I must have been about nine years old, too dignified to sit on Santa’s lap at the Mason’s department store in Anniston, Alabama, but still young enough to ask — please, please, please — for a G.I. Joe. “You’re too old to play with dolls,” my brother Sam hissed at me. Sam never was a child. My kin liked to say the day he was born, he dusted himself off in the delivery room and walked home.
“G.I. Joe ain’t no doll,” I hissed back, my face red.
“Is,” Sam said.
“Ain’t,” I said.
That, in Calhoun County, Alabama, in the winter of 1968, is what passed for intellectual discourse.
I was about to pinch him when my tired mother tugged me away to marvel at the fake snow around a deer with pipe cleaners for antlers. Sam marched up to Santa like a little man, presumably to ask for a chain saw and some shotgun shells.
“Do you think I’ll get it?” I asked my mother. She was taking in laundry back then, and cleaning houses when she could. Christmas, to her, was a time of great fear, fear that it would be for her three sons a time of great disappointment.
“I don’t know, hon,” she said, using her other hand to hold tight to my little brother, Mark, who had taken one look at the odd man in the red coat and tried to run for the high country.
“It’s all I’m asking for,” I said, hopeful.
I didn’t know then that just asking was like kicking her in the stomach.
It is hard, when I write of my childhood and Christmas, not to sound a little like Dickens. I am not saying I write that well, just that Christmas, for me as a boy, was always a kind of seesaw of gloom and glee, perhaps the plainest evidence of difference between the classes. A G.I. Joe was a dear thing, a real toy, more than my mother made in a day, some days.
But when I think of those times now, the disappointments seem to lose shape in my mind, and I find instead things that seem, in my second 50 years, much like miracles.
The next day, I moped into my aunt Juanita’s kitchen. Aunt Juanita, a tiny woman who could swing a hammer like a man, helped raise me. She fed me peanut butter cookies and fried chicken, though not in that order.
“What’s Santy bringing you?” she asked.
“Well,” I said, “I wanted a G.I. Joe, but Sam said just girls play with dolls, and I ain’t no girl so I reckon I don’t want one.”
A few days later, I saw a box under her tree with my name on it. She had wrapped it in thin paper, thin enough to see through: G.I. Joe, the one in a sailor’s uniform. I wouldn’t have cared if he was dressed like an insurance salesman. I spent all the days leading up to Christmas with an odd peace of mind. When I unwrapped it, my mother pretended to be surprised.
Santy, she said, must have conspired with my aunt Juanita.
I love my aunt Juanita for doing that. I love my mother for doing all she could, day after day after day. I know the season means more than this stuff, that it might even be wrong to call such things miracles, even if just tiny ones. The miracle in it, I think, is in those two women’s hearts.
• Rick Bragg’s bestselling books include All Over but the Shoutin’ and The Prince of Frogtown. He won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1996.