When my brother and I jumped out of our shared bed, the public housing duplex we lived in was small enough that it only took a few steps for us to reach living room.
Filling almost the entire floor, surrounded by cardboard and paper and a smattering of still-wrapped gifts, we found the best Christmas present ever.
Completely assembled, all 6 feet of the G.I. Joe USS Flagg Aircraft Carrier spread before us.
I didn't know it at the time, but this wonderful toy that caused my brother and I to shout with joy was a harbinger of the end of life as we knew it.
My mother was 16 when she got pregnant with me, poor, and eager to get away from her family. She compulsively worked, both for the money and to stay out of the house, and her teenage jobs included the House of Music record store in town, and the fast food drive-in restaurant where the waitresses wore roller skates.
My father met her through a mutual friend after returning from the shipyards in Pascagoula, Mississippi and a short LSD-riddled stint in Memphis, Tennessee. The son of a small country farming family, he had spent the first half of the 70s experimenting with drugs and avoiding responsibility as much as possible.
The early years of their marriage (and my life) were framed by a succession of old wooden farm houses and cheap trailer home rentals. After my brother arrived, Mom made a decision that things had to change. Now, in addition to her two jobs (T-shirt factory in the morning, gas station at night), my mother also began attending nursing classes at the local junior college. My father would roll my brother and me in homemade quilts until we could barely move, and then stack us in the back seat of the small Toyota Corolla to drive through the cold winter nights from our house in the country to pick my mother up in town.
The jobs slowly got better.
Dad worked on the natural gas pipeline temporarily, and also at the construction site for TVA's Yellow Creek plant. This would require us to get up around 4 AM, and again wrapped up for warmth, drive to a bus stop in town in our family's single car to drop him off.
These were long days for my parents.
A handful of photographs still exist from our earliest Christmases together. Mom looks exhausted, but happy in the floor with us. The pictures of Dad that survived the divorce reveal a thin, wiry, long-haired, mustachioed man in faded jeans and a white T-shirt, or occasionally a homemade flannel. A box of tinker toys, a fire truck, a plastic spaceman helmet, these are the toys scattered on the floor.
My parents, and especially my mother, grew up with limited material possessions. Her father thought of Christmas as a time for a bag of oranges or chocolate covered cherries, a holdover from his childhood with 13 brothers and sisters in a two room cabin. As a result, even in our earliest years, Mom strived to make Christmas a special holiday. Around 1983 we lived in one of the many rural rental houses, poorly heated and far outside of town, when my brother and I received a Millennium Falcon and Ewok Village. These were amazing gifts, certainly beyond what our parents could afford, but I remember my mother being delighted at our joy. Even Dad sat crosslegged in the floor playing with Star Wars action figures.
Christmas was special.
The next year we had moved into a newer rental in town, a first for our family, and Christmas reflected our slow, stubborn climb up the socioeconomic ladder as Mom continued to work through school and find better jobs. In that year a towering Castle Grayskull waited for us on Christmas morning. He-man and his friends and foes fought among the presents. Oddly, we also had a visitor, my dad's friend Ross. Though I did not recognize it at the time as weird, he was drinking, and not with his family.
Looking back, this was not uncommon. As my father's high school friends struggled with the pressures of marriage and parenthood and employment and all the other worries of our lower class origins, they began to have problems with alarming frequency. Jeff and Katrina divorced, with daughters the same age as myself and my brother, and Jeff went to prison for robbing a bank. Ross and his wife split up, and I never saw his daughters again. My friend Michael's father died in a motorcycle crash, and for years a half finished bottle of whiskey sat on the shelf in my dad's old bedroom, a leftover from the funeral.
Most of this went by unnoticed for us kids. But in the next year things that could not escape our attention began to occur. Our mother received her RN license after years of hard work, and she and Dad began to fight over the idea of moving an hour away to the city where better nursing jobs could be found. He did not like her new friends, professional women with disposable income, and argued that Mom wanted to keep up with their more expensive lifestyle.
