The Christmas Sweater
The wipers cut semicircles through the snow on the windshield. It’s good snow, I thought as I slid forward and rested my chin on the vinyl of the front seat.
“Sit back, honey,” my mother, Mary, gently commanded. She was thirty-nine years old, but her tired eyes and the streaks of gray infiltrating her otherwise coal black hair made most people think she was much older. If your age was determined by what you’d been through in life, they would have been right.
“But Mom, I can’t see the snow when I sit back.”
“Okay. But just until we stop for gas.”
I scooted up farther and rested my worn Keds on the hump that ran through the middle of our old Pinto station wagon. I was skinny and tall for my age, which made my knees curl up toward my chest. Mom said I was safer in the backseat, but deep down I knew that it wasn’t really about safety, it was about the radio. I was constantly playing with it, changing the dial from her boring Perry Como station to something that played real music.
As we continued toward the gas station, I could see the edge of downtown Mount Vernon through the snow. A thousand points of red and green Christmas lights lined the edges of Main Street. Hot summer days in Washington State were rare, but when they happened, the light poles covered in Christmas lights seemed out of place. They hung there in a kind of backward hibernation until a city worker would plug them in and replace the bulbs that didn’t wake up. But now, in December, the lights were working their magic, filling us kids with excitement for the season.
That year I was more anxious than excited. I wanted
it to be the year that Christmas finally returned to normal. For years, Christmas mornings in our home had been filled with gifts and laughter and smiling faces. But my father had died three years earlier—and it seemed to me that Christmas had died with him.
Before my father’s death I didn’t think much about our financial situation. We weren’t wealthy, we weren’t poor—we just were. We’d had a nice house in a good neighborhood, a hot dinner every night and, one summer, when I was five years old, we even went to Disneyland. I remember getting dressed up for the airplane ride. The only other vacation I remember happened a few years later when my parents took me to Birch Bay—which sounds exotic but was really just a rocky beach about an hour away from our home.
Back then we never wanted for anything, except maybe more time together.
My father bought City Bakery when I was young—it had been in town since the 1800s. He put in long hours at work, leaving almost every morning before the sun (or his son) rose. My mother would get me off to school, clean up
around the house a little, start some laundry, and then join him at the bakery for the rest of the day.
After school I would walk to the bakery to help my parents out. On some days the walk took less than half an hour, but it usually took me a lot longer. At least a few days each week I would stop at the edge of downtown in the middle of the bridge that crossed the I-5 freeway and watch the cars and trucks whiz by. A lot of kids would stand there and spit onto the roadway below, hoping to hit a car, but I wasn’t that kind of kid. I just imagined myself spitting.
I complained a lot about having to be at the bakery so much, especially when my dad made me wash the pots and pans, but secretly I loved to watch him work. Others might have called him a baker, but I thought of him as a master craftsman or a sculptor. Instead of a chisel he used dough, and instead of clay he used frosting—but the result was always a masterpiece.
Dad and my uncle Bob both apprenticed in their father’s bakery from the time they were my age. Donning aprons, they washed a seemingly never-ending line of pots
and pans, and they would learn recipes after school. In my dad’s case, it wasn’t long before the apprentice was more skilled than the master.
Dad just had a knack for baking. He was the only one in the family who could bring his recipes to life. It wasn’t long before City Bakery’s breads and desserts were known as the best in town. Dad loved his creations almost as much as he loved his family.
Saturdays were special because it was the day my father spent most of his time icing and decorating cakes. Not coincidentally, it was also the day I liked to work with him the most. Well, work might be a bit of an exaggeration, as I didn’t do much baking myself. Taking bread out of the proof box after it had risen was about as far as he’d let me go—but I watched him closely, and I took advantage of my role as “official frosting taster” as often as possible.
Although Dad continually tried to teach me his recipes, I never quite got them down. Mom blamed it on my having the attention span of a gnat, but I knew it was really because I liked eating better than I liked baking. I was
never interested in being a baker; it was too much work and you had to get up way too early. But Dad never gave up hope that one day I might change my mind.
His first mission was to teach me how to make cookies, but not long after putting me in charge of the cookie dough and mixer he realized he’d made a mistake. A big mistake. If he’d left me alone with that raw dough for just a few more minutes, he wouldn’t have had enough left to bake. After that, Dad smartly switched his tactic from hands-on lessons to pop quizzes. He’d show me how to make a few batches of German chocolate cake, then he’d test me on the recipe and toss flour in my face when I invariably mentioned some ingredient that had no business being in a cake. Like meat.
One day, right in the middle of an apple-strudel quiz, Dad’s cashier (my mother) came into the back to ask if he’d mind helping a customer. This wasn’t entirely unusual—Dad would come up front once in a while, mainly in the afternoons while the ovens were cooling and my mom made the daily trip to the bank. I think it was secretly one of his favorite times of the day; he was a real
people person, and he loved to watch the faces of his customers as they sampled his latest creation.
That day, I watched as Dad greeted Mrs. Olsen, a woman who seemed to me like the oldest person in town. She was a regular customer. When my mom waited on her, I noticed that she’d always spend a little extra time just listening to Mrs. Olsen’s stories. I guess she thought Mrs. Olsen was lonely. Dad treated her with the same kind of respect. He smiled warmly as he spoke to her, and I noticed the faintest hint of a smile begin to form on her face as well. Dad had that effect on a lot of people.
Mrs. Olsen had come in for a single loaf of bread, but Dad spent five minutes trying to talk her into everything from his napoleons to his German chocolate cake. Ske kept refusing, but my dad insisted, saying it was all on him. She finally relented, and her smile stretched from ear to ear. She told him that he was too kind. I remember the word “kind” because I thought it was simple, and yet so true. My dad was kind.
