tables. When she brought the food to me, I was completely taken aback. I had never seen so many kinds of foods and colors of foods. She had carefully taken three or four desserts and cut them into equal pieces and put a little of each on a plate for my sister and me.
All my car sickness was behind me and I quickly began to sample foods I never even knew existed. This may have been, in fact, the beginning of my lifelong love affair with food and it’s connection to complete and utter happiness. I only know that if I had known about heaven I would have thought I was there.
After a while a man who laughed a lot and told jokes began a small program. Different people were introduced and they told what their job was with the union. For the life of me I cannot remember what Tommy looked like but I do remember what I felt like when they said his name. I thought surely he was the most famous person I would ever see and I wondered if I would ever meet him.
The happy man asked if there were any children who would like to perform. Slowly people began to prod their reluctant children to go up and do something. There were poems and some songs and even my sister got up and sang. She had such a pretty voice for her age.
I finally was pushed forward and knew there was no escaping my “duty” and thought it was very little to pay for this magical night and the wonderful chance to go to my first real party. I decided to “tap dance” and hoped I did a really good job. I thought I must have as everyone nodded, applauded, and smiled at me afterwards. Some gave me pats on my head when I walked by on my way back to my seat. I remember thinking, I could get used to that kind of attention.
Suddenly there was a a thunderous applause as everyone turned to look to the back of the big room. Oh my gosh! Coming in the door was a person I had only seen in pictures.
“The real and only Santa Claus”. That’s what Tommy said as he made his way to shake Santa’s hand. I could hardly breathe. I was sure of one thing. Only Tommy could have made this happen. He was so important even Santa would come to his party.
More astonishing was the fact that Santa turned and motioned to folks in the doorway and they began to carry in some big sacks . Without so much as a word to anyone, he reached into the sacks and began to pull out packages wrapped in colored paper and tied with colored string. Each one had a name on it. As I watched totally stuptified package after package was pulled out, and the name read off. All the people were there to claim their package. They a looked as surprised as I was.
And then it happened. My dad was shaking my shoulder and saying my name and asking me if I wanted my present? What I thought I’d heard, I had heard. My name. From Santa’s own mouth. And he’d reached in the sack and pulled out a package and it looked like it was going to be for me. I walked up there hoping those shaky knobby knees would still support me. He handed me the package and I remember saying “thank you, Santa” then running back to my table afraid he would find it was a mistake.
Nothing has topped that innocent initiation into Christmas magic that I experienced at the union hall that Christmas. I have received many gifts; many expensive gifts, some very sentimental gifts, and some touching gifts. But that initial magic is never to be forgotten. And it didn’t really end there.
When we arrived home, instead of carrying us up to bed sound asleep, my dad pulled the car over the railroad tracks and looked at our house. He awakened us by making a very big and loud deal of the fact there was a light on in the house that he didn’t leave on. He said he wondered if someone had broken in. My sister and I were horrified.
We all moved stealthily toward the house and Daddy opened the door cautiously then went in. We heard him shout.”Come in here. I don’t believe it.”
I was sure our little Christmas tree had been stolen and began to cry. But when I entered the room, there by the tree on the table were some more gifts. They had to be from Santa because the paper and string on them were just like the ones at the union party.
I don’t know what impressed me most about the gifts. The fact that Santa brought a play stove of metal that looked like mom’s cook stove and had a real oven door that opened; or the fact that there was a box of cherry chocolates for both my sister and me. We pretended over and over to cook each cherry chocolate before we ate it.
Mom and dad had been given a ham to serve for Christmas dinner, wrapped and in a basket. But the gift that really received raves was a small radio that we played in the evenings . We would listen to “Red Ryder”, “Father Knows Best”, “The Shadow” ,”The Lone Ranger “and many more favorites. It was a “family” gift from Santa. And I couldn’t help but conclude that Santa must like unions and union people because he sure took good care of them.
For years to come and until daddy died in his seventies, Tommy played a role in our lives through my dad. Less as the years went by, but when we buried my dad the union remembered him again. This time with flowers. Tommy was still living, but not active in the union, yet he made contact to be sure the union benefits found their way to my step mom.
All my life I knew that there were important life lessons to be learned about unions as they played out good and bad. However, for that young spindly knobby knee girl that needed hope, the union gave me the inspiration and dedication to recount that “magical” experience. Time and again, in my work and personal celebrations of the spirit of Christmas, I sought to “Pay it forward “, with all the same level of magic I had been given.
I have never forgotten that beyond the wonderful religious significance, Christmas is about children and the parties are to inspire, to bedazzle and to permeate the very souls of young children. They can learn the most important life lesson–that God gave us unconditional love for Christmas and we’re to share it for a lifetime with everyone.
Whenever I am invited to holiday parties, it is nice. But when I am invited to the parties for families and the efforts are made to create magic for the children, I know those people and companies have their priorities right.
So let this be my challenge to you. You have time to plan your Christmas magic. Plan it for the right reasons, for the right people and endeavor to bring Christmas to a child’s life. Now there is a “high” you’ll never top and a legacy you can pass on that will never end.
Time is promised to no man or woman, or child. In the depths of our poverty when others had plenty, even excess, my family encountered and received the simple magic of caring people. This magic has carried me through more than sixty more years of ebb and flow.
Thanks Tommy and all of you union guys who knew how to create a brotherhood and chose to share your magic. It started a Christmas legacy for me that carried into my celebrations with my family and others.
Always present the “Meaning” with the “Magic”.