By Shirley Noe Swiesz © 2014
Online: December, 2014
Poverty had a different face when I was a child. There were no missionaries to bring gifts of toys and bikes, but they brought us a message that has stayed with us all these years. They had flannel boards with flannel people who were worn from working hard all those years. As I look back on it I am sure the missionaries were about as poor as we were, but once a month they trudged through the mountains to tell us a Bible Story. Sunday School and the plays, flannel boards and devotions were an important part of our growing up years. As we went out into the world, in most cases Church was a haphazard affair, where we went at Easter time and Christmas, so it was the little pages of our Christian upbringing that had to hold us through the years. I think for many of us the Bible Camp was important also. They came once a month as well, and we would say Bible verses for them in order to get Testaments and if we said enough then we would get a Bible and then we would memorize even more and we could go to camp in the summertime.
The school at Chad had a Christmas play each year with angels wearing an assortment of white over- blouses. I think any extra little girl played an Angel and the boys became Shepherds with striped towels on their heads that their Mama's had gotten out of a box of Silver Dust soap powder and their dad's big ole bath robe. I can still see my brother, Jake when he was in about the third grade sitting there with a big ole stick in his hand, the towel almost covering his dark eyes. I was too little to go to school but I loved to go see the plays. If my brothers or sister got any goodies they always shared with me.
I think I was six when my brother told me there was no Santa Clause. To be honest after the initial shock I was kinda glad for I had thought that I had been bad and that was the reason that old man did not come to our house. I did argue with my brother but when Christmas came and there were no toys under the tree, I had to admit he was right. Most of the time we did have a tree, for my older brother Hagert always got one for us, actually for Mama. In Ms Browning's first grade class, we made chains out of construction paper; mostly green and red. We would pop corn and string it on crochet thread with a big needle, kinda like stringing green beans to dry behind the stove for shucky beans. We had to put them high on the tree though for the mice would have a feast on them. We would gather tin foil from gum wrappers and cigarette packages and press them against coins to make little ornaments. Our imagination was in full swing around Christmas time. There was never money for ornaments...they were all made by little hands.
My parents did the best they could, but it was hard to take care of four little kids and keep food on the table and a roof over our head. The roof was usually a little ten dollar camp house that my Mama would wall paper and clean until her hands bled. There was little money left for toys. She always made us a good dinner for Christmas though and if I got a dollar in my stocking along with an orange and apple and some hard candy, then I was doing really well. I remember once spending Christmas at my grandparents' house on Linefork. They had a little log cabin and above it was a little house where the kitchen, living room and one bedroom was located and a good front porch, where Granny did the wash each Monday. Grandpa would never sleep in the 'new house'. He preferred the old log cabin, where they had a feather bed and a big river rock fire place. Mama said when she was a little girl before the new house was built; a kitchen was built beside the log cabin on the big flat rock that I remember playing on when I was a child. Mama said that the stove stood on the rock. The one thing that I remember about that Christmas was how excited Grandpa was to fill our stockings. It was a grand stocking, with all kinds of nuts, candy and fruit.
I loved Christmas. It was true joy for me. I can remember sitting for hours thinking about it...not the toys that I would get, but Christmas itself. In my imagination, I would visit Bethlehem and walk down those crowded streets, being very careful that no one saw me. It was so busy that few would have paid attention to a dirty little girl from the mountains, I suspect. I would hunker against the wall, if I saw soldiers or anyone fearsome. I was on a mission. I was out to find Mary and the Babe. I went into the stalls where they sold food and visited with the people who smiled at me in kindness. I would get lost and once I ended up on the hill where the Shepherds were tending their sheep. I saw them with awe in their eyes as they listened to the message of the Angels. I sang with the Angels, my voice loud and clear as only a child's can be. How much fun I had and when they went to find the Babe, I trailed along behind them. I was there shortly after Mary gave birth to the beautiful Babe. She let me hold a tiny little hand and Joseph smiled at me. I laughed in wonder as the Babe opened his beautiful eyes and looked at me. I petted the animals as they gathered around and Mary allowed me to touch a tiny toe when the swaddling clothes came undone. I waited around until the Three Wise Men came with their gifts. They allowed me to touch the camels and I named one of them Ralph. When the King sent the soldiers to kill all the babies under two, I ran and ran crying, sobbing for those little babies. And then I would follow Mary and Joseph with the Babe as they left Bethlehem. Mary told me to be careful when I told her goodbye and I truly never saw such a wonderful smile. Oh how I loved Christmas!
I was perhaps eleven or twelve when I realized that many of the children got Christmas presents and it was perhaps then that I realized that we were very poor. As I got older I was ashamed of the way I was raised...so very poor. I never told anyone but there was a deep shame abiding in me. I swore if I ever had children they would never be raised the way that I was.
And they weren't. They had all that we could afford to give them. As they grew older I noticed how they would look at each other's gifts as though assessing if one got more than the other. They weren't any different from most children. I would hear their friends comparing costs and measuring Christmas by all the goodies they received. They didn't need to use their imagination to make their Christmas happy. They had plenty of things to do their imagining for them.
I swear that one night I could hear a baby crying...harsh heartbreaking tears. I looked but could not find it. It was Christmas Eve. The house was very quiet for all were sleeping. I sat down in a big comfy chair and thought about my childhood. I was far from the mountains now on a military base far from home. But when I closed my eyes, I walked those same streets in Bethlehem and then I saw Him! He was crying. And then I knew...I knew. 'Oh, Lord,' I thought, 'what have I done to You? What have I done to my children? Oh, Lord, what have I done to the Babe in the Manger? Lord, what have I done to Christmas?'
My children can attest to the fact that they have heard this story many times.
The weather is chilly outside in Harlan County but we have not had much snow. My church house is nice and cozy warm as I sit and think about the old days when we were young and thought that things would never change for us. We would have our parents forever and Grannies and Grandpas would be right there too. The fire in the Warm Morning would forever heat the little houses that were little more than shacks in winter time and the old cook stove would always have good smelling things bubbling on it. I can still smell Sassafras Tea and see Daddy pouring a saucer full of coffee. Chances are we can't remember most Christmas gifts, but we do miss the other things...the smell of corn bread baking, and the rich luscious taste of chicken and dumplings. We remember our dad coming home covered in coal dust and our mama's old apron stained with dirt and tears. There is a coldness in our souls where tiny holes have found their way each time a loved one dies. That coldness is as fragile as ashes floating on the mountain wind and in one deep moment we will crumble in tears of remorse and pain. I wish for you a day when you can sit back and think of the many things we had to be thankful for in those old days...RC's and moon pies and shucky beans with a big piece of fat back cooking in it; real buttermilk and fresh butter floating on hot biscuits; hair curled on paper pokes, dried apple stack cakes and fried apple pies, flour sack dresses and broom stick skirts, old cars with a squirrel tail hanging on the antenna; books to read until the dark made it impossible to see, sitting by the fireside, dreaming dreams of the person you 'claim' as your sweetheart, cutting paper dolls out of Sears and Roebuck Catalogs, and yes, I wish for you a day of walking down Bethlehem for Christmas. Perhaps Mary will allow you to hold a tiny hand or kiss a little toe.
Well, remember to smile at someone and be good to yourself. Take a few minutes to think about your childhood, wherever it was spent it; blessings.