It may seem strange, but I am most grateful at this time of year for the short leash, financially, on which I was kept when I was growing up.
I didn’t think of it as a leash at the time, because my whole family and everyone I knew survived on what today would seem a miserable amount of spending money for people who clearly had access to much more.
Twenty-five cents for weekly allowance, with at least a dime allocated to the plate at church on Sunday; I knew I would need to begin to save long before Halloween in order to have money to buy Christmas presents, which I loved to do, a love sharpened by an edge of anxiety. Would I have enough—?
We shopped, my siblings and I, at the Woolworths in a nearby town, a large store, intimidating in the amount of wares that were laid out on counters running from the front of the store to the back.
I had a limited amount of time, as well as a limited amount of money, to make my purchases for about ten people: my four siblings, my parents, and the five people who lived in the house and who raised us as well as cooking, driving and cleaning.
One of them, Curtis Madison, would drive us to Woolworths in the station wagon, parking and waiting patiently outside.
I bought handkerchiefs for the men and boys, stout white rectangles pleasantly presented in a box tied with a narrow ribbon; a spray bottle of perfume with no recognizable name for my mother; and, for the five women who took care of us, round plastic compacts with pink powder and fluffy puffs inside.
My childhood seemed to end the Christmas I realized that the black women I loved couldn’t use the powder I gave them, although they exclaimed over the compacts and thanked me enthusiastically.
Because they were endowed with the kind of humor that allows people to survive, I’m sure they all enjoyed a kindly laugh, later, over my choice.
But what remains, and inspires my gratitude still, is not the sharpness of that realization but the delight of carrying all those little packages to the car, the excitement of bringing them home and wrapping them with odds and ends of paper and ribbon, and the choice moment, on Christmas morning, when I presented them.
Although I loved presents, even hankered for them, the ones I received—mainly books—never mattered as much as the presents I gave, and for that I will always be grateful.