A paper bag filled with Christmas smiles

Published 12:55 pm Thursday, December 15, 2022

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When I came home from school one mid-December afternoon and saw the stack of neatly compressed sack-lunch paper bags on the kitchen table, I knew what we would all be doing after supper.

Daddy would pull his pickup truck up next to the house and park. One of us would run to the window, pull back the cotton curtains Mama had made, and look outside in time to see him put down the tailgate and grab one of the heavy boxes, their flaps interlocked to conceal the contents.

But we all knew what was in those boxes. This was a McDermott family ritual as predictable as any other just before Christmas, one of those events we all participated in each year. As Daddy would say, “Because we can.”

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Crammed into those boxes were an assortment of edible treats, mostly things that poor people rarely bought because food staples such as butter, salt, flour, potatoes and meat came first. There usually wasn’t anything left after the bills were paid.

He made the rounds to a variety of country stores to find enough to fill dozens of bags.

Fruit was the first to go into each bag. An orange. An apple. A pear, maybe. Nuts followed next, the assortment and variety of which never ceased to amaze me. Leading the way were pecans, both the big “paper shell” variety and small ones that required a sledgehammer to crack. Pecans were plentiful for us because Uncle Jimmy had a huge pecan orchard on his farm.

The assortment always included one or two nuts that we never saw other than at Christmas. My brothers and I swore those Brazil nuts would be lethal in a slingshot.

Rounding out the top of the bag were candies in a dazzling array of colors and patterns. One piece looked like a slice of okra. There were hard ones with purple, yellow, red, green, and striped ones of all colors. Ribbon candy as hard as a rock and soft, chewy gum drops rounded off the top of the bag with just enough room left to fold down the lip, which Mama sealed with pins from her sewing cabinet.

When this whole process was in high gear spread across our two-leafed formica top kitchen table, it was a colorful sight to behold. Everyone in the family laughed when an errant orange tried to escape the tabletop and was caught at the last second before it hit the floor.

All of this, we knew and understood, would be distributed by Daddy to those in need, some families in and around our farm, some in our church and others to families living “in the bottoms.” We were never allowed to go with him, but when he returned he would tell us stories of his stops and how excited this one or that one was to get the little bag.

He explained that we were more fortunate than some and that sharing made us more whole. Complete.

It was such a puzzlement to me. I knew from our life on that hardscrabble farm that we also were poor. Never hungry, mind you, but always homemade-clothes poor. Those exotic-looking candies were never in our house other than when we made those bags each year.

Now when I see those candies at the grocery store in clear canisters so that you can buy one or a handful, I am reminded of the lesson, intended or not, that to care is to give.

Larry McDermott is a local retired farmer/journalist. Reach him at hardscrabblehollow@gmail.com