I’ve been working on my memoir for a couple years now. This is the first chapter I wrote for it. It is a true story. The setting for most of the story is a trailer park off Lake Mead Blvd in North Las Vegas around 40 years ago. This is my inspiration for my “buy nothing” Giftmas this year. I hope you enjoy the story. The memoir is still in progress, but I’m hoping to have the first draft finished by Summer 2018, perhaps.
Through the month of December, I’m going to take you through The Walnut Angel as well as share some vignettes and stories with you – things I’ve learned along the way – We’re going to make giftmas from scratch – all the way around. Thanks for coming along.
The Walnut Angel
My eyes fluttered open in the darkness. Swinging my feet off the bed and slipping them into my slippers, I pulled my robe around me, and tip-toed across my huge bedroom to the door. My brother, Chipper, had been so jealous when Mom gave me the big bedroom; the one with the full bathroom attached. He could see himself sailing his boats for hours in the green-tiled tub, and loathed the thought of me soaking in bubbles and “stinky stuff” as he called my beauty supplies. As I opened the door, I heard Chip snoring softly in his large bedroom next to mine.
As I tiptoed across the large room we called “the hallway”, I passed the telephone nook, with the built in writing desk and stool, where I enjoyed chatting the day away on the telephone. This phone wasn’t like Grandma’s with the dial that hurt your finger to push it all the way around on the higher numbers. This phone had buttons, 3 neat columns of four buttons each, that made it easy to memorize phone numbers, because I could just make a picture with the buttons in my head.
I’d come to the last doorway on my journey; the one that led to the living room. The last hurdle, though, was to traverse the length of a huge wooden shelving unit and round the end, before the Christmas tree was in sight. I could just see the top of the tree, and the beautiful glass angel topper, if I stood on my tiptoes and hung my nose on the top of the unit. She had been a gift from my grandmother, made of molded and spun glass, and she sparkled in the darkness, reflecting the streetlights outside the curtained window beside the tree. Strings of lights danced around her, and heirloom lace ornaments formed a foundation for her to stand. I ducked down, and continued my quest. I had to see if Santa had brought me the things for which I’d asked, and I had to know before anyone else was awake, so if I was disappointed in Santa’s choices, I had time to stow my negative feelings of hurt and resentment, and put on a happy face for my Mom. The end of the shelving unit was less than my arm’s length away, and as I started to round the corner….
DONG! Cuckoo! DONG! Cuckoo! DONG! Cuckoo!
I jumped straight up in the air, and in one step, was piled safely under my covers in my bed, slippers and all, shivering and breathless. It was then that I decided I’d never try to sneak out again, and I’d be happy with whatever Santa brought. And bring things, he did. Chipper and I spent hours the next morning opening presents; the latest toys, collectables, and clothes from the most expensive stores. That was Christmas, 1974: I was 8 and Chipper was 6.
Winter turned to Spring, and with it came an introduction to Painter. My brother and I were watching the Saturday morning cartoons, sharing an entire box of lucky charms and freshly delivered milk, served up in one of the large mixing bowls with two serving spoons. We heard mom’s bedroom door open, and out strolled a tall, lanky man with a tanned face and arms, a ghost white body, and a dark-red neck, wearing nothing but a pair of old, paint-splattered jeans. His receding hairline gave way to salt and pepper curls close to his head, his broad forehead graduating down to a nose that had met more than it’s share of knuckles in a lifetime. He glanced at Chip and I, mumbled “morning” and headed into the kitchen. After a few minutes of cabinets slamming and more mumbling, he grabbed a Budweiser from the fridge and stumbled back into mom’s room, closing the door. I looked at Chipper and he looked at me, and together we said, “Guess we have another new dad.”
So Painter got used to us, and we got used to him. After a few weeks, he told us he and Mom were “common-law” married, and we should call him Daddy. We agreed, as this was not the first time we’d had that speech. Daddy would take us fishing a lot down on the rock piles, he taught us how to clean fish, and pick vegetables at his Aunt’s farm. Mom quit going to the grocery store except to buy milk and beer. We ate only what we caught or picked.
One July evening, Daddy came home from work in a hurry, tires squealing. He parked his truck so far in the back yard it was almost buried in the brush between our house and the Ladner’s behind us. Breathless, he stomped into the house, dragged Mom into the bedroom, and their voices got loud! We heard Daddy tell Mom to get the kids, and he’d get the car ready; we were all leaving right then. Mom came out, grabbed two pillow cases out of the linen closet, and came to Chip and I in his room. “Take these pillow cases, and put in them anything you want for the rest of your life. Don’t overfill them. What you leave behind, you’ll never see again.” she said softly. We didn’t argue; we never did argue with Mom. Chipper took his teddy bear Hershel, his favorite marbles, and his cowboy boots. I packed my AM/FM radio I’d got from Granddaddy for Christmas, my teddy bear Rosebud, and one of the Laura Ingalls-Wilder books I’d been reading. We piled in the back seat of Mom’s maroon and black ’65 Mustang, and Mom piled a stack of Daddy’s clothing on top of us. “Don’t forget Princess!!” I yelled from the back seat. Princess was my dog I’d had since she was a puppy, 6 months ago. Dad tossed Princess in, on top of the clothes, climbed in the driver’s seat, and we were off. We spent 8 days in that car, sleeping in camp-grounds, under overpasses, and rest areas. It wasn’t until we reached Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico, that my mother figured out I’d not brought shoes with me at all, and only had the shorts and shirt I’d been wearing since the night we’d left.
