It was the first time I’d seen Mom crying, and I was the reason.
Dad was trying to console her as he followed her out of the room. He had a look on his face I hadn’t seen before and have only seen one other time since. My words had caused a curtain of sadness to descend upon him.
It wasn’t until years later that I really understood what had happened that morning and just how devastating my question had been.
“Where are all the presents?”
A story about Christmas written around the first of August, when everyone is busy with back-to-school activities, may seem to be a little odd. (Then again so am I.) But in this case, both storylines are intertwined so tightly, it’s impossible for me to separate one from the other, and they provided the fertile ground from which Life Lessons 6 and 7 grew. These lessons are still as profound now in my life as they were when first born back on that old familiar street not so far away called Flamingo.
For those seven years growing up on Flamingo Street, the last week of July was always focused around getting ready for back-to-school. We’d all pile in the avocado green station wagon with the faux wood panels with Mom for days of shopping. She’d drag all of us kids from store to store in search for the best bargains on backpacks, school supplies and, of course, clothes.
It was Older Brother Richard and The Sister who always got new clothes; the rest of us kids got the hand-me-downs. As a kid, I always thought that wasn’t fair, but I had no way of knowing our parents were doing the best they could to take care of the needs of the five of us.
Life Lesson #6. Sometimes, things aren’t what they seem. Under the surface, people can be dealing with stuff you can’t possibly imagine — just like my parents were the year I asked about the presents.
Under the Christmas tree, each of us had five presents. Unfortunately, four boxes were filled with socks, underwear, shirts, pants, and a pair of shoes. The last box did have a present that we’d asked Santa to bring, but I thought it all was some kind of joke and our real presents were hidden in another room.
To us kids, before we started to open our presents, everything was perfectly fine at our house that Christmas day, but our parent’s reality was quite different. While growing up back on Flamingo, there was a time our parents almost lost everything, and that was the year I’d asked the question about presents.
Life Lesson #7. Words are powerful, and great care should be taken because they can never be unspoken, unheard, or unwritten. “Where are all the presents?” are five words I wish I’d never spoken, and the harm they caused my parents I’ve never forgotten. Some say, after fifty-five years, I should let the memory fade away.
I believe otherwise.
The childhood memory of that day is a reminder of how powerful words actually are and how, spoken or written, they can have lasting impact.
To my young readers out there. If you too must wear hand-me-down clothing going back to school, be understanding of your parents. Perhaps, like my parents, they’re doing the best they can and could be going through things you can’t possibly imagine.
The two life lessons still guide me to this very day in the stories I write here each week — stories from a long, long time ago while living on that old familiar street not so far away called Flamingo.
[Rick Ryckeley has been writing stories weekly in The Citizen since 2001.]