Holidays Vivian | 01 Dec 2010 12:00 am

Christmas on the Bayou

Teresa and Bobby had lost almost everything when the hurricane ravaged the bayou. Flood waters had swallowed up the meager little house in which they had lived, and had taken everything with it. Yet, Teresa considered herself fortunate, because she had managed to pack some clothes, pillows, and a box of photographs in the trunk of her car before escaping with her son. The two of them lived in the back seat of that car for several months. Teresa took jobs wherever she could to earn enough money for food, and to put a little away each month with the hope to return to the bayou with her son Bobby. The old house was gone, but the bayou was their home. She was determined to start again, to make a life for them, and to give them new hope.

When they returned to the Bayou, Teresa found work with her former employer. Jacques ran a small grocery store in the center of town. He was also in the process of rebuilding after the flood waters had devastated his business and everything inside it. Whatever had not been scavenged by looters before the storm was washed away in the torrent of the waters. It had taken months to salvage enough of the store to maintain canned goods, diapers, batteries, and other non-perishable items that were necessary to sustain the slow return of habitants to the bayou. Giving Teresa her job back was as important to Jacques as it was to Teresa, it was an unspoken recognition that they would overcome.

Jacques was a gentle and soft spoken man, except when he laughed. When he found something funny, Jacques would roll his head back and his infectious laughter would echo throughout the store. When he laughed, as he frequently would, he would place his large hands on either side of his large belly as it shook up and down. Jacques was very happy to have Teresa back in his store and operating the front counter. Jacques was particularly fond of Bobby, and of the jokes that Bobby would tell. No matter how many times that Bobby would repeat the same knock-knock jokes, Jacques would roll with laughter as if he had never heard it before.

In addition to paying Teresa her normal weekly wages, Jacques would give Teresa a box full of dented cans to take home every Friday. Jacques claimed that he could not sell the dented cans and did not want to leave them on the shelves. Jacques also knew that Bobby was particularly fond of Chef Boyardee. Every Thursday evening, after Teresa was gone for the day, Jacques would walk through the store and gather an assortment of soups, tuna fish, various canned goods, and a selection of Chef Boyardee. When the box was full, Jacques would take the items to a counter in the stockroom and carefully use a hammer to put a dent in each can. Jacques knew that Teresa was too proud and too conscientious to take the food if he were to simply offer it to her as charity, so he would gently dent each one just enough to make it inappropriate for sale in the store. Teresa never questioned how the store accumulated an entire box each week, but she was always grateful to take home the canned goods with her paycheck on Friday. Quite often, after paying the other bills, the dented cans provided the only food that sustained Teresa and Bobby until the next paycheck.

Christmas was an especially important time for Teresa. She was determined to make this Christmas special for Bobby, despite their circumstances. They had saved enough money to rent an apartment, buy a small Christmas tree, and a single string of white lights. For the last six months, Teresa preserved a few dollars from every paycheck to put aside into a fund for Christmas presents. This holiday was to be a crowning achievement, a symbol of survival, to have enough money to buy gifts and still have money to pay the rent. Teresa could not wait to see the expression on her son’s face on Christmas morning. She was determined to make this a Christmas that little Bobby would think about throughout the year, and remember for a lifetime.

On Christmas Eve, schools were closed, so Bobby spent the day at the store with his mother. Bobby spent most of the day lying on his stomach on the floor, behind the counter, near his mother’s feet, drawing and coloring pictures for Christmas. Periodically, Jacques would gather the hand-drawn pictures of Christmas trees, Santa Claus, and the Reindeer, and he would tape the pages to the front windows of the store. After several hours and several pictures, Bobby asked to see where his artwork was being used to adorn the small grocery store.

As Bobby stared proudly at his artwork in the front window of the grocery store, he noticed two large boxes with pictures of fire trucks on the front of each one. Teresa explained to Bobby that one box was used to collect canned goods and non-perishable food for the poor. She explained that the other box was being used to collect new and unopened toys for homeless children. The local fire department supplied boxes to collect these items each year, and then would distribute the items on Christmas day. The food would go to homeless shelters. The toys would be delivered to local orphanages and institutions for children without parents. Bobby stared at the two boxes for a long time before returning to his place behind the counter. For the rest of the day his pictures included firemen, Santa on a fire truck, and the delighted faces of little boys and girls receiving toys from men with big red hats and long yellow coats.

