This holiday season we offer a chapter from Herbert Hyde’s memoir, College and Eighth, in which he has retrieved a moving Christmas memory viewed through the eyes of a young boy in a family of ten children. Matt Graves has said of this book, “Hyde’s book is an insightful and nostalgic return to a middle America when home delivery milkmen, horse-drawn bread wagons and 15-cent movies were familiar. His story of growing up poor and white in what was once a vital industrial city is an alarming reflection of the… profile for so many American cities...” Herb Hyde is a retired autoworker, union activist, avid college hockey fan, and local history buff.
College and Eighth can be purchased as an e-book from Amazon/Kindle books. Paperback copies can be ordered by contacting the Troy Bookmakers or the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. Herbert Hyde’s follow-up memoir to College and Eighth will be released in mid-February to early March, 2015. This chapter is included here by permission of the author.
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I Guess We Are Poor
A few years earlier my sister Dorothy dragged me and my younger sisters down to the Salvation Army for their annual Christmas party. I think Cliff was away at Vanderhyden Hall that year and Patty refused to go. This was the first and only time I remember us going to that party. Apparently, this was one of the bleakest Christmases we ever had, because Dad had not gotten much work, and when he did, he drank away most of the money. Plus, Grandma and Grandpa Davenport were in a financial crisis. Sales had slowed and they didn't have much extra money that year. (I learned later that my grandparents were the ones who always made sure we had Christmas gifts under the tree. They were our "Santa and Mrs. Claus.")
Ma was silently crying at the kitchen table that day because things had gotten so bad. She knew we wouldn't have any gifts under the tree. "What's the matter, Ma?" I asked innocently.
Looking up at me with tears running down her cheeks, she smiled, then hugged me and said, "Oh it's nothing, honey, I'm just feeling the blues. I'm OK now." With that she wiped her eyes with her dish towel and went back to drying the dishes.
An hour later, Dorothy came into the parlor where we were playing and told us all to make sure we were dressed. "Why?" Patty complained.
"Because Ma said we all just got invited to a Christmas party down at the Salvation Army, and Santa is going to be there." Ma had been getting invitations for several years now but never sent us, because that would be an admission that we were poor and that she couldn't provide us a proper Christmas. However, this year was different. She was desperate and truly believed that going to this year's party would be our Christmas, providing us the only presents we'd get.
"Really," Brenda said gleefully. She loved parties and loved to dress up, while the thought of seeing Santa Claus sent chills of excitement up my spine. "Can we get dressed up special?" Brenda asked Dorothy.
"Nope. Just wear what you have on. It's going to start in about a half hour, so we got to get moving, get your coats on, now!" Of course, we didn't have many special clothes. Come to find out, most of our "new" clothes were actually used clothes from the Salvation Army. As kids, we could have cared less where we got them, because they were always new to us.
"Well, I'm not going!" Patty sniped. "I don't want to be with all them kids. I don't want to be like them." Dorothy didn't want to argue with her because she knew time was running close. Patty stayed home in her room that day.
We soon began the long trek down the RPI Approach to Broadway, making sure we stayed on the opposite side of the street from Gaynor's Gay spot. At Fourth Street and the Post Office, we turned north into the freezing cold winds and snow flurries that were buffeting the city that brutal December day. Just north of Fulton Street, Dorothy ordered us to stand behind a group of grungy looking kids, dressed in tattered clothes like ours. They had been waiting patiently for the door to open.
We shivered in the freezing cold for about fifteen minutes, when a volunteer finally opened the door. She counted each laughing kid as they raced gleefully past her and up the creaky wooden stairs. As Dorothy reached the front of the line, she said, regretfully, "I'm sorry, I think we're full up."
I know this poor girl must have felt terrible seeing the sadness in Dorothy's eyes and us little kids shivering behind her. With tears welling in her eyes, Dorothy pleaded, "Can you please see if you can find room for us? My little brother and sisters have been standing in the cold for a long time, and they haven't had a real meal in days."
That was true. We had been eating watered-down, pea soup and stale bread for the past week. Ma had made the soup from a leftover ham-bone and a bag of dried green peas Winnie gave her the week before. She knew Ma had nothing left to eat in the house. Being the proud woman she was, Ma refused to add to the tab at Harry's. She was embarrassed because she couldn't pay him what she promised. She had been hoping that Dad would soon be home with some money. But he never came. He'd already been away for a week, supposedly cutting Christmas trees with Frank Lanquid. In past years, he'd sell them from an old ice fishing shanty he kept illegally on a vacant corner lot behind Helficks.
Sensing our disappointment, the girl said to Dorothy, "Let me check and see if we can fit you in." She disappeared for what seemed an eternity as we continued to shiver in the cold. Just as we were about to leave, she returned to the door smiling. "We do have room. Quick, come in out of the cold and warm up."
