The phone shrilled through our silent house, causing heads to pop up from pillows in alarm.
We could hear our parents’ voices: insistence in Dad’s, reluctance in Mom’s. Soon footsteps hurried across the porch; our jeep protested, then started.
“Go back to sleep,” mom’s voice reassured,. “It’s nothing to worry about. Dad’s just gone to get Bud.”
Dad drove through the dark, patting his pocket hastily stuffed with bail money and muttering to himself about his younger brother’s fondness for drinking whiskey and exchanging blows: “Damn idiot’s old enough to know better.”
“My brother’ll take me off your hands,” uncle Bud had assured the small-town sheriff, his words sincere and slurred. “Just call Vern.”
So, dad entered a closed-up town in the middle of the night and realized he had no idea how to find the jail, though his brother could have drawn a detailed map to every police station in the county.
Growing up, I enjoyed many retellings of dad’s late night voyage to rescue uncle Bud. But the story of my heart is that of another night — Christmas Eve.
In 1950, we knew Santa wouldn’t be generous. An extended strike closed the steel plant where dad worked, and mom cautioned we shouldn’t expect much under our tree.
No problem — we’d still have Christmas. Mom would make homemade candy, we would believe we excelled in the school pageant and grandma would read aloud the story of the blessed baby from her Bible.
For gifts, mom showed me how to make a bracelet from spare buttons and elastic thread for Carolyn. I liked the result, though I wondered if my sister, an uppity teenager, would. I constructed a cradle from an oatmeal container for Barbara, and Carolyn made a rag doll to occupy it.
I experienced greater difficulty deciding what to give my brothers. Finally, I told Bob I’d fill the coal bucket for him for an entire week. Then, I promised Lawrence, home from college, I would scratch his back whenever he asked.
I’d be busy.
The Saturday before Christmas, we planned to go to West Mountain with Dad to find a tree. But Friday after school, uncle Gus brought us the tall tree that had graced the hallway of the high school where he taught.
Later, Bob and I agreed that when uncle Gus talked about dragging the tree out of the trash so we’d “at least have something,” it made us feel poor.
We weren’t poor — just on a tight budget.
After Christmas Eve at grandma’s, we snuggled beneath covers, looking out our bedroom window at drifted snow sequined by reflected moonlight. Barbara watched for Santa’s sled, but decided he must have gone to Salt Lake City first.
Late that night, we awakened to thudding, uneven footsteps on the porch and a mixture of voices: mom’s alarmed, dad’s amused, another bellowing “Here Comes Santa Claus.”
Next, we heard thumps as Santa stumbled into the boys’ bedroom, making things topple and bounce. It must have been OK, because dad and Santa were laughing.
Carolyn, Barbara, and I pretended sleep as the hubbub approached our room. Santa entered noisily, using dad’s steel-plant words when he tripped over our rug.
I smelled the odor that flowed from Curly’s Pool Hall in town, heard “Merry Christmas, Janny,” and felt something slide beneath my pillow. As Santa blundered from the room, hands dove under pillows to pull out silver dollars, one after the other.
We counted, compared, recounted, exclaimed.
The next morning, when Barbara mentioned she didn’t know Santa had a gold tooth like uncle Bud’s, everyone laughed — laughed with love for an uncle who throughout the years provided perfectly timed, unexpected gifts and never once made us feel poor.