Karen Nolan Bell grew up in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. With great passion for all things artistic, she fled her hills for adventure in New York City. There she studied acting, voice, and writing. She then married a nuclear physicist and spent the next 30 years moving from state to state on another grand adventure. They have one grown son and now reside in Marietta, Georgia. Karen hopes to have her first novel, set in the Kentucky mountains, on shelves within her lifetime.
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By Karen Nolan Bell
My face turned red as I pinched my lips closed and stared at the floor. Tears pooled in my hazel eyes. They were granny panties, after all, and they were being passed around the entire room of relatives. A few merely passed the box to the next person. Aunt Mona, however, had to stretch them out for everyone to see as she said in her hillbilly twang, “Oooh, look at Karen’s new panties. Ain’t they purdy. I had no idea you was that big, though.” That is the last thing an overweight young girl wants to hear. I just hoped I’d survive the round of look-see so I could hide them under my chair.
In spite of the annual gift of new panties, Christmas Eve was my favorite time of year. All of my aunts, uncles and cousins who could make the trip into the mountains of southeastern Kentucky gathered at Granny’s house for Christmas. There was always a big party on the eve. Everybody brought gifts and food to share as we filled the house with laughter. Of course, Granny always got the most gifts.
You would never guess we were poor after seeing the spread. We had pea salad, apple salad, spice cake, apple stack cake, and Appalachian fruitcake. But my favorite food was baloney salad sandwiches on white Bunny bread. Granny ground up the baloney, added boiled eggs, mayonnaise, and sweet pickles. I loved it.
At the end of the celebration, we packed up our car and drove out of the holler and back to our house on the other side of Harlan. My ears rang from the echoes of the noise and my face ached from smiling. I did not smile or laugh on my way home, though. No one did. Our little part of the family was quiet and reserved when we were away from the extended family.
Christmas morning always came with hopeful excitement as I rushed to the tree to see what Santa brought me this year. I always thought it interesting that I didn’t always get what I wanted, but what my mother suggested would be nice. The gifts were a special treat. I rarely received a toy except at Christmas. However, I couldn’t help but wonder why my parents never gave me a gift for Christmas. They gave gifts to all my relatives. But they never gave one to me.
A seed planted itself in my heart. Maybe my parents don’t love me. That doubt grew through the years. Discontent, self-doubt, and depression grew from it. I wanted to escape the sadness.
My last Christmas at home before college, I found a large wrapped box under the tree on Christmas morning. It read, “To Karen, From Mom.” My fingers shook and I felt a little lightheaded as I unstuck the tape and slowly removed the paper. I lifted the lid and inside the box an afghan lay folded. I knew she crocheted it for me. I caressed it without removing it from the box as tears came. I cried because, at that moment, I realized she really did love me after all.
I thought about the hours she spent secretly crocheting that afghan just for me. She loved me enough to make it in my favorite colors, too. She may never remember that I hate cranberry sauce with a passion and refer to it as toxic waste, but she knew my favorite colors. I cried some more. That one gift flipped the switch in our relationship. I slept with it every night after that. It reminded me of her love.
When my son was born several years later, I thought about those years of wondering whether my parents loved me because they never gave me a present for Christmas. So, on his second Christmas, I smiled as I wrapped the one toy at the top of his wish list in festive paper and put it under the tree with the gifts from Santa.
On Christmas morning, he giggled as he found each toy and cuddled it. Then he furrowed his brow and searched through the debris under the tree. He sat, arms crossed, and sighed a storm.
I picked up the gift and read the tag to him; “To Steve with love from Mom & Dad” and handed it to him. My Mama’s heart whirled inside me as I watched him shred the paper, sending it in a flurry around the room. He gasped and squealed as he ripped open the box and hugged the toy to his heart. Then he ran to me and threw his arms around my neck, “Thanks, Mom. I love you too.”
We repeated this new family tradition all during his Santa years. He always knew his best gift came from his Mom and Dad, who love him more than Santa. I know my parents had no idea how their absence of a gift affected me as a child. I now know how much they sacrificed to give us the wonderful gifts we received from Santa. I regret that I doubted them.
How many people in our world doubt our love and concern because we never share gifts with them? It doesn’t take much to encourage someone. Gifts don’t have to be material. They can be words of friendship, time offered freely, or merely smiles. The one thing that opened my eyes to my mother’s love was the fact that she thought of me and spent time doing something for me.
Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me (Matthew 25:40 Holman).
Karen, thank you so much for guesting today and sharing your Christmas story. If you'd like to enter for a chance to win in Karen's giveaway, please comment on this blog post. She's giving away a Barnes & Noble gift card.