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A Christmas Past

“One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all…One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.” 1

In the second year of our marriage, 1970, we moved from a classic walk-up, second-floor flat in a lovely old brownstone in Dallas, from the unfurnished living room—except for an easel with my unfinished oil painting on it and a second-hand hide-a-bed couch—from the little breakfast nook with the card table and four folding chairs, from the “dining room” with the faux (aka cardboard) round table deftly hidden by a long tablecloth, from our usually inebriated landlady living in the flat beneath us—to a dingy apartment building in Arlington near the campus of the University of Texas. We had come to work with a student organization.

My husband was himself a graduate student back in Dallas. This meant an extra hour commute every day, morning and evening. I was the main “breadwinner,” and walked daily to the campus at UTA to meet students, coming home in the afternoons to the hide-a-bed couch and the faux round table and the card table and folding chairs, and the unfinished oil painting—all looking a bit dingier in their new setting.

I also came home to a paycheck that barely covered every week’s groceries and not at all covering my husband’s needs for books, tuition, and gas money.

We were managing somehow, and still discovering each other in this fledgling marriage. We read novels together and took walks, our very cheap but satisfying sources of entertainment. We were also getting to know the students in our group, and I was working on learning to cook and even entertain occasionally.

As Christmas that year neared, the paycheck had been spent on necessities, and the pantry was empty. Literally, there was nothing to make a meal with. It was a week before our next paycheck was due. We were without food and without money. Things looked decidedly grim.

We knew that if we contacted either set of parents, telling them of our dire situation—though even a phone call to California or Ohio would further eat into our empty budget—financial help would have been forthcoming. But we decided, instead, not to tell anyone. We would pray to God about our needs.

So, we prayed, and didn’t tell a soul of our plight.

That very day, a phone call came: Would we come to dinner? We had had no dinner invitations at all that semester.

The next day, another phone call came with another dinner invitation.

Every day that week, we were startled by yet another invitation to dinner by people who had never invited us before.

And then—we received an invitation to share Christmas dinner with new friends.

Betsy and Steve lived in Dallas. Steve was a fellow student in the same class with Trent. Betsy, just as I, went to a Dallas campus every day, while our husbands studied. Betsy’s parents also lived in Dallas, and it was to their home we were invited. Kind people! We were stranded from our own families, so far away, and they noticed, and did something about it.

It was a memorable Christmas dinner. Clearly, both Betsy and her mother were exceptional cooks.

There were turkey and the works—but it was the cornbread dressing that hooked me. I had grown up in Ohio on white bread dressing and ate it every Thanksgiving and Christmas. I remember helping to tear mounds of fluffy bread pieces into the large white enamel pan, which my mother mixed with seasonings and moistened with broth before it went into the oven. It was what I knew, and I liked it.

This cornbread dressing was an experience for the palate. Loose and yellow and crumbly, speckled with sage and thyme and laced with lots of butter, crunchy with onion and celery, baked to a rich, golden brown—it became, for me, the pièce de resistance. I asked for the recipe. I learned that it is Southern, for Betsy’s parents were certainly that; it was not an unusual dish for them. I became Southern that day, at least as far as cornbread dressing was concerned. Not for that reason alone, certainly, but Betsy’s parents as well as Betsy and Steve became part of our lives.

There was, however, still Christmas itself.

I had something like $3.75 to spend on my husband for Christmas. He had even less to spend on me. I went to a fabric store, found a pattern for neckties, and spent the remaining money on a piece of cloth. Trent got a homemade necktie for Christmas. He gave me a tiny bouquet of tiny straw flowers. We found a table-sized tree for one dollar on Christmas Eve and decorated it with pinecones.

It was our best Christmas—dingy apartment notwithstanding—and one that we love to remember. We had prayed to the God who knew our needs, and he answered in relationships, as well as food. We have never doubted since, in thin or in thick, that he knew what we needed before we did.

I began making Trent’s neckties out of dress fabric leftover from my sewing projects. Those ties became somewhat famous among his fellow students for their colorful patterns.

I also began making cornbread dressing and have never looked back.

When our paycheck finally came, the invitations stopped.

1 The Gifts of the Magi, O. Henry

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1 Comment
Dec 15, 2021

It's all true! She told you what happened and what it felt like. Funny how surviving a lack of things you want (money to buy things we needed/wanted and presents for each other) can turn out to be far more meaningful than always having plenty. But that seems to be the way it works.

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