Christmas on Aldama Street was always a sad affair. It was never about what we wanted, but what we needed. Underwear. Hairbrushes. Socks. Our house was the 1970s testing ground for Operation Christmas Child; the idea of filling a shoebox with sundries and small treats for needy children worldwide. Only we weren’t worldwide. We were Highland Park working class, a Hispanic barrio in Northeast Los Angeles. More specifically, Christmas was what my parents needed: a chance to kill two birds with one stone, meaning they could save money by buying necessities and passing them off as “gifts.”
No Lite Brite or Rock ‘Em Sock’Em Robots ever occupied space underneath our scrawny discount-lot Christmas tree. One year we got Barbies and Slinkys from the Presbyterian Church Annual Toy Drive for the Less Fortunate. I also remember a hideous faux-fur coat with missing buttons and ripped pockets that came from the Goodwill. It would be decades before hipsters made thrifting cool, so I only wore the Chewbacca coat in the most desperate of weather situations. Fortunately, those were rare in sunny Southern California.
It’s not that my parents didn’t know about real gifts – the Mattel ones dancing across the black and white TV screen – they just didn’t have any moolah. And even if they did, my mom was limited to what she could haul home on Bus #83 from the Ivers and Woolworth on Figueroa Street. She never learned to drive, so it was the bus or hoofing it. Pop, who did drive and sometimes had a rundown car and sometimes didn’t, wasn’t reliable transportation: he was gone two-thirds of the year, off chasing a crackpot dream of medical school in Spain or Mexico.
Meanwhile my mom trudged through her workdays at the convalescent home, changing bed pans and cleaning up vomit. Her reward was coming home to five smart mouths shooting off about our depraved living conditions. After all, we attended the great public schools of Los Angeles Unified when olive-skinned kids were the minority: we got to see up close and personal what all the rich kids got for Christmas. The first day back from vacation was painful, the perennial, “So- whatcha- get- for- Christmas?” cacophony filling the playground. I usually spent recess and lunch “helping” the teacher who coincidentally always needed help that very day. Christmas was just another burden at our house; another reminder of what was lacking at 5700 Aldama.
Except for that one Christmas when I turned 10.
I loved dolls. I was in double digits now, but I secretly yearned for a sweet-faced honey that cried Mama and actually wet her diaper after drinking from her bottle. Of course, if you had asked me I would have said you were loca en la cabeza, dolls are for babies, and get yourself off to the thrift store and get me some furry gloves to match my coat.My sister, who was the tomboy antidote to my girly-girliness, probably wanted a Spirograph or some other yawner, and the boys wanted Stretch Armstrong and Hot Wheels.
Yeah, good luck with that list cuz it was definitely a wish list!
And yet a strange thing happened that year. Christmas magic visited our sad, dilapidated 1911 Craftsman that morning. We ate our tamales at midnight (more masa than meat); thankful we had food in the house. When we went to bed there was hardly a thing under the tree and the best I could hope for were some knee-his in my stocking.
But we awoke to bulky packages wrapped in brown grocery bags – the poor man’s version of department store wrapping paper. I tore the Safeway bags off and to my utter delight and astonishment, there she was, my sweet muneca calling me Mama, her little lips in a perfect hard-plastic oval waiting for the bottle! What had happened? Did the church toy drive have a spy network working the barrio to find out what the less fortunate dreamed about? I didn’t know and I didn’t care. I finally had something I wanted. I was crazy with happiness. The boys tore around the house, racing their Hot Wheels up and down the walls and counters. My sister disappeared into her room with her Spiro-thing-a-majigy. We saw her three days later.
Rosie became my constant companion. She did homework with me. She slept on the pillow next to me. She ate lentejas and tortillas with me at the table. We ate lots of lentejas the following month, yet, oddly, my mom was never hungry, and it wasn’t even the end of the month when the food stamps usually ran out. Rosie kept me company, too, when mom was working late at the convalescent home because, all of a sudden, the old folks really needed her help in January.
I kept Rosie for years, even when I had stopped playing with her. She was one of the few possessions I had to beautify the ugly, eggplant hue, wallpapered bedroom I shared with my sister. Eventually, my parents lost the house to foreclosure. I was in college when I got the panicked phone call from mom: the marshal was coming in the morning to enforce the eviction order. She needed help packing. Who knew where Pop was, probably in Guatemala which he told us had a fabulous medical school. Somewhere in the chaos and trauma of losing our home, Rosie was lost, as well.
Forty years later the memory of that Christmas morning makes my eyes well up and my throat tighten. When my mom saw me playing with Rosie, were her hunger pangs more bearable? Did seeing my brothers pull Stretch Armstrong to his limits help her forget her swollen feet after a double shift of turning patients with bed sores? Did seeing my sister create on the Spirograph lessen her bitterness and loneliness over spousal abandonment?
Rosie was more than a molded piece of plastic with a battery-operated voice and plastic tube winding from her mouth to her derriere. She was the expression of every mother making sacrifices for her children. The single mom working two jobs. The professional woman leaving a career to stay home with the kids. The married mom working a less than thrilling job to help pay for college tuition.
Having raised my own three children now, I see that in a way my 10-year old mind never did. I understand the sacrifice, the desire to give them gifts, at Christmas and throughout their lives. Material gifts, of course, but also the gifts of nurture, love, and relationship. I can’t say that I had those gifts in abundance throughout my childhood, but that morning Christmas came to the barrio and for a brief time life was just a little bit brighter.
Scrollbar image: Creative Commons/Andy Melton