Saturday, December 17, 2016

A Life in Four Colors Interlude: Christmas 1971

Every now and then, Christmas just happens.

Six months married, Susan and I were living in a cramped, minimally maintained rental house in Cedartown. Today people talk about "tiny houses" like they're a good thing. We lived in a tiny house--about 450 square feet with a kitchen/living room combination, a bedroom, and a bathroom so small that when I say you had to position yourself and then back in, I'm not joking or exaggerating. There wasn't even room for a sink in the bathroom (the sink was mounted on the bedroom wall adjacent to the bathroom)--in fact, there was barely room for a bathroom in the bathroom. There was a hole in the floor where the bathroom linoleum and the weathered hardwood floor of the bedroom met. We stuffed it with rags in the winter because cold air would blow through it otherwise, since the crawlspace had gaps and spaces. The rags didn't stay in place for long, though, because the outdoor cat we had somehow adopted (even though it actually belonged to a neighbor two a few houses away) would go under the house and steal the rags, thinking we were playing some cat game. We had two gas space heaters--one for each room--and they were wholly inadequate.

Our budget was... well, let's just say "challenged." Susan was working full-time in the payroll department at the  Arrow Shirt factory in Cedartown; I was working part-time at the House of 10,000 Picture Frames in Rome, picking up hours around my class schedule at Berry. I was on academic scholarship, so tuition and books were covered, thankfully. Even so, our budget was tight. Each week, we set aside 25% of our monthly rent, car payment, auto insurance, and utility bills (gas and electricity--we had no phone or cable), $20 for groceries, and $10 for gas for my '64 Volkswagen and Susan's '70 Mustang. We put $10- a week into a savings account. What was left--which was typically $12 a week, maybe more if I was able to get some extra part-time hours at the frame shop--was our "fun money." With that, we would get a pizza at Village Inn or Pizza Inn every Saturday night; a few books or comics; an occasional record album; new clothes and things for the house; and mimeo ink, twiltone paper, and stencils for the Sears hand-crank mimeo with which we produced apazines and fanzines. (Since we divided all monthly bills into 25% taken from our weekly paychecks, we had a bonus extra payment every three months that we typically put into savings, but we never added that into our "fun money.")

I  worked a few extra hours every week between Thanksgiving and Christmas, since Berry College ended the quarter at Thanksgiving and didn't start back until after New Years. Even so, there wasn't a whole lot of extra cash. We budgeted for a Christmas present for each person in the family, plus two gifts from each of us to the other. Because Christmas was going to be a meager affair, we had decided we wouldn't put up a Christmas tree, even though my parents had given us a few older ornaments they weren't using any longer. We figured a tree in such a tiny house would be too intrusive--and the small number of gifts under the tree would only serve to remind us of our gift-giving inadequacy, since there would be all too little to put underneath it.

Christmas fell on a Saturday in 1971. Arrow kept the plant open through the end of the day Thursday, so Susan had Christmas Eve off. The frame shop closed at noon on Christmas Eve, so I got home early. Since our usual pizza places would be closed on Saturday, we had $5 extra in our budget; we had decided to add it to our savings account when the bank opened on Monday.

Having nothing else to do on Christmas Eve night, we drove around and looked at Christmas lights. We had made the usual College Street route--that's where Cedartown's more affluent houses were located--then drove around a little more. Our circuitous trip took us down East Avenue, past Croker's, a grocery store-hardware store-general store that was a regular stop for us because they sold old comics for a nickel each and we could get some good reading cheap. Croker's was still open; Croker's was one of those stores that was open every day of the year, and they were usually crowded on the holidays because they were open when everyone else was closed.

We had decided to stop and look around for a few minutes because there was nothing else to do on Christmas Eve night. I had just parked the Volkswagen and was getting out when Susan said, "Hey, look!" She was pointing to a small group of tied and bundled Christmas trees--the leftovers and rejects that hadn't sold. $1 each, the sign said.  We both looked at the trees for a minute, then Susan said, "That one doesn't look too bad." It was a skimpy tree, sparse on one side, but it wasn't a Charlie Brown tree. The evergreen fragrance was still strong, and the limbs didn't shed needles when we turned the tree around to inspect it.

"What do you think?" Susan looked hesitant and eager at the same time.

"Let's get a tree." I went inside and paid, then came out and tossed the tree on the roof of the VW. I also bought three 10¢ packages of silver icicles. The store clerk gave us a bundle of twine to tie it with; after we had secured it as well as we could, I rolled down the driver's side window and held it with my left hand all the way home, steering with my knees whenever I had to shift gears on the manual-transmission VW.

We got home a little before nine. By ten, we had the tree decorated. Sure, the ornaments were sparse, and the tree trunk was twisted just enough that the tree looked a little crooked no matter how we adjusted the tree stand my parents had given us along with the ornaments--but it was obviously a Christmas tree. There was no tree skirt, and there were no lights--Mom and Dad hadn't given us any because they were using them, and we hadn't bought any because we hadn't planned to put up a tree--but it didn't matter. It was a Christmas tree, our first. We spent a little quiet time admiring it once it was up.  We got out the few gifts that we had for one another and placed them under the tree. Turned out that both of us had broken the "two gifts for each of us" rule.

We didn't own any Christmas albums, so we found some Christmas music on the radio and just sat on the sofa for a while, enjoying an unplanned and last minute Christmas that had come together by happenstance. The next morning, we got up and sat on the sofa near the tree again, opening our few presents. Since the tree hadn't gone up until Christmas Eve, we decided to leave it up until New Years--a tradition we follow to this day.

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