My father, who died in 2004, was eleven when the Great Depression hit in 1929. When I was growing up, he shared this story with me and, later, with our children. I wonder what he thought as he watched the kids open present after present.
My grandma and grandpa built their Missouri farmhouse around 1920. While I was growing up, our family visited every summer. I have wonderful memories of the farm and I know from the old movies that I happily rode the tractor, petted the ponies, fed the chickens, watched my grandpa milk the cows, and played with the dogs.
My father's memories were very different, though. He saw the chores as never ending and the fields as forever full of rocks. He watched his mother agonize every month when the man from the bank arrived to collect the mortgage payment. Dad struggled to balance being part of the high school choir and drama club with finishing all of the farm work. Grandpa only let Dad go to college if he went to a school close enough so that he could get home on weekends to do chores. Dad's primary goal as a teenager was to get off the farm forever, a wish that was facilitated by his strong sense of purpose and, in no small measure, by almost four years in the Pacific during World War II on the USS Santa Fe.
Times were very tough during and after the Depression and my dad shared stories of those years. As Dad often said, "We were poor, but we didn't know it."
Of course, they had fun sometimes. For instance, on Christmas Eve, Grandpa, Grandma, Dad, and my Uncle Ralph would arrive at their little white-frame country church before everyone else. Grandpa and Grandma would decorate and lay out the food while the boys lit the stove and trimmed the wicks. Of course, Grandpa’s family never missed a Sunday service or a church supper. Some families were mighty scarce the rest of the year but no one ever missed Christmas Eve.
Picture this: After the service, Grandpa would sneak off and hide in the back room to smoke a cigarette and get ready. Finally, when all of the children were settled on the floor trying their hardest to be real quiet, Grandma would tap on the door. Suddenly, Grandpa would burst through the doorway, wearing a big hat, an oversized coat, and a long, gray beard. He waved his arms and shouted, “Merry Christmas! Ho, Ho, Ho! Who here has been good? Who wants a Christmas treat?”
Instantly, the children began shouting and waving. Everyone laughed and cried and ran around! Grandpa handed out hard candy from his pillowcase. Parents tried to get their kids back under control but Grandpa grinned and kept them all riled up. I never saw it with my own eyes, of course, but I heard the story so often while I was growing up that I felt like I was there right in the middle of things.
My dad told me that the candy was often the only special thing that a lot of those children ever received for Christmas. Some had no coats or hats or mittens. Every year, more families lost their farms and quietly disappeared.
After the big celebration, the children stuffed the candy in their pockets and all of the families, except Grandpa’s, would head home. My dad always thought it unfair that his family always stayed late to clean up.
One year, when times were particularly rugged, Grandpa told his boys very firmly that all of the treats were to go to the poor children. When they arrived back to the farm, my dad’s pockets were empty and he was feeling mighty sorry for himself. Grandpa must have been watching my dad’s face. Now, mind you, Grandpa never, ever, wasted one kind word on his boys. Often enough, Dad was spanked hard, and, truth be told, it was a struggle for my dad to tell anyone that he loved them until long after Grandpa had died and my dad was much, much older.
So that night, as the house glowed with light from the kerosene lamps, Grandpa ordered my dad to sit down and put out his hand. “Close your eyes, boy,” Grandpa commanded. Dad cringed. After his eyes were closed, however, Grandpa set something gently in his palm. When he opened his eyes, Dad was holding the most beautiful orange he had ever seen! He stared at it in amazement. “All yours, boy. Just for you.”
It was the most amazing present he had ever received. Even years later, Dad could recall the joy of that moment and Grandpa’s laughter as he ran off to show Ralph the wondrous Christmas gift.
In honor of my Dad, every Christmas stocking in our home holds an orange. Each year, we tell my father’s story about how a piece of fruit became a treasure, indeed. Because even though none of us ever saw it with our own eyes, his story has become our story, too.
A version of this essay was first shared on WUWM - Milwaukee's NPR in 2015. That audio version of this story is here.