This morning, I'm remembering back to those childhood Christmases in the mid 1940s. I can still feel the shivery excitement of jumping out of bed and racing to the living room in my pajamas to see what magical gifts waited under the tree. I was maybe eight years old by the time I figured out that Santa Claus was really my parents. They had stealthed into the living room the night before, after my brother and I went to sleep, and stuffed the stockings hanging on the fireplace, and arranged the glittery packages that had been hiding in a closet for weeks.
Both my parents had become adults at the start of the Great Depression. My dad had taken on the fight to bring a dying ranch back to life, while my mother worked as a law-office clerk to support her parents and sister after her dad was laid off his job as a railroad conductor. The two had met when my dad visited the law office on business. So there was the time in their own lives when the smallest gift was a major investment of hard-earned dollars.
On the heels of depression had come World War II. The whole country had been willing to tighten their belts in order to support what would be the last war in U.S. history that most Americans felt good about.
As a kid, I had helped Mom make dish towels out of flour sacks, and helped Dad collect cans from both the house kitchen and the bunkhouse kitchen. We flattened the cans, and boxed them, so we could haul them into town on the pickup. From the collection point at the railroad station, everybody's cans got shipped to some war industry somewhere, where they'd be melted down for the tin and copper.
Post-War Nickels and Dimes
Now the war was over, and things were looking up.
But that somber depression-time practicality still hung in the air. It was still a time when you didn't give your kid anything frivolous for Christmas. You gave a kid what he or she needed. Sweaters or mittens or warm socks, of course, if that was what we needed in those Montana winters. But other things were needed as well -- things that kept the imagination warm, and the spirit buoyed.
Early on, my mom did try dolls on me -- only to find out that I was not the least bit interested in dolls.
My parents weren't perfect people, and over the years, our family had its issues, as most families do. But Mom and Dad were smart enough to notice the things that intrigued both my brother and myself -- even though these things might someday take us away from the ranch. Neither of them had finished college, but they both valued education highly. So many "toys" weren't just to play with -- they were intended to help us learn.
For my brother, who was avid for engineering and radio and aviation, there was a model airplane kit under the tree. Or an Erector set, which got played with industriously, for a couple of years, till the little girders and other architecture bits were bent and scattered. Or the first little crystal radio set. When he was old enough, he was helping with the ranch machinery, tinkering with it and driving it. But, not surprisingly, he went on to become an engineer, inventor and pilot. He got his first amateur-radio license in high school, and is still a ham today.
For me, the ranch was a wonderful place, and i helped my dad with the cattle operation. But the avid thing was books. There could never be too many books. In my room, I had a bookcase with a growing library that included juvenile classics of the last 100 years, and every horse book written since the dawn of time. And, more patently for education, there was the lavishly illustrated My Book House encyclopedia for kids. By age 10, I was already telling everybody that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. The next Christmas, I found an Underwood portable typewriter under the tree.
By the time we hit high school, the gifts were more adult. For my brother, the tree yielded a remote-control model airplane with a real tiny engine that sounded like a mad hornet -- you had to build it, but then you could actually fly it.
For me, the bright-colored paper and ribbon often revealed a postwar nonfiction bestseller. Like Dwight Eisenhower's Crusade in Europe (1948), which I read for an 8th grade book report. Or Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl (1952), which I read for a high-school report. For both of us, there was an Encyclopedia Britannica, shelved in the living room where we could both find it.
My parents were Republicans...but humanist Republicans, a species that is almost extinct today. They were aware of something called human rights, and never censored my reading much. Some people in our town found Anne Frank's diary to be too frank -- objectionably so -- and preachers preached against it. But my folks thought I should read about how a Jewish girl had fared in that awful war out there.
In spite of this broadmindedness of theirs, by high school I felt obliged to hide from them - and from everybody else - a strange and creeping awareness that my ideas about sex and love were different from most of the stuff I found in those books. When I waded my way through T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom for a World War I book report, and ran across the story of two Arab boys who loved each other, it was the first time that I saw my real self in the pages of a book.
My Own Book Comes Home
Many years later, in early 1974, at age 38, after the disastrous masquerade in heterosexual marriage, and the divorce, I finally came home to the ranch to visit with galley proofs of a book I had written, titled The Front Runner. It was finally time to clear the air with them on this subject. My humanist Republican folks had to take a deep breath and try gamely to take it in. And they did.
After all, they had to know that this was the end result, the bottom line, of a couple dozen Christmases past and all those gift-wrapped books under the tree.
Today, at 75, I watch the shopping frenzy that grips the country for two months every year, once Halloween is over. As the fatness of several decades' conspicuous consumption shrinks with shocking speed, as income ebbs, and there is rampant unemployment on an 1930s scale, America is skinnying back to a kind of Christmas when a 99-percenter kid can get just what she needs, or he needs.
And maybe that's a good thing.
We hear a lot about kids today -- a lot of noisy controversy about what kids should need, and should have. Liberals see it one way, and conservatives see it the opposite. I am always shudderingly shocked at the news stories of parents who throw their children out if they find out the kid is gay, or lesbian, or bi, or transgender. When I worked with at-risk students in Los Angeles Unified School District, I saw the heartbreaking lock-outs happen to several students of mine.
I try to imagine what it would have been like, if my secret had been discovered at age 15 and I had found myself locked out of the house on some freezing Montana night, with no place to go, because in the 1950s there was no such thing as a youth shelter in a Western town of 6000 people.
Today it's many years since my parents passed on. But I often feel their spirits hovering around. There's a brief feeling of them peering in to see where that parenting job of theirs is still going. That parenting is still happening, like a long, long echo that doesn't fade. How does it look to them now that the kid is 75? I wonder. And I thank them always.
It's such a simple idea -- giving somebody something for Christmas that they really need. Whether it's a relative's kid, or your own kid, or a kid in some program you support. Or even another adult -- a friend of yours, or a relative that you feel you have to gift. To give in the most effective way, we have to take a clear-eyed look at who that person is, not just react to the shopping knee-jerk. Because we never know where that gift of ours is going to take someone's life.
Indeed -- it's an awesome, even scary responsibility that we take on, as we tie that pretty bow. One gift can be a lifetime thing. But it's one of the greatest things we can do.
This Christmas morning, the best gift I can give is a story about gifts. Unwrap it, and take it wherever you need to go.
photo 1: author at Christmas 1943 (property of author)
photo 2: author doing 4-H clinic on Hereford cattle, 1953 (property of author)
photo 3: author and her father, Con Warren, 1974 (Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site)