“When I was a kid, we didn’t have no Christmas tree,” said the waitress, placing a hamburger on the table before me.
I was in North Georgia, in a restaurant attached to a gas station. My waitress’s name was Sharon. I know this because her name tag said “SHARON.”
“No tree?” I said, lifting the top bun to make sure everything was okay under the hood.
“Nosir. Didn’t get no presents, neither. My mama worked too hard to spend money on that kinda stuff. Mama paid bills and bought food.”
She passed me the Heinz for my fries. I used the butt of my palm to spank the bottle until it repented.
My server was middle-aged, with hair that was straw colored, and she wore a sweatshirt with the name of a local high school on it.
“So,” I said, “no trees and no gifts, how did your family celebrate?”
She smiled. Her teeth were blindingly white, perfectly straight—a credit to her genetics, her dental care professional, or her prosthodontist. She had a great smile.
“Celebrate? Shoot. We didn’t.”
She shook her head and started jingling the change in her apron. “Not until I was nineteen.”
“That was the year Mama died. Mama died in an accident coming home from work. It was awful. Worst day of my life. Drunk driver got her. Had to raise all eight of my brothers and sisters after that. My dad was a deadbeat.”
She looked off as though she were posing for a Renoir.
“Know what I did that first Christmas?”
“Well, we couldn’t afford no tree. But out in our shed we had cans of old green paint, ‘cause our trailer was green on the outside. So I cleared a place in the living room and I painted a tree on the wall.
“Then we all made flowery ornaments and stuff from pieces of tin foil, sticking them to our painted-wall tree. We made popcorn strings, decorated pine cones, that kinda stuff.”
I negotiated a fry through six inches of ketchup. “You’re pretty creative.”
“That ain’t the best part. Me and my brother, Sweets, spent twenty dollars on our whole family that year. Twenty bucks. That was our spending limit.
“For eight kids?”
“Nine including me.”
A bell dinged over the door. She told the customers to sit wherever, then she returned her gaze to me for the clincher.
“You’d be surprised what you can buy with twenty bucks if you’re smart. We made our presents for cheap.
“Sweets got some wood and fixed up some swords and shields for the boys, spray painted’em silver. For the girls, I went to the thrift store and bought old babydolls, repainted their faces, sewed brand new clothes for’em so they looked like new.”
“Not a nickel more.”
She took a moment to laugh. It was the kind of absent laugh you give when remembering too much.
“Then know what we did?”
I shook my head.
“Few days ‘fore Christmas, me and Sweets went behind Kmart to get a bunch of free cardboard boxes—you know, to put our presents into? We were gonna wrap them up in newspaper. Know what we found behind Kmart?”
“Found cans of expired pureed pumpkin, and boxes of pudding, a bunch of perfectly good food, just throwed away. I took it all home and made pies out of it. Pumpkin pies, pudding pies, you name it. Graham cracker crust.”
Another proud laugh.
“Next morning,” she went on, “everyone woke up and saw their toys and all we did was cry.”
“Cry? You mean happy tears?”
“No. We were all so sad without Mama, we couldn’t do nothing but cry. It was a hard year.”
“Long time ago, darling.”
I applied mayonnaise to my burger with a masonry trowel. Then I broke my onions into individual pieces of mulch and positioned them just right.
“What are your Christmases like now?” I asked.
“My kids get the best Christmas. We drive all the way to North Carolina just to pick out a tree. We walk through the woods near my brother-in-law’s house, and we chop it down together, trim it up, and ever’thing.”
“And we make all our own presents. Carve them, or sew them, or pottery. That’s the rule. You gotta make’em with your own hands. More fun when you make them.”
She removed a smartphone from her apron. The woman donned reading glasses and began thumbing through photos. Finally, she showed me the phone. “Lookie here. This is what I’m making my oldest, she’s twenty.”
On the screen was a quilt of magnific proportions. There were so many colors the blanket looked like a veritable Dolly Parton song. Her creation was—to put it frankly—museum worthy.
“You know,” I said, “that was a pretty good story you just told, about your childhood.”
“Aw,” she said, “I keep telling my kids I’m gonna write it all down one day, to remind them to be thankful for all the stuff they have.”
“I think you should.”
“God no, I hate to write. Need to find someone to write it for me.”
Consider this my contribution to your family’s bountiful Christmas, Sharon.
Lisa K Riley - November 27, 2021 7:05 am
Love. We do what we gotta do to survive. Thank you, Sean.
Norma Den🇿🇦 - November 27, 2021 8:44 am
Sean your writing hits the spot every day. One thing please, I need to find a sponsor for all the Kleenex I use mopping up tears of sadness, sorrow, sympathy and gratitude for what we have. A roof over our heads, food in fridge, beds to sleep on, and so much more. May God send good people to protect and help those without.
Dianne - November 27, 2021 10:16 am
Thank you, Sean, for sharing this story.
Sandi. - November 27, 2021 10:25 am
Sean, I hope Sharon reads this heartwarming post. It will be her best Christmas gift from a delightful stranger.
