To say that my family was poor would be a bit of an exaggeration. We lived in a nice house, my grandparents' house; we had enough food and a really old, used car. Yeah, sure, a big day was when my brother would decide which pair of his old socks I could have, but my grandmother had darned them so much that toes and heels felt like they were filled with poker chips.
I'll admit that I had a few affectations in those days, nothing like I do today. For example, I wanted my blue jeans to have noticeably ironed creases in the front, and I loved to wear button-down-collar shirts. It was not unusual for me to wear long underwear, but these cotton long johns were always white, and I really hated when they showed in the space between my socks and my pants cuffs or rolled up blue jeans. So, I remember spending a lot of time pulling down on my pants or pulling up on my socks.
A few weeks before Christmas, my dad always managed to buy the craziest looking Christmas tree on the lot. It was usually a long-needled Scotch pine tree that always lost half of its needles by the third day of its inside existence. We had shiny, bright, very fragile glass ornaments, and boxes of lead-based icicles that we placed on the branches one-by-one, by hand, until they produced a delicate icy look. Mom and dad were responsible for stringing the lights and supervising the hanging of the balls and controlling the meticulous stringing of the icicles. Some hand-strung popcorn, and an outsized white angel topped off the decorations along with a fluffy cotton, snow-like tree skirt casually wrapped around the trunk.
Our wish lists were relatively modest with requests for things like Lincoln Logs or Block City (a precursor to Legos), a Winky Dink and You with Magic Kit (plastic screen/crayons/eraser), and a truck or some plastic toy soldiers. Of course grandmothers came through with a little cash and underwear, and aunts always provided at least one or two pairs of argyle socks.
My paper route customers gave me some handkerchiefs, a 50-cent piece here or there and plenty of hot chocolate. Expectations were carefully managed by my mom who would say, "Nicky, don't expect much from Mrs. Musser or Mrs. Coter because they are living on their Social Security checks just like your grandmothers."
I'm not sure how much Social Security checks were in those days, but if I got a $5 bill from my Italian grandparents, it was an enormous gift. My English/Scot- Irish grandmother was even more frugal with gifts that came from her change purse because she had so many grandkids, but it was the thought that counted, and even as little kids we knew not to expect much in the way of cash from our elders.
On Christmas Eve my brother and I were permitted to open one small present after midnight Mass, before we went to bed to wait for Santa Claus. When we finally fell asleep, morning came fast. In fact, we were usually waking up our parents at the same time the neighbor's rooster started to crow. Dad would sit in his night shirt (yes, night shirt) toking on a Chesterfield cigarette and nursing a cup of Maxwellhouse coffee while mom took pictures and asked us how we liked our new underwear.
It was pretty much The Christmas Story, and, yes, the Bumpkus family did live next door.
(Nick Jacobs, Windber, international director for SunStone Consulting, LLC is the author of the blog Healinghospitals.com.)