By Sean Dietrich
“When I was a kid, we didn’t have no Christmas tree,” said the waitress, placing a hamburger on the table before me.
I was in North Georgia, in a restaurant attached to a gas station. My waitress’s name was Sharon. I know this because her name tag said “SHARON.”
“No tree?” I said, lifting the top bun to make sure everything was okay under the hood.
“Nosir. Didn’t get no presents, neither. My mama worked too hard to spend money on that kinda stuff. Mama paid bills and bought food.”
She passed me the Heinz for my fries. I used the butt of my palm to spank the bottle until it repented.
My server was middle-aged, with hair that was straw colored, and she wore a sweatshirt with the name of a local high school on it.
“So,” I said, “no trees and no gifts, how did your family celebrate?”
She smiled. Her teeth were blindingly white, perfectly straight—a credit to her genetics, her dental care professional, or her prosthodontist. She had a great smile.
“Celebrate? Shoot. We didn’t.”
She shook her head and started jingling the change in her apron. “Not until I was nineteen.”
“That was the year Mama died. Mama died in an accident coming home from work. It was awful. Worst day of my life. Drunk driver got her. Had to raise all eight of my brothers and sisters after that. My dad was a deadbeat.”
She looked off as though she were posing for a Renoir.
“Know what I did that first Christmas?”
“Well, we couldn’t afford no tree. But out in our shed we had cans of old green paint, ‘cause our trailer was green on the outside. So I cleared a place in the living room and I painted a tree on the wall.
“Then we all made flowery ornaments and stuff from pieces of tin foil, sticking them to our painted-wall tree. We made popcorn strings, decorated pine cones, that kinda stuff.”
I negotiated a fry through six inches of ketchup. “You’re pretty creative.”
“That ain’t the best part. Me and my brother, Sweets, spent twenty dollars on our whole family that year. Twenty bucks. That was our spending limit.
“For eight kids?”
“Nine including me.”
A bell dinged over the door. She told the customers to sit wherever, then she returned her gaze to me for the clincher.
“You’d be surprised what you can buy with twenty bucks if you’re smart. We made our presents for cheap.
“Sweets got some wood and fixed up some swords and shields for the boys, spray painted ’em silver. For the girls, I went to the thrift store and bought old babydolls, repainted their faces, sewed brand new clothes for ’em so they looked like new.”
“Not a nickel more.”
She took a moment to laugh. It was the kind of absent laugh you give when remembering too much.
“Then know what we did?”
I shook my head.
“Few days ‘fore Christmas, me and Sweets went behind Kmart to get a bunch of free cardboard boxes—you know, to put our presents into? We were gonna wrap them up in newspaper. Know what we found behind Kmart?”
“Found cans of expired pureed pumpkin, and boxes of pudding, a bunch of perfectly good food, just throwed away. I took it all home and made pies out of it. Pumpkin pies, pudding pies, you name it. Graham cracker crust.”
Another proud laugh.
“Next morning,” she went on, “everyone woke up and saw their toys and all we did was cry.”
“Cry? You mean happy tears?”
“No. We were all so sad without Mama, we couldn’t do nothing but cry. It was a hard year.”
“Long time ago, darling.”
I applied mayonnaise to my burger with a masonry trowel. Then I broke my onions into individual pieces of mulch and positioned them just right.
“What are your Christmases like now?” I asked.
“My kids get the best Christmas. We drive all the way to North Carolina just to pick out a tree. We walk through the woods near my brother-in-law’s house, and we chop it down together, trim it up, and ever’thing.”
“And we make all our own presents. Carve them, or sew them, or pottery. That’s the rule. You gotta make ’em with your own hands. More fun when you make them.”
She removed a smartphone from her apron. The woman donned reading glasses and began thumbing through photos. Finally, she showed me the phone. “Lookie here. This is what I’m making my oldest, she’s twenty.”
On the screen was a quilt of magnific proportions. There were so many colors the blanket looked like a veritable Dolly Parton song. Her creation was—to put it frankly—museum worthy.
“You know,” I said, “that was a pretty good story you just told, about your childhood.”
“Aw,” she said, “I keep telling my kids I’m gonna write it all down one day, to remind them to be thankful for all the stuff they have.”
“I think you should.”
“God no, I hate to write. Need to find someone to write it for me.”
Consider this my contribution to your family’s bountiful Christmas, Sharon.