I was in my thirties before I realized what a weird game we played at the church Christmas dinner of 1987. It seemed ingenious at the time though.
Someone took a large goblet, pressed play on the tape deck, and passed the goblet around the room. The 19 or 20 people of our little church were expected to drop money in when it passed by. The object of the game: when the music stopped playing, whoever had the glass got to keep all the change.
The goblet would only stop once, so the stakes were high.
Each time the cup passed through my seven-year-old hands, I held onto it as long as I could, hoping the music would stop. But it kept playing, and the cash pot (and my excitement) kept growing.
Wonder of lucky wonders when someone hit stop on the tape deck while the goblet was in my hands. I hollered at the top of my lungs and poured the money onto the table in front of me to count it. Merry Christmas, indeed.
Christmas Morning Jackpot
A few days later, the same people who put the cash in the cup provided most of our Christmas presents (see photo above). We certainly needed the help. Dad wasn’t around, and my working single mom was struggling to provide for us. But none of that was on my mind on Christmas morning.
When we counted all the presents in our small apartment living room, there were 48 of them. And as far as I was concerned – regardless of what was going on at home – we not only had what we needed, we were rich.
I always presumed mom felt the same way.
Years of Naivety
A couple of years ago, I reminded my mom of the Christmas cash game and said, “Mom, you know, I wonder if they planned it so that cup would land in my hands.”
“Of course they did,” she said.
“Really?” I said. “I always assumed I got lucky when I won.”
“Goodness no,” she said, “it was a donation.”
It made sense, but I couldn’t believe it took me so long to figure it out. And when I imagined my mom sitting there as her peers clumsily took up a public collection for us, it put the evening in a different light.
“Mom, were you embarrassed that night?” I asked.
“Yeah, a little bit.”
Of course she was. But I would’ve never known it. And I would’ve never known how she felt on Christmas Eve when church members showed up with donated presents and stacked them in the apartment. Probably a mixture of gratitude and shame. Again, if she felt that way, we didn’t know it. We were too busy being kids.
What Mom Really Gave Us
Since becoming a parent, I look back on times like Christmas of 1987 and I see my mom in a different light. I grew up viewing her as firm, steady, and unshakable.
After all, when dad moved out, she kept a brave face and simply asked us to pray for his return. When she had to work two jobs to support us, she didn’t complain. And when she was denied food stamps because she drove a Ford Escort (apparently deemed a luxury vehicle by the state of Mississippi), she didn’t say a word to us about it.
Only now am I beginning to realize the insecurity she must have felt when coming to our school events without a husband. I can’t imagine the exhaustion of working her day job, going to night class, and then coming home to address wedding envelopes until 2 a.m. to make extra money. And I never even considered how dire things must have been for my proud mom to have actually applied for food stamps.
But whatever she felt, we didn’t know it. We didn’t know her shame; we didn’t know her exhaustion; we didn’t know her fear. Regardless of what she was feeling, during Christmas of 1987 and so many other stormy times, Mom was giving us a gift that no one from my church could’ve donated: She was giving us a childhood.
And for that priceless gift, I’ll be forever thankful, Mom. You recognized that some things are better left unsaid – especially when children are listening. Your reward is in heaven, because God knows we’ll never be able to pay you back here.