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A Tangerine Christmas
by Lonnye Sue Sims Pearson



    It was almost Christmas Eve, and Ruth was up late putting the finishing touches on the cotton sack baby doll she’d made for Maudie’s gift. Ruth had scrimped and saved and bartered all year to get the ribbon and lace to edge the little doll’s dress. Maudie would love it.

    Ruth had traded some fig preserves and two months of clothes washing and ironing for the ancient miniature iron horse for Norman. The paint was scratched off in places and faded in others, but he’d love it. She was sure.

    The older children knew not to expect anything, and that made Ruth sad. Joe and Martha deserved something – anything – but Ruth had nothing to give.

    When Earl disappeared the winter before, Ruth wanted to die, but her children needed a mother. She didn’t reckon she’d been much of one for the last year, though. Working in the fields by day and sewing for Mrs. Alexander by night left her little time to parent. The best she could do was put biscuits and black strap molasses on the table for breakfast and beans and cornbread on the table for supper. Beyond that, she was useless. Earl’s disappearance had shocked and hurt her, but she had not had time to grieve.

    Now the crops had been laid by and work was scarce. Many of the hens had stopped laying, and only a piece of a slab of bacon hung in the smoke house – Ruth had sold off the rest. At least they had a few jars of beans left and about a pound of rice. They wouldn’t starve immediately.

    Ruth hid the doll in the top of the chiffarobe where the iron horse stood guard and crawled into bed. Earl had made the bed before they married and all four children had been born in it. Ruth felt comforted by the memories. She prayed she could hold the home together until planting time when work would be available.

    Cold air oozed through the cracks in the wall around the window. Ruth had instructed the children to be on the lookout for discarded newspapers on their rare trips to town during the year. They had found enough to insulate the children’s bedroom but not enough to finish Ruth’s. She pulled the quilt over her ears and drifted into a restless sleep.

    Christmas Eve dawned bright and clear and cold. Joe built a fire in the fireplace while Martha helped Ruth get the wood stove going for the morning’s biscuits. Joe left to squirrel hunt. His father’s shotgun was almost too big for his ten-year-old frame, but he pulled his dad’s hat down over his ears and marched out the door like a soldier doing his duty. Joe never had much luck hunting. Maybe today would be different. A supper of fried squirrel in gravy over rice made Ruth’s mouth water.

    Martha wandered the woods that Christmas Eve looking for berries and pine cones. One of the newspaper pages papering the wall in the bedroom showed a Christmas tree decorated so beautifully that she begged Ruth to allow her to make one for the little ones. Ruth thought it an odd thing to do when they didn’t even have a tree to decorate, but she didn’t have the heart to discourage her daughter. She handed Martha a willow basket and told her not to be gone long.

    Martha succeeded, but Joe didn’t. Ruth saw him emerge from the woods and slowly make his way across the empty cotton field. His eyes were misty when he admitted he’d flushed two rabbits but just couldn’t pull the trigger. Ruth hugged her son and told him to unload the gun and put it away. Secretly, she was proud of him. Martha lugged in the willow basket filled to the brim with pine cones and boughs, holly sprigs, magnolia leaves and acorns. The family set about making the tiny shack, for that’s what it really was, as festive as possible and singing carols. Leftover biscuits and molasses sufficed as supper. Everyone agreed the scent of pine was intoxicating and the molasses just got tastier every day. Their spirits lifted, everyone retired for the night in anticipation of the day to come.

    Ruth tossed and turned and slept fitfully that Christmas Eve. She wanted to give much to her children, and it hurt her soul that she couldn’t. She felt failure – again.

    Before daybreak, Ruth arose to build a fire and set out the meager toys. She had chosen a spot on the mantle amid the pine boughs and holly berries. Maudie and Norman would see them right off, and Ruth hoped they’d be happy.

    Soon the children joined her. The stray dog that slept under the porch barked as if to say, “Christmas gift, everyone!” Joe begged for the hundredth time to allow the dog inside, but Ruth stood her ground. The boy wandered over to the window, looked out on a sunlit porch and gasped.

    Six perfect tangerines were lined up on the rail, each glowing in the morning sunlight. And leaning on a homemade crutch was Earl.



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    Lonnye Sue Sims Pearson grew up in the Mississippi Delta, but now calls North Carolina home. She’s an English teacher (one of THOSE), and she loves to share her stories.

    Write Lonnye Sue at Deltamiss2002

    To read more of Lonnye Sue’s tales at USADS, visit these links:
    Memphis
    The Last Train
    Elvis Forever . . . And Ever
    Names -- A Guide to Choosing Wisely
    I Had The Time Of My Life

    Read many more great stories listed on our USADS Articles pages.

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