After her bread had been bagged and her free treats boxed, Mrs. Olsen reached into her purse and pulled out
a kind of money I’d never seen before. As far as I could tell it wasn’t cash. It looked more like coupons—except we didn’t offer any coupons. As she turned to leave the store, my heart began to race. Had Dad just been scammed right in front of me? The bakery paid our bills (and, more importantly, it paid for my presents). I crept up next to my father at the cash register and, not thinking she could hear me, whispered, “Dad, that’s not money.”
Mrs. Olsen stopped dead in her tracks and looked at my father. He, in turn, glared at me. “Eddie, into the back, please. Right now.” His voice had a definite edge to it. He then gave Mrs. Olsen a sympathetic nod and another warm smile, and she turned and continued out the door. I knew I was in trouble.
As I walked through the opening into the back, my face felt hotter than the oven I was now standing in front of. “Eddie, I know you didn’t mean it, but do you know how embarrassing that was for Mrs. Olsen?”
“No,” I replied. I honestly didn’t.
“Eddie, Mrs. Olsen is a very good customer of ours. Her husband passed away about a year ago and
she’s had a hard time making ends meet. You’re right, what she gave me isn’t money, but it’s just like it for people who need it. They’re called food stamps, and our government is helping her buy groceries until she can get back on her feet. We don’t talk about them in front of her because she doesn’t like the fact that she has to ask others for help.”
Dad explained that while our family would never accept help from anyone, especially the government, there were good people who needed it. I immediately felt sorry for Mrs. Olsen—sorry for anyone who needed to rely on others for that kind of help. And I was glad that we would never be in that position.
A few months later I got a chance to prove to my father that I’d learned my lesson.
Mom had once again run to the bank, and I was in the front of the store putting fresh macaroons into the display case while Dad waited on customers. I watched as, once again, he accepted the funny-looking coupons as payment—this time from a guy buying bread, a pie, and a dozen cookies. But now, instead of warm smiles, friendly
conversation, and yummy dessert suggestions, my father was completely silent.
After the customer left it was my turn to do the questioning. I followed him into the back. “What’s wrong, Dad?” I asked.
“I know that man, Eddie. He can work, but he chooses not to. Anyone who can earn money has no business taking it from others.”
I eventually came to understand that my father, who’d grown up poor and struggled for everything we owned, had continually rejected offers of help from others. He had worked hard to build a business and provide for his family. He believed others should do the same. “The government,” he told me one night, “is there to act as a safety net, not a candy machine.”
I don’t know if my mother had grown up with the same attitude or if she’d just learned it from all those years with my dad—but she felt the exact same way. With him now gone we were really struggling, but she refused to consider asking anyone for help. “We’ll get through this,
Eddie,” she told me more than once. “Things are just a little tight right now, but there are so many others who need it more than we do.”
As usual, Mom was being an optimist. “A little tight” didn’t begin to describe how frugal we had become. When we went out to dinner, which was only on very special occasions, she would always give me the same warning before the waitress appeared: “Remember, Eddie, don’t order any milk, we have plenty of it at home. No need to be wasteful.”
I knew better. It wasn’t about waste, it was about money. That was all it was ever about. Mom worked seemingly endless hours at a seemingly endless number of jobs, our house was crumbling faster than Dad’s famous apple turnovers, and I hadn’t gotten a brag-worthy Christmas present since the Star Wars Millennium Falcon I’d gotten two years earlier.
But this year would be different. I had been on my best behavior for months now. I’d taken out the garbage before Mom had asked, used my finely honed dishwash
ing skills at home, and had generally made sure that she wouldn’t have any excuse to not get me the bike I deserved.
Still, I wasn’t leaving anything to chance. Every time a relative or neighbor asked what I wanted for Christmas, I made sure my mother was close enough to hear my finely tuned response: A red Huffy bike with a black banana seat.
The Ford’s loud motor snapped me out of yesterday’s memories. We were on Main Street, and the once distant lights now glowed brightly through our foggy windows. I tried to look out the back windshield to see where we were, but I could only see my mop of dirty-blond hair reflecting back.
Mom drove cautiously, although downtown seemed to be virtually deserted. A light turned red at the intersection ahead, and she slowly eased the car to a stop.
“Eddie, look!” She was pointing out the passenger-side window.
I rubbed my hand back and forth on the glass to clear the condensation. We had come to a stop right outside Richmond’s Sporting Goods’ big storefront window, the very place I had first seen the Huffy I’d been dreaming about all year.
My eyes expertly searched the window, darting from baseball bats to gloves to sleds to…there it was. The Huffy. My Huffy. Its bright red frame, shiny chrome handlebars, and black banana seat sparkled brilliantly through the snow and fog.
“Wow.” It was the only word I could come up with.
Mom wasn’t looking at the bike anymore, she was looking at me in the rearview mirror. I couldn’t see her mouth, but I knew that she was smiling. I smiled back. Perry Como provided the sound track.
“You want to pump the gas?” she asked a few minutes later as she pulled up to the self-service island. We stopped for gas a lot because our Pinto was always thirsty and Mom usually only had enough money to fill the tank partway.
“Sure,” I said, leaping over the seat and following her
out the door. “Can I get some Red Vines when I go in to pay?”
“I’m sorry, Eddie,” my mother said gently. “I have the money for Red Vines but not enough for the dentist.” She smiled. “Now, scoot.” I knew she didn’t have money for the dentist, but her excuse didn’t fool me. I knew she didn’t have money for Red Vines either.
I gave her the best look of disappointment I could muster. Still, deep down, I had hope. No money for Red Vines could mean that she was saving it all for something else.