My brother Richard jabbed a fork into his mashed potatoes. He knew what was coming.
When Mom announced, “This isn’t going to be a very good Christmas,” we knew it was because the strike would drag on into January, and all the family’s resources would go toward house payments and bills. Rich’s dream of a new bike — badly needed for his expanding paper route — was up the chimney that Santa wasn’t coming down.
By the time I was 8, we were a four-person single-parent family, living in a new suburban bungalow on Chicago’s south side. My parents left their rural roots in Minnesota three years earlier, in 1950, hoping to find good-paying factory jobs. Mom also hoped that getting away from his poker-playing, beer-guzzling buddies from the Green Giant plant in Blue Earth would help Dad’s paychecks reach the checking accounts and pay for the new house.
The first wish came true. Mom and Dad both got factory jobs paying union wages. Mom even liked her job at National Can Corporation: flipping stacks of tin-can ends between her hands, eyes glued on them to look for the right amount of sealing compound in the right places.
The second one didn’t. Once Dad got away from the watchful eyes of relatives and neighbors, the big city seemed to wipe out whatever moral impulses had made life in Blue Earth somewhat manageable.
But her good job, Dad’s intermittent child support payments, and occasional borrowing from my sister’s baby-sitting and waitress-tips money and my brother’s paper route gave Mom enough to get from paycheck to paycheck with the bills paid and the food and clothes we needed.
Just enough. It was mid-October: heating and warm-clothes season. Unemployment compensation, 60 percent of regular salary, wasn’t going to pull us through.
Losing the house was a blow my mother knew she couldn’t survive. Already demoralized by being a rare divorcee in the ‘50s, she, too, abandoned some moral scruples and started looking for another job. Union rules forbid working elsewhere while a strike was on, so she had steeled herself to lie to a prospective employer: She would never go back to National Can, because she couldn’t trust that employment to be permanent.
The trick worked. She got a job at SOS corporation, a factory that made those meshy plastic balls called Tuffies used to scrub pots and pans. The pay was not as good as National Can’s, but much better than unemployment compensation. We’d make it through January.
The weeks before Christmas were different from other years — but not entirely. Mom was 100-percent German by heritage, and like any good German woman, she showed her love and loyalty through food.
A typical Christmas would see her spending weekends prior to Christmas whipping up syrupy popcorn balls, dense fruit cake, chocolate fudge with Brazil nuts and maple fudge with black walnuts, individually wrapped caramels, decorated sugar cookies, date pinwheel cookies, pfeffernusse, layered Christmas tree cake covered with seven-minute icing and red and green gumdrops.
All this to be larded away until after Christmas Eve services, when the whole array would cover the kitchen table, to be eaten at will until the bounty was devoured (something that never happened other times of the year, when all treats were carefully rationed).
This year, Mom lacked the spirit, energy and money for ingredients to keep up the tradition. She’d made the less expensive things, like pfeffernusse and sugar cookies, but Brazil nuts, candied fruit and dates were out of the question, and popcorn balls way too fussy to deal with in her stressed-out state. She missed her co-workers, especially the one that gave her a ride to work every workday. Taking two buses to and from work left her drooping.
So it was a welcome surprise when Mom came in the door the Friday evening just a few days before Christmas with a big smile on her face. Rich and I stopped in our tracks to find out what caused this change in my mother’s now-familiar Friday fade.
“Did I say we weren’t going to have a nice Christmas?” she asked. “Well, I take it all back.”
Then she showed us the contents of the big brown paper bag she was carrying: the company’s Christmas “bonus”: Tuffies. Dozens of them, made up especially for Christmas in all colors of the rainbow. Lime green, lavender, yellow, purple, blue-and orange, green, red, green-and-red ...
Off we went to our nearby mom-and-pop grocery and dragged home the cheapest of their trees to decorate with these gaudy globes. Rich put up the tree and arranged the Tuffie balls on it, and Mom and I strung pfeffernusse and fresh-popped popcorn on long threads to circle around the tree. And, while Rich and I decked them on the tree, lo and behold, Mom found the energy to whip up some popcorn balls.
The Tuffies looked like the plastic blobs they were, and our hastily sewn-up strings did little to disguise their lack of beauty. The tree was laughable at best. But, munching on popcorn balls (before Christmas Eve!) we told ourselves it was great. To me it glowed with the message that we were going to be OK.
And we were. The strike did end in January; National Can took Mom back, no questions asked. Rich got the new bike for his June birthday, and the following December the Christmas Eve treats were as abundant and scrumptious as ever. Might be that we even enjoyed them more than usual, proud because we knew we were “Tuff” survivors of one “not very good Christmas.”