Daddy’s last twenty ran out in Henderson, Nevada, just outside of Las Vegas, so we settled down to live in the campground at Lake Mead Park. Dad got a job at a gas station, and mom worked in a Dry Cleaner’s off the strip. Chip and I spent our days hanging out with the Hell’s Angels and Religious groups who frequented the park. After three months, we were able to move into a trailer in North Vegas; a small, one bedroom, 25 foot travel trailer. Chipper and I shared a tiny vinyl couch for our bed and a rough army blanked for our covers. Mom brought home some clothes from the lost and found at work, and a pair of leather shoes for me from the thrift store. At night, while Mom and Daddy were either at the bar or fighting in the bedroom, Chipper and I would listen to my radio and do shadow puppets on the walls for entertainment. We missed our TV, our telephone, our Lucky Charms. Life was very different here. Instead of riding a big shiny school-bus every day, we walked two miles to school and two miles home, with the rest of the “trailer trash” as the other kids called us. While other kids played in their own swimming pools and had dance and karate lessons at the Community Center, we played in the vacant sand lot next to our trailer park, digging underground forts, and making playhouses in the whithered shrubs. Most times, the ground was dry and cracked, and we would spend hours tracing the cracks with sticks, like we were working a giant maze. Sometimes, out of nowhere, floods would wash down the culverts from the rain on Sunrise mountain.
Daddy changed jobs and got into business with another company, painting the stripes on the roads. We celebrated this good fortune by moving into the trailer next door to ours, which was twice as big, and had bunk beds in the hallway, as well as a bedroom for Mom and Daddy. We felt so rich, and a few days later, Daddy brought home a 13” black and white television. Chipper and I were so thrilled, even though we only got one channel. We watched reruns of shows from the 50’s, as well as Lawrence Welk and Hee Haw. It was turning to Winter again, but we didn’t really notice, as it never really got cold.
School closed for Christmas Holiday, and Chip and I spent our days making up variety song-and-dance shows on the covered patio of the trailer while Mom and Daddy worked, and then went to the Corner Bar for most the night. I learned that you have to add water to canned tomato soup to make it taste good; and Chipper and I ate a lot of canned soup. One day, Mom stayed home with us. She said since it was Christmas Eve, she wanted to spend some quality time with us. We sat around and played word games most the day and Mom cooked rice with butter and sugar for lunch.
Around three in the afternoon, we heard Daddy drive up in his work truck. He popped the clutch stalling out the engine, flung open his door into the fence, and grabbed something out of the bed of the truck. The trailer door flew open, and in soared this poor long-leaf pine tree. Daddy’s voice slurred mockingly from beyond the steps into the trailer, “Decorate it by the time I get home, or I’m throwing it in the dumpster!” The door slammed shut, and the old Ford’s gears grinded. We sat in silence, listening to Daddy drive away, all of us focused on this poor dead tree with which we’d been entrusted. It was less than four feet tall; a sapling really. The base was splintered and ragged, apparently shot down, not cut down with an axe or saw. The boughs were sparse, and instead of short, tight needles, they were long and soft like fine hair, not the bristles as you’d expect on a good Christmas tree.
Decorate it! Decorate it? With What? We’d left everything behind; the glass angel from Grandma, the twinkling lights, the heirloom ornaments. We barely had money for food, so there was no hope of running up to the discount store to buy anything unless we wanted to get creative with crushed aluminum beer cans. Chip and I looked at Mom, expecting to see her look as hopeless as we did. She didn’t. She was smiling. She looked at Chipper and barked, “You! Go get a roll of Toilet Paper!” and then to me, she pointed and ordered “You! Go get the twist ties out of the garbage bags box!” We followed our orders and returned to the kitchen table, to find she’d grabbed a red felt pen. We spent the next hour making hundreds of toilet-paper carnations. Chip and I would carefully fold the paper, twist the wire around the middle leaving long tags to fasten it to the tree, then we’d carefully fluff the paper out, making it into a beautiful fluffy flower. Mom would then take the red marker and carefully fringe the edges of each one with red, using a hairpin dipped in water to fade the red ink further on the paper. We fastened these to the tree and stood back. It was a great start.
“What else do we need, Chipper?” Mom joyfully inquired. “Garland!” he and I exclaimed together. She grabbed the only cereal in the house, generic Oat Rings, which none of us liked, and her sewing kit. We strung that entire box of cereal onto doubled strands of thread, until our fingers were sore from the rough cereal and the accidental needle pokes. Then the decorating got fun! We scoured the entire trailer for treasures; a bit of lace ripped off of Mom’s slip, Chip’s marbles tied up in sheer stockings, and strips of aluminum foil became tinsel.
We sat, exhausted from our efforts, and looked at the tree. “We still need an angel, but I don’t think we have one” I said in a most somber but mature voice. Mom again smiled. She grabbed a cardboard wrapper from the sheer stockings we’d used to hang the marbles, and fashioned it into a cone, securing it with duct tape we’d had in a tool box outside. With her sewing scissors, she carefully cut out a set of wings from doubled layers of more tape, and stuck them on the back of the cone. Using glue, she carefully affixed a walnut, on which she’d drawn a most heavenly face, to the top of the cone. This was topped off by an aluminum foil halo. Chipper stood on the couch, and carefully placed the angel on the top of the tree.
I am not sure when, or if Daddy came home that night. When I woke up the next morning before dawn, I remembered my promise to Santa, and stayed in my bed until I heard others get up. Chip was on his way to the living room, and slid off my bunk and followed him. Santa didn’t leave anything for us that year, but it was okay. We had the Walnut Angel, and she was a nice present. We sat together, Chipper and I, and looked at the tree as we shared a piece of toast, and a glass of freshly made powdered milk.
Up until I moved my mother out here with me to Washington State, that walnut angel crowned the top of every Christmas tree she had. I think she finally gave it to Chipper to keep. I never forgot about that Christmas, but not for negative reasons. We all have a story of how we learned the real meaning of Christmas, and that was mine.
Tomorrow – Paper flower ornaments.