My father, for reasons known only to him and perhaps to my mother, decided to go to graduate school in Sociology after nearly a decade as a Presbyterian minister, first in Montana and then in Missouri. As a kid, it never dawned on me to ask why, nor was it apparent that the decision to go back to school had any impact on my life. Ten year olds are far more aware of theme songs on Saturday morning cartoons than the inner workings of their parents minds. Now, nearly 50 years later, I can appreciate the financial impact his decision had on the family’s bottom line, and even more, my parents’ creative response to Christmas.
In 1967, at the advanced age of 10, I was busy memorizing every song on the radio (all of which I joyfully sang out of key), pretending to be a rock star and strumming on a beat up old tennis racket, and trying to practice piano. While my piano teacher thought that I should learn Minuet in G, I was more interested in the Beatles, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Like most kids, I spent hours during the lead up to Christmas, pouring through the Sears Wishbook and writing and rewriting the list to my parents. I also knew, however, that what ever I received wasn’t likely to come from the catalog.
Beside the obligatory set of Legos, Matchbox cars, and the geology and chemistry sets I couldn’t live without, the vast majority of my presents were made, not by Santa or Sears, but by my parents: a dollhouse, a kitchen including hoosier cabinet, trucks, planes, blocks, and, in 1967, a Paul McCartney marionette, complete with guitar.
In many respects, the presents were magical…especially for the other families in the neighborhood and for families deep in the Ozarks where my father served as a minister. The family a couple of doors down with four kids and less money found a box of trucks and a cloth doll on their doorstep Christmas morning. Another family, catty-corner across the street found a small dollhouse (they had two daughters).
The presents came, not from my father but my mother. J.D. Basket, the contractor who built our house and who lived behind us, would drop off scrap lumber (mostly pine) from his job sites. Nearly every kid in our neighborhood had something made on my mother’s workbench either from JD’s wood or from cloth scavenged from yard sales. While I was at school, she would set aside her miniatures and work on toys. According to Jim, by the week before Christmas, she had produced boxes of toys: cars, trucks, sailboats, cloth dolls, stuffed critters, blocks, ring-toss games, you name it.
Not only did her toys go to kids in the neighborhood, they also went to my father’s churches to be given away to families along with boxes of food and canned goods and oranges and nuts. There is no way of knowing how many toys she made between 1954, when she started, and 1969, when they moved to Virginia. I’m not even sure she kept count. But for a substantial percentage of the kids in my father’s congregations, he was married to Santa.