With tears of joy, Dorothy replied, "Thank you so much. You don't know how much this means to us." As it turns out, we were the last kids allowed into the party.
As we reached the second floor, we heard the raucous laughter of dozens of kids and saw the festive lights shining out into the darkened hall where we were standing. As we warily entered the room, smiling volunteers dressed in the soldier-like garb of the Salvation Army and Santa hats handed each of us a colorful candy cane and a small cardboard box, decorated with snowflakes, a wreath, or pictures of Frosty the Snowman with hard candy inside. On the table were bowls filled with snacks--popcorn, pretzels and leftover candy corn from Halloween. Christmas carols were playing and a huge Christmas tree stood in the corner with piles of presents underneath.
We had made it just in time because, as soon as we took our seats, the leader asked us all to stand and bow our heads as he led grace. The volunteers then began serving dinner. Of course, this turkey dinner wasn't as "delicious" as Ma's but it sure did fill the void in our empty stomachs. Just as we were finishing our meal, out came small dishes filled with colorful red and green Jell-O, topped with whipped cream and a cherry for dessert. That was yummy!
After all the plates were cleared away, the sound of sleigh bells were heard and in came a jolly old man about six feet tall with a fake white beard, a pillow stuffed into his bright red costume, black leather belt and shiny black boots. He was accompanied by several colorfully dressed volunteers that looked like the Keebler Cookie elves.
Each of us made our way forward to the front of the room to sit on the lap of this over-sized Santa. "I'm scared," I said to Dorothy as we got closer.
"Oh, don't be afraid, Herbie. He's got a nice toy for you, I bet. You’ve been good, right?" Dorothy questioned with a smile on her face.
"Oh, yes, I've been good," I fibbed. Knowing that I had done a few things that might get me disqualified, I hoped Santa would overlook them. Luckily, he did. When I was forced to sit on his lap and near tears, he immediately asked me that very question. Scared to death he wouldn't give me a toy, I was unable to speak or look him in the eye. I was frozen in place.
Sensing I was petrified, he gratefully said, "I've heard from a good source that you've been pretty good this year." That's when he handed me a wooden train with a big smoke stack, huge wooden wheels and a coal car attached to the back of the engine by a tiny metal hook. I was thrilled to death as I jumped off his lap, running back to Dorothy, my train clutched safely in my arms. That Santa was so smart. He knew exactly what I wanted for Christmas. In turn, each of my sisters received little girl dolls with colorful dresses. They were so happy to have their wishes granted, just like me. It was amazing how Santa knew exactly what each of us wanted, even this gangly Santa.
Strangely, it didn't feel quite as cold as we raced back home that afternoon, eager to show Ma what Santa had given us. We rushed into the kitchen, pushing and laughing to be the first to show Ma our goodies. She just stood there with a big smile on her face. Grateful to see us so happy, Ma hid a sense of melancholy that hung over her spirit. This was the first time I think she really doubted her worth as a mom, heartsick that we might not have food in our bellies or toys under our tree. Having to send us to that party broke her heart.
Ironically, as bad as Christmas was destined to be that year, our Grandparents did manage to help out again and brought toys and clothes for under the tree. Later that night they'd make the long trek back to Bennington, secure that Santa and Mrs. Claus didn't forget us. Dad was able to sell some Christmas trees that year, and even gave Ma money to buy a ham for Christmas dinner before he managed to piss the rest away getting plastered down at Sticklemyer's Grill on Christmas Eve. But, at least Grandma and Grandpa were there, with Grandpa laughing and telling us jokes.
A few hours later, we all awoke to a horrible crashing sound coming from the parlor. We rushed in to find Dad laughing on the floor, the tree tipped against the parlor window. He had staggered into the parlor and fallen on the tree, knocking it partially over and breaking some of the ornaments and lights. Tinsel was strewn everywhere.
Of course, he lied to a horrified Ma about what happened, blaming our poor cat Mittens. He said he was trying to pull Mittens off the tree when he and the tree fell. Of course, Ma didn't buy his story and quietly seethed with anger, wondering how he could do such a thing on Christmas Eve.
"Oh, I brought a case of bananas for you," he slurred, pointing to the broken cardboard box, bananas scattered across the floor.
She knew he was plastered, but with all us kids awake at one o'clock in the morning, she didn't want a fight that would ruin our Christmas. Instead, she had us all help her straighten up the tree and put back the ornaments on our "Charlie Brown" tree.
Once we had picked up the mess of tree and bruised bananas, we spotted all the presents that had been hiding under the tree. Now realizing Santa had come, Brenda and I screamed in unison, "Santa came, Santa came!" We then rushed to find our presents. That was the earliest we ever opened our presents. Even with all the mini-disasters we encountered, that Christmas stands out as one of the best I can ever remember.