In some ways, this is an old story. I’ve told parts of it before. But most of it is new and all of it is true. I hope it is true for you.
The December I was 9, my stepdad was drinking more than his usual and he and my mother were either shouting or silent as the dead. My sister, at 14, had moved out to live with friends. And my two younger brothers, with a bad case of croup, barked like dogs day and night.
I was looking forward to two things: Getting a Tiny Tears for Christmas; and after Christmas, spending a week with my dad and his mother on their farm.
Santa delivered on the Tiny Tears, a doll with a hard plastic face. I named her “Tiny,” fed her a bottle and watched her eyes leak like sieves. I knew just how she felt. Then I left her on the sofa and went out on the porch to shoot my brother’s cap pistol.
Minutes later, my mother, in a rage at my stepdad, plopped down on Tiny, picked her up and flung her across the room.
When I heard Tiny’s head hit the wall, I feared it might be my mother’s. But it was only Tiny. There are worse things in life than a broken-nosed doll. And Tiny never shed another tear.
Two days later, my mother dropped me at the bus station in Tryon, N.C., where I boarded a bus to Hendersonville.
Dad was waiting at the bus stop. I waved. He stubbed out his cigarette and grinned. And suddenly, it was Christmas.
On the drive to the farm, I filled him in on everything, except for how things were at home. I didn’t need to tell him that. He knew. My mother’s mother had made sure of it.
My dad’s mother was a little woman with a big, soft, rose-scented bosom. When she heard car wheels growling on the old gravel road, she came running out to meet us and swallowed me up in her hug.
In the farmhouse, she gave me a Christmas gift she’d made for me: A rag doll with a handsewn face. I smiled, thinking that doll’s nose would never break.
“She’s a magic doll,” said my grandmother with a wink. “Hold her close and listen. She’ll tell you things you need to hear.”
I held her close, listened, then looked at my grandmother.
“What did she say?” she asked.
“She told me I am safe. And I am loved. And I am hungry.”
We laughed and went to the kitchen to get a biscuit.
My grandmother is gone now, but I still have the doll. It still tells me things I need to hear.
That week went by fast. I lay awake each night waiting for my dad to come home from the evening shift at the mill. He’d slip in my room and kiss the top of my head. I’d pretend to be asleep, but I was awake, storing the moments in memory like canned peaches in a cellar for all the cold nights we’d be apart.
New Year’s Eve morning, Dad saddled a horse he boarded for a neighbor, boosted me up, held the reins and led me around the pasture. The mountains were all frosted with snow. I felt like a decoration on a cake.
“We need to talk,” he said, and I held my breath.
“I hear things are bad with your mama. I know you love her. But you don’t have to live with her. Your grandma and I want you to live with us.”
The horse snorted. I blinked and mountains grew blurry.
“No need to answer yet,” Dad said. “Just think about it. It’s your life. You get to choose.”
Late that night, New Year’s Eve, after Dad left for the mill, I lay in bed thinking about his words. I had never thought of my life as my own, let alone, that I had any choice in it.
But at midnight, when the mill whistle blew, signaling the end of a shift and the start of a new year, I made my choice.
I would stay with my mother and my brothers. Somebody had to watch over them. But I’d fall asleep each night thankful to God above, knowing I had a home, if need be, with my dad.
It was what I needed to know. And most days, it was enough.
At Christmas, we celebrate the gift of life. And on New Year’s Day, and every day, life begins anew for us all. But the choice for how we live it is ours alone.
Here’s wishing you a place where you feel safe and loved and can always find a biscuit if you’re hungry. May this be our best year, our best life, so far.