The next morning, Bobby walked out of his bedroom in his pajamas and was astonished to see a ring of presents surrounding his Christmas tree. He paused for a moment, unable to believe his eyes. Teresa stood in the kitchen and watched as Bobby raced down the hallway and dropped to his knees in front of the presents. One by one, Bobby picked up the gifts, shook it gently by either ear, and gave each one a hug. He touched each gift and ran his fingers over the packing, ribbons, and bows, without opening it or uttering a single word. Then, just as suddenly, he ran to the window and looked out into the street.

“What are you looking at?” asked Teresa.

Bobby looked up at the sky, then down to the street in both directions. “I am looking for Santa Claus and the firemen,” explained Bobby.

Satisfied that there was nobody outside the apartment, Bobby turned and asked his mother, “Can I open them?”

Teresa smiled and nodded to Bobby. He raced back to the Christmas tree and reorganized the presents into a ring around himself on the floor. Teresa was amazed by the meticulous manner with which Bobby opened each gift. Rather than tear the wrapping and rip into each box, Bobby carefully removed the tape and unfolded the wrapping paper. He would then lay the paper like a tablecloth on the floor, open each box at one end, and place the contents on top of the box like a small shrine. Despite the limited number of gifts, this concentrated process took Bobby all morning and most of the afternoon to open each present and place it accordingly. By late afternoon, Bobby was sitting with his mother on the couch, eating his Chef Boyardee, and admiring the small shrines and small stacks of toys, boxes, and wrapping paper. Bobby did not play with any of the toys that day. From time to time he would pick one up, give it a soft hug, and then run back to the couch to cuddle with his mother. The two of them watched the presents twinkle under the dim glow of the tree lights with rapt attention into the evening.

Very early the next morning, Teresa was startled from her sleep by noises in the apartment. She tiptoed to the door of her bedroom and looked down the hall. She was surprised to see the soft glow of the lights from the Christmas tree. The lights had been turned off at night, to conserve and reduce cost of the electricity. But there, beneath the soft glow of the white lights, was a ring of brightly wrapped presents and cans of Chef Boyardee around the base of the Christmas tree.

Teresa slipped quietly down the hallway, not sure what to think of what she saw in front of her. The wrapping paper was very familiar, as were the slightly dented cans of Chef Boyardee. She quickly checked the front door, but it was still locked. Then she looked around the room and saw Bobby sitting quietly on the floor, beside the Christmas tree, a present in his small hands.

Bobby’s face turned up to look at his mother. His brown eyes were round and wide, shining and full of tears. Streaks and stains lined his little round cheeks from the tears that had run down his face. A few tear drops still clung to his quivering chin, and his body shook with silent sobs as his fingers caressed the tape and wrapping paper on the present in his lap.

Teresa stood stunned for only a moment before rushing to the side of her little child. She placed her hands on his shaking shoulders, looking into his sad eyes and wanting to make sure that he was unharmed. The reflection from the lights from the Christmas tree danced in Bobby’s eyes and sparkled on his tear stained cheeks. As Teresa looked at the presents and dented cans that surrounded them on the floor, she suddenly realized why they had looked so familiar. The presents were the same ones that Bobby had opened the morning before, in the same wrapping paper that he had meticulously placed beneath the boxes, and surrounded by dented cans of Chef Boyardee from their own cupboard.

“I want to take these to the big boxes for the firemen,” Bobby said with a shaking voice. “I want to give these to the little boys and girls who are hungry, and do not have a mommy.”

Teresa hugged Bobby and held him close to her. She kissed him on the top of his head and squeezed him as if to pull him closer to her heart. Bobby had given her something special for Christmas, something that she would cherish for the rest of her life. It did not require ribbon, or wrapping, or bows. They had made it together, Christmas was in her arms.


Words of Wisdom

“The parent who gets down on the floor to play with a child on Christmas Day is usually doing a most remarkable thing — something seldom repeated during the rest of the year. These are, after all, busy parents committed to their work or their success in the larger society, and they do not have much left-over time in which to play with their children.”

- Brian Sutton-Smith

“Do give books – religious or otherwise – for Christmas. They’re never fattening, seldom sinful, and permanently personal.”

- Lenore Hershey

“D’you call life a bad job? Never! We’ve had our ups and downs, we’ve had our struggles, we’ve always been poor, but it’s been worth it, ay, worth it a hundred times I say when I look round at my children.”

- W. Somerset Maugham

“Recommend to your children virtue; that alone can make them happy, not gold.”

- Ludwig van Beethoven

“Grown-ups never understand anything for themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.”

- Antoine de Saint-Exupery

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