Two of my (grown-up) babies got engaged at the same time this last Christmas season. I caught myself thinking several times that this might be my best Christmas ever. It brought back a long forgotten memory of what really was perhaps my favorite Christmas gift ever.
I was about twelve or thirteen, and it had been a lean year financially for our little family on the Vesta Prairie. It was cold and we were broke, but that isn't the part I've been remembering...
Christmas was coming, and I had my mind on the expensive designer jeans my “town friends” were wearing. I was experimenting with make-up and spending hours locked in the bathroom curling my hair, surrounded by clouds of hair spray. The teenage years were hitting fast and furiously. My emotions were spiraling out of control. I spent the majority of my time with the phone receiver cradled to my ear and the cord stretched to my bedroom. Gossiping with my friends about cute boys, piles of “Teen” magazines scattered across my bed. I wanted to be a rich glamour girl. I wanted to live in New York City. I had a ways to go. In every sense.
My dad and his brothers had been out hunting in the woods on our mountain every night, coming home late and exhausted. They skinned the animals they killed and sold the skins. “Hide” money funded my parents Christmas shopping. I lived in a state of constantly conflicting emotions, stuck between praying for those poor animals to get away, and hoping for money to buy those designer jeans.
Dad spent more and more time working out in the barn at night, often going back out in the cold weather after supper and staying until long after my brother and I went to bed. I assumed he was skinning animals. I avoided that barn as much as possible. I can smell it in my mind, even today.
After much anticipation, the long-awaited Christmas morning finally dawned…my brother and I opened the gifts stacked under the tree one by one. I can’t remember what they were that year…maybe make-up or a cassette tape for me, maybe a football for Cody. No wrapped expensive designer jeans- and I tried not to show my disappointment… but then Dad slipped outside when we were almost finished, hurrying out to the barn and coming back with something wrapped in black trash bags. He handed it to me excitedly…
He had secretly spent those hours late at night out in that barn with all those stinky skinned animals- in the one place he knew I wouldn’t snoop- building me a large oval make-up mirror surrounded by lights. He fashioned the frame, positioned the mirror and attached it, ran the electrical cords and carefully screwed in the large bulbs…all with money we could hardly do without. It was beautiful.
I can close my eyes even today and easily remember the excitement on his face when I squealed with joy as he carried it in from the cold outside.
Mom spent Christmas Day hanging my mirror above a fancy new vanity table, with its short and padded stool. Oh, the many happy hours I spent primping in front of all the bright lights, pretending I was headed to model for a fancy magazine, applying and reapplying my make-up, modeling every outfit I owned. Getting ready for the day I would move away to the big city.
It’s been about thirty years since that Christmas morning so long ago. I’ve received a lot of presents and given a lot of presents myself, many of which cost much more than that mirror did. But I’m not sure I ever received a gift that had more effort and thought put into it, or brought me more fun and happiness.
I still lived in the country. I was still poor. I would never model for a magazine or even own those fancy designer jeans…but each and every time I sat in front of those bright lights, in my private little dressing room… lost in my pretend world…I was glamorous and rich.
I never made it to New York City. At least not to live. Never fulfilled many of those teenage dreams. As I got older, other dreams replaced them. Better dreams. Of family and faith, and small town life. It took me a lifetime to understand that I wasn’t poor- even in my childhood, but rich in ways that I wouldn‘t understand for many years…