Joan Moore - November 27, 2021 11:01 am
Thanks for your gift, made with your own hands…
Te - November 27, 2021 12:20 pm
Good story. This nay be the year a lot of families paint christmas trees on their walls.
Joy Jacobs - November 27, 2021 12:25 pm
Tears and laughter first thing every morning. Best way to wake up. Thanks.
Gayle Dodds - November 27, 2021 1:00 pm
The amazing people you meet
Jeanne Mann - November 27, 2021 1:12 pm
I have found nothing to even smile about this morning until I read your column. There is hope for our country because there are people in it like the ones you described in your article. Thank you very much
Karen - November 27, 2021 1:53 pm
Sean, thank you for sharing Sharon’s story. Now, celebrating Christmas by creating gifts is so special. My day begins reading your daily gift to is.
Suellen - November 27, 2021 2:06 pm
I remember the year I spent $15 on my kids. They were little then so they were still excited to get new coloring books and crayons and hot wheels. Christmas was still special with the tree, Christmas cookies, and dressing up to go to church Christmas Eve. I was so sad that I couldn’t give them more but looking back they were some of the best Christmases of my life.
Paul McCutchen - November 27, 2021 2:10 pm
The next time you see Sharon, tell her we enjoyed her Christmas story. Truly an inspired story of hope.
Rhonda - November 27, 2021 2:47 pm
Ruth Mitchell - November 27, 2021 3:10 pm
Sharon has certainly inspired me to be thankful with her story and her attitude. Thank you for sharing it.
Shelton A. - November 27, 2021 3:48 pm
A Christmas story worthy of your talents. I really hope she prints this out and saves this for her kids plus her brothers and sisters. Sharon is a blessing to all of her family!
Nancy Carnahan - November 27, 2021 4:34 pm
My mother worked hard (at a lingerie factory) to support us because my dad was a deadbeat too. Thankfully it was never quite that bad. But one year when my ex and I were going to college, we found ourselves in a similar situation. We went to a local giant flea market and bought presents for our kids. A clean teddy bear with a new ribbon, some paint on little cars, etc. I think I’ll ask my kids if they remember that. I’m reasonably sure they won’t.
Merry Christmas and blessings to all y’all.
Stacey Wallace - November 27, 2021 5:14 pm
Thanks, Sean. You made my husband’s and my day. Love to you and Jamie.
Jan - November 27, 2021 5:21 pm
Merry Christmas, Sharon! Thank you for the reminder to count my blessings, Sean!
Chasity Davis Ritter - November 27, 2021 5:44 pm
You get me every single time. Perfect reminder for us all to be thankful, That not everyone’s Christmas or holiday looks the same and that gifts given from the heart are the most precious ❤️
Edna Isdell - November 27, 2021 6:19 pm
Thank you for the lovely story..hoping she is blessed with many wonderful Christmas years ahead.
MAM - November 27, 2021 7:00 pm
And what you just gave Sharon is a priceless gift. I just hope she knows about it! I still have memories about Christmases, when we had to be creative with the surprises. Sometimes, because this bratty kid (me!) let the cat out of the bag on what Daddy was giving Mommy. That called for creative wrapping of just a tiny portion of the gift. And the questioning look on Mom’s face when it was opened, until Daddy got the real gift out of his car trunk. Hugs and kisses were always part of the morning! Oh, and homemade waffles for breakfast.
Leslie Lentile - November 27, 2021 7:18 pm
You make me happy!
Linda Moon - November 27, 2021 7:21 pm
“Pray tell”. That opens lots of stories and photo-sharing. I know stories about Christmases with twelve little siblings, but I won’t tell them here. I saw the colors and heard the song at the mention of the quilt, and I’m looking at my Dutch Girl that was quilted by my kin long ago. Thank you for writing Sharon’s story for Christmas and sharing it’s bounty with us. I’m glad you like to write.
Debi - November 27, 2021 10:15 pm
Ahhh! You always get me at the end. I hope Sharon reads this to her kids Christmas morning and then frames it for future generations. What a gift, and she’s quite the story teller.
Linda - November 28, 2021 12:44 am
Thank you SO VERY MUCH for sharing this story. I have passed it along. This reminds us to be grateful for what we do have and treasure those we love. Merry Christmas, Sean!
Judeene Blankenship - November 28, 2021 2:51 am
You have a gift, Sean. Thank you for seeing and listening to ‘everyday’ people. Your humanity blesses us all.
Karen Snyder - November 28, 2021 3:43 am
❤️❤️ Reminders of Christmases past, some lean, some bountiful, all full of love. Thank you for sharing Sharon’s story.
Christina - November 28, 2021 2:56 pm
Thanks for sharing Sharon’s story, Sean. You make a big contribution every day in ways you might not realize.
Ann - November 28, 2021 4:40 pm
Paul Moore - November 29, 2021 1:59 pm
A spank on the bottom of a Hienz bottle really ? They must have some old bottles they keep refilling from decades ago.