The Best of Times by Margaret Davis

 

It was the worst of times.  In December 1942 , war was raging all over the world.  Our family had escaped the bombs of London to the relative peace of a little country town in Devonshire.  But the dreadful shortages of everything—food, clothing, fuel—made life a difficult affair.  As for non-essentials like bananas and oranges,  they were just a dream.

But also it was the best of times. December means Christmas.  I was 11 and my brother 9.  To the disgust of our some of our smart-alecky friends, we still believed.  In Santa Claus, that is.  I was adept at reasoning away stories from people who attempted to disprove the great man’s existence.  Stories that told of sightings of multiple Santas in multiple department stores in pre-war London—evidence, supposedly, that he was a fake.  I would argue that the real Santa was invisible to a child who believed in him and all the other manifestations were just people posing as Santa.  This was, of course, at least half-way true.

I had noticed that after the war started the great spread of gifts that appeared by our bed on Christmas morning became noticeably smaller each year.  As my mother explained, even Santa had trouble finding many toys in wartime.  “But,” I would probe, “he’ll always find something for you if you’re good?”

“Of course,” she’d reply.

Back to December 1942.   One day, while I was rummaging around in my mother’s sewing basket for needle and wool to mend a hole in my stocking  (yes, at eleven, I knew how to darn my own stockings), I discovered an odd item.  It was what looked like part of a maroon colored sock, sewn up and stuffed with bits of rag.  It was no doubt a sock my father had left behind when he left for the army in India.  Like everyone we knew, my mother had saved every piece of pre-war clothing she could—many of our current clothes were made from her pre-war dresses.  But why would she sew up a sock and stuff it?  By the time she came home, I’d forgotten about it.

The days got closer to Christmas Day.  Christmas dinner was always a tricky proposition. We had plenty of vegetables—potatoes, carrots, Brussels sprouts.  But finding enough meat or poultry was difficult.  That year, however, however, we were lucky.  The people at the farm down the hill sold us a chicken. My mother invited neighbors, two elderly single ladies, to share our good luck.  I would much rather have it be just the three of us but she assured me that our chicken would stretch to five people.  “You know, we have rations for three; both of those ladies live alone and it’s most difficult to live on a single person’s ration.”  I had often heard this; also I knew the old ladies didn’t have any land to grow vegetables as we did.

December 24 arrived.  My brother and I cleaned up our bedroom in preparation for Santa’s arrival.   On these cold nights, the two of us shared a bed.  My mother warned, “Remember, don’t expect too many presents.  Poor Santa is trying as hard as he can.”  This warning didn’t dampen our spirits or expectations one bit.  We knew Santa would come through.

December 25.  Christmas morning.  I awoke before dawn and already my brother was on the floor unwrapping.  The gift wrap, I knew, had been donated by my mother because Santa just didn’t have enough for everyone.  So there was brown paper, shelf lining, some remnants of old pre-war wrap.  Excitedly, Johnny held up a little wooden cart.  “Look at this.”

“Oh, Johnny, that’s just what you’d been hoping to get.”

I turned to my presents.  Two books, a pretty painted tray that would hold the brush and comb on my dresser, a notebook and pen, a bottle of Lily of the Valley cologne.  And something soft wrapped in white shelf lining paper.  I frowned as I unwrapped it.  It was a teddy bear made with a stuffed sock maroon body, knitted arms and legs and head in contrasting colors sewn on.  Maroon sock body? Had my mother been helping Santa out by making this bear for him?

I looked up and realized she was watching me.  She said, “I hope that isn’t too babyish for you.  Santa may not realize how grown up you are now.”

I said, “No, no, I really like it.”  I looked around at the other presents. The wooden cart for my brother and tray for my dresser—only a year ago, we had visited people in another part of town where they had shown us samples of the wooden toys the man of the house used to make for his grandchildren.  Books and other trinkets—the only toy store in town had closed its doors last January but there was still Woolworths.

My eyes filled with tears.  Because, suddenly, I no longer believed.   Christmas would never again be the best of times.

While my brother was distracted with his new cart, I went over to my mother.  Instantly, I knew from her expression that she understood.  She hugged me.  “You know, don’t you, darling?”

I sobbed, “I’ll never enjoy Christmas again.”

“Oh, yes, you will, baby.  Christmas is love; it’s bringing happiness to people.  It’s always been about that.”  That was no comfort whatever.

Later that evening, I helped prepare our Christmas feast.  The cooking chicken smelled delicious.  At five-thirty, the two old biddies turned up.  Sweets were pretty well unavailable in the shops, but they had made some chocolate fudge for us.  We all sat down to dinner an hour or so later.  As I had feared, the little chicken was barely enough for the five of us, but there were loads of vegetables which, luckily, we all loved.  And then—oh, bless her from here to forevermore!—one of the old biddies produced a pre-war Crosse & Blackwell Christmas pudding in a can.  So we had a delicious dessert, followed by tea and chocolate fudge.

Later, we all sat around the fire, singing along with carols on the radio.  I looked around at each face.  My piggy brother, of course, full of fudge, was contentedly nursing the cart Santa had brought him.  But I couldn’t take my eyes off the two old ladies and my beloved mother whose expressions literally made me feel aglow.  They looked happy, and wanted, and loved.  Just as I felt.

Christmas would never again be the same, I knew, but I also knew it would always be the best of times.

 


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