For her part, she did not like his old friends, as many of them returned to habits from their younger partying days. Cocaine, which had been popular in the larger cities for several years already, now became known in rural communities like our own. One night our mother walked into the kitchen to find our father separating lines on the table. The fight that ensued is memorable to this day even though we were confined to our bedroom for most of it.
But at Christmas, Mom's seemingly inexhaustible energy focused on my brother and me. This year we had stockings. The tree had new multicolored lights. And there in the floor, as long as the couch on which Dad rested, we found the aircraft carrier.
The size of it exceeded our imagination, and certainly our parents' expectation. That afternoon we moved the behemoth to our bedroom. My brother and I did not want to leave it. Missiles, elevators, a battery powered PA, it could hold all of our action figures with room to spare. We staged elaborate battles on the deck. We thought it was the greatest Christmas present ever.
Soon after Christmas, we moved to a house that had just been built. Small but brand-new, it rested on a hill at the end of a cul-de-sac in an actual neighborhood. New rules abounded. Shoes off at the door, outdoor items (including most of Dad's possessions) must stay outdoors, no food on the carpet, all of these things and more, Mom demanded. Dad struggled under the new respectability as much as we did. The fights continued, and actually got worse when Dad lost his job. Mom's new job at the city hospital paid well but also demanded a three-hour round-trip drive, which left Dad responsible for many of the household chores. This did not go well.
One of Mom's demands at the new house required us to leave the G.I. Joe aircraft carrier on the carport. It took up too much floor space, she argued, and looked bad laying out in our bedroom floor. We begged. We pleaded. This could not be left outside, we explained, it was the greatest Christmas gift ever. Every neighborhood kid for a mile around would steal it. But out it went. It took less time than I expected to disappear. The first day we came home after putting it out, all of the small pieces had been carried away. Most of the rest didn't make it to the end of the week. In only a few months we had gone from owning the largest, coolest toy in a decade of cool toys to occasionally catching a glimpse of a familiar gun turret or missile in a neighborhood kid's bedroom closet.
Our mother's climb from uneducated poverty to lower middle class was marked by Christmas each year, from the humble box of tinker toys to Star Wars playsets and ultimately to this expensive aircraft carrier. In 1985 it cost $109 in the Sears Christmas Wish Book. She worked hard to raise our standard of living and provide us material comforts that she had been denied in her own childhood. But this climb also brought new expectations and new sensibilities. For my father, uncomfortable with the changes and unwilling to make a similar leap himself, it was easier to deride this new social world and retreat to the safety of familiar habits with old friends.
The day my father left we boys had been playing in the yard. I remember watching as he loaded boxes into the back of his small truck. I actually felt excitement at this unexpected change. We would live in two places? As an 11-year-old boy, I worshiped my father like a god. Whatever was happening, Dad had to be right, didn't he? I naïvely stood on the carport, the same spot that our aircraft carrier had disappeared from a year before, and watched as my dad drove away.
He took the small pieces first. Only later, after years and years of court battles, shouting matches, and being used as a bargaining chip with my mother did I realize he had taken the rest of me as well.
My daughter and I are Christmas shopping for my wife. My daughter is excited, she loves her mom and dad and she loves trying to think of gift ideas. We return to the car and I have missed a call from my father. We have not spoken since last Christmas, when I hung up on him during one of his angry tirades. He was mad at that time because I had not spoken with him since the previous year following a different angry phone call. But it is Christmas, and I am hopeful that he has mellowed.
When I call him back it only takes a few minutes for the angry rant to begin. I hang up halfway through and ask my daughter if she is ready to go home. But she has another gift idea, and like most of them, she is sure it will be the best Christmas present ever. Despite my disappointment and anger at my father, I smile at her. She clearly has never seen a G.I. Joe USS Flagg Aircraft Carrier. And I hope she never does.