Apples, Oranges and Sticks of Hard Candy

by Sandy Williams Driver

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While searching for something to snack on the other day, I scrounged around in my kitchen cabinets and then opened the refrigerator. With three teenagers in the house, there wasn't much to choose from inside the softly humming appliance. I found a small bowl of leftover broccoli, an empty carton of milk, a few eggs, two brown colored apples and one shriveled up orange.

Of course, all the junk food was gone. That's what my ravenous adolescents tend to reach for whenever they open the insulated door. With a motherly sigh, I decided to clean out the remaining food and make a list for the grocery store. While reaching for the rotting fruit to toss it into the garbage can, I thought about Christmas.

For most people, the merry holiday brings forth images of gigantic spruce trees covered in thousands of twinkling lights, ropes of thick garland and shiny glass balls. It means packages of all sizes wrapped in gold and silver with oversized bows and brightly colored ribbons adorning them.

Christmas stirs up delicious thoughts of juicy hams and golden turkeys with spicy cornbread dressing and casserole dishes filled to the brim with sweet potatoes and green beans. The joyous day brings memories of cakes loaded with crunchy nuts and pies layered high with meringue.

My mother is appreciative of every Christmas in her life. She is thankful for the hurried, commercialized ones of the present as well as the cherished, meager ones of her childhood.

Ilene, born in 1930, was the ninth child of R.C. and Dollie Morrow. When three more little boys followed during the next few years, the growing family did everything they could to keep food on the table and clothes on their backs.

My grandfather was a sharecropper in north Alabama and worked from the hour before the sun rose each morning until the hour it went down in the evening. The family never had much, but they had each other and that's all that mattered back then.

Day to day living was hard, but Christmas presented a different challenge. Mother told me she never remembers her family putting up a Christmas tree. "When Daddy spent his time and strength to chop down a tree, it was used for firewood. Not for something just to sit in our small house and take up space where beds ought to be."

Even though he felt a Christmas tree wasn't needed, Grandpa always saved a few pennies from the cotton crop in the fall to use for his children's presents. There was rarely enough for store bought dolls or wooden trucks, just a sack full of apples and oranges and a few sticks of hard candy.

While the children were usually allowed to accompany their father into town, Grandpa made the long, cold trip into the nearby city each year on the day before Christmas all alone. He returned late in the evening with a big smile spread across his full face and a bulging sack thrown over his broad shoulder.

With a twinkle in his watery blue eyes, he ordered all the children to wait on the porch while he walked inside the house and closed the wooden front door with a kick of his well-worn boot. It didn't take him long to open the door once again and allow the children back inside to the warmth of the wood burning stove. The mysterious bag was nowhere in sight.

Supper was eaten with much anticipation of the upcoming day and talk of the goodies sure to be awaiting them with the morning light. Even though Grandpa smiled and tried to deny it, his clever young'uns knew what had been purchased during the trip to town and they even realized where their father had stored the precious gifts.

After the meal was finished, the children gathered around the old, wooden trunk sitting at the foot of their parent's large feather bed. The skeleton key deep in their father's roomy pocket on his faded overalls guaranteed there would be no peaking inside the homemade chest, but the padlock didn't stop twelve little noses from pressing firmly against the sides of the huge box and deeply inhaling the tangy smells of the fruit hidden within.

When darkness descended on the little one-room clapboard house, the rambunctious siblings raced to their beds in anticipation of the upcoming treats. Licking their lips, they squeezed their eyes shut and willed sleep to come quickly, while their amused parents sat quietly by the low burning fire, talking in hushed voices.

When the brilliant, Southern sun awakened the Morrow children on Christmas morning, they jumped from their beds and stood in awe of the little brown paper sacks lined up neatly on the long, wooden table.

Juddy, Cuba, Raymond, Lucille, Thomas, Wallace, Almarine, Albert, Ilene, Harvey, Charlie and Arnie respectfully took their presents and found a spot near the blazing fire where they giggled and laughed while opening their treats.

Some bit into the crisp, red apples first, while others couldn't wait to sink their teeth into the juicy oranges. A couple of boys swirled their tongues around the sugary peppermint sticks before their patience wore thin and they could wait no longer to bite off a large chunk of the powdery confection.

Not once did any of the children ever complain about their meager gifts. They appreciated the simple luxury given to them and thanked their father profusely for his purchases.

I couldn't help but wonder when mother shared this story with me a few years ago how I would have reacted as a child if I had been given a little paper sack filled with apples, oranges and sticks of hard candy on Christmas morning. I suppose I would have whined and demanded to know where my "real" presents were. Thank goodness I have learned a thing or two since then.

While removing the aging fruit from my refrigerator, I thought about how much my mother would have appreciated the few pieces of produce. She would have never let them go to waste, not when she was a child nor today, either. I turned away from the garbage can and sat down at the table where I carefully peeled the brown from the apples and removed the shriveled skin from the orange. Even though there wasn't much left, I salvaged a few bites and savored what was once called a treasured Christmas gift so many years ago.

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