Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
1956 was a hard year for the Patterson family. One evening Dad came home from work at the lumber mill in so much pain he could scarcely drag himself out of the car. He had tripped at work and hurt his back. Worried about his paycheck at the end of the week, Dad pulled himself to his feet and gutted it out until the end of his shift, despite a pain that (we later learned from a coworker) was so gut-wrenching he almost passed out several times.
Mom tried to heal Dad with a variety of homemade poultices that had such a stench they practically peeled back the wallpaper. But to no effect. Eventually Dad put himself in the care of a surgeon who cut a piece of bone from his hip and fused it into his spine. The Workers Compensation Fund refused to cover his injury (claiming he had aggravated a pre-existing condition). So two weeks later when he returned home to heal, all the money we had to live on for the next six months would come from whatever Mom could earn making and selling pastries.
The neighbors soon caught wind of our plight and hardly a day passed without someone dropping by with a slab of venison or a basket of wild asparagus. We quickly discovered that beggars, indeed, can’t be choosers as we learned to dine on everything from goose eggs to elk heart. But it wasn’t all gizzards and duck feet. One day, Walter Kaiser, the retired boatswain mate who lived across the street, brought by a huge bag of delicious unshelled peanuts he’d won playing bingo at the VFW.
As fall drifted into winter and Dad continued to heal, my thoughts turned to Christmas. Without money for presents I began to wonder if the peanuts would be our only gift that year. What I really wanted was a telescope. I’d found a picture of a swell one in the Sears catalogue, but I knew it would cost too much, so I put in a request for an inexpensive, plastic spy glass.
Mom could tell I wasn’t adjusting well to our newfound poverty and did her best to remain cheerful despite the fact that our financial crisis was exacting a toll on her. Between caring for Father, raising two boys, and making baked goods, Mother scarcely slept. And yet she was our rock. One evening she caught me crying in my room because my weekly allowance had been long abandoned and I suddenly realized I hadn’t saved enough money to buy presents for my relatives. Each year I purchased a gift for my grandparents, parents, brother, aunt and uncle, and two cousins. Now what would I do?
Mom comforted me while she searched for a solution.
“Let’s see,” she muttered. “You don’t have any money. I don’t have any money . . .” Then it came to her in a flash. “Walter’s peanuts!” she shouted with glee. “Walter’s peanuts!”
Mother then explained that she would teach me how to make peanut brittle for Christmas. A box of brittle would make a delicious present—for young and old alike—and we already had all of the ingredients we needed.
For several evenings I donned my mother’s apron, stood on a stool, and labored happily over the stove. On the last night, after the last batch of candy was finally completed, Mom brought out the end of a roll of newsprint and I colored on it until it made a suitable wrapping paper. Soon I had a nicely wrapped present for everyone.
But my holiday mood didn’t last. There was no sign of a spyglass anywhere and I was just sure my tenth Christmas was going to be the worst Christmas ever. Once again, it was Mother who came to the rescue. As I sat at the kitchen table, mooning over the Sears catalogue toys that I wouldn’t be getting, Mom gently tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and there she stood with her arm outstretched and an axe clutched in her hand.
“It’s time for you to go get our Christmas tree,” Mother said with a smile.
I couldn’t believe it. The axe was being passed on to me! Since Dad was house-bound, I would now carry the axe. Drawing myself out of my funk, I carefully took the bucolic scepter from Mom’s hand, hiked into the snow-covered forest that was our backyard, and chopped down a spruce tree.
An hour later, as I huffed, puffed, and hauled the newly cut tree to our home, I ran into Walter.
“That’s kind of a shabby looking thing,” the former navy man barked as he bit down on his pipe.
It was. The good looking trees were too far away for me to haul them all the way back to our home, so I had settled on a tree that was nearby. This tree was decent on one side and pretty shabby on the other.
“I have just the thing,” Walter offered as he disappeared into the shed behind his house. A couple minutes later he returned with his solution to our lackluster tree—a hand drill and several drill bits.
“Every place there’s a gap in the tree, drill a hole,” Walter snapped. I’ll tell you which drill size and where to drill.”
After I finished boring the holes, Walter handed me a stack of limbs he’d cut from a pine tree nearby and stated: “They’re not a perfect match, but they’re close enough for government work.”
Uncertain but hopeful, I began to insert pine branches into the holes I had drilled in the spruce tree. Then, with Walter’s help, I cut the newly affixed appendages to the right length and trimmed a little here and a little there until the tree looked surprisingly full—curiously motley, but full.
Christmas day finally came and all I could think about were the presents I had made. How would my family react? I didn’t have to wait long to get an answer, for soon my relatives were tearing away the homemade wrapping paper and sampling the treasure inside.
“It’s wonderful!” My aunt Mickey exclaimed as she bit into the brittle.
“And you made it all by yourself!” Grandpa Bill enthused.
“Why it’s far better than anything store bought,” shouted my uncle Vic.
“And just look at the tree!” my father proudly said. Then he paused for effect and asked, “Did you know that Kerry is responsible for that tree?”
“I understand you cut it down and then spruced it up.” (Actually I had pined it up.) “Is that true?” asked Grandpa.
And so, in a flurry of compliments and joyful affirmations, our 1956 came to an end. By mid-January, Dad had returned to work at the mill and things were back to normal.
I hadn’t thought much about that particular season until I started wondering about this year’s bleak economy and the challenge many people will have as they try to bring joy to the holidays. I don’t know what it will be like for others; however, I do know this. In 1956, the year of our poverty, I didn’t get a spyglass. We simply didn’t have enough money.
But you know what? It didn’t really matter. I still found Christmas. I found it in Mom’s irrepressible spirit and endless ingenuity. To this day, I can close my eyes and see her cheerfully toiling over delicious petit fours into the wee hours of the morning. Dad constantly praised me for growing into what he called “a little man.” That was his gift to me. My family complimented the brittle and the goofy looking tree I cobbled together with the same enthusiasm generally afforded a returning hero. That was their present.
During this lean year, several of my family members are taking their lead from 1956. Many are making gifts rather than buying them. My nine-year-old granddaughter, Rachel, has sewn a bunting for her sister who will be born on December 21st. The material for the outfit cost less than a dollar, but the fact that she sewed it with her own two hands makes it priceless. I suspect her gift will get most of the ooohs and ahhhs at the Patterson gathering this year. I also suspect that it’ll be Rachel’s favorite gift as well.
We’re also taking special care to spend as much time as we can together. The time of shared love and caring is the biggest part of any memory we’ll create. And when we gather on Christmas Eve, I plan on reading this story aloud. I’ll give other gifts. I’ll share other things, but they’re only things. This story, taken from memory and recorded with love, will be my favorite gift.
So there you have it—1956, the year of our poverty. The year my father tripped . . . and I stumbled on Christmas.