Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Red School Bag

The Photocolorist and Her Daughter

The best Christmas present I ever received was given to me when I was six years old. 

Money was very tight when I was a child. My parents were divorced which, back in the early sixties, was unusual enough but my father, always a trendsetter, chose to be a "deadbeat dad" before that was even a term. Back then you were just a jerk. 

My mother earned her living as a "photocolorist." Totally obsolete today, this was the art of hand-coloring studio photographs which, in those days, came only in matte black and white.

My mother, a talented artist, worked long hours and made little money but I didn't know that. I only knew that, since she worked from a cluttered desk in the bedroom, she was available for a hug or a chat when it was needed.

The year I was six must have been a good one because I remember lots of things under our small, silver tree.

That Christmas morning, I crept into the living room where it stood---and where my grandfather slept because when we returned home post divorce, he gave us his bed--and quietly gathered my gifts to open in the predawn chill.

There was a doll, I remember. Some clothes--things I needed which got wrapped up and took on celebrity by the simple fact that they were presented in shiny holiday paper.

And there were lots of interesting doo-dads in the hand-sewn Christmas stocking that said "Susan" in my mother's sweeping script and over which she'd embroidered in red cotton thread. I remember, in particular, a tiny metal replica--accurate in detail--of a US Mail box (back then, they were red, white and blue). It was a bank and came along with a sandwich bag filled with new pennies to be dropped through the slot. I shook it countless times through-out the day just to hear and feel the rattle and heft of the coins inside.

The gift I instinctively opened last was the one whose memory I have held dear for 46 years.

In those days, kids didn't carry backpacks. You either secured your stack of books with a stretchy rubber strap or, if you were very lucky, carried a schoolbag such as the gleaming specimen I unwrapped on my sixth Christmas.

Upon the front flap, my mother had hand-lettered my name and address in gold paint. Small enough to be dignified but large enough to be clearly read, this was the special touch that set this bag--which wasn't real leather--apart, propelling it, I was certain, into eventual residence in the School Bag Hall of Fame. My children and I would visit it there one day---staring at it behind glass and I would say, "Kids, I once carried that beauty to school!"

I must have clicked it open and shut a thousand times that day, putting my books in and taking them out again, showing it to my aunts and uncles who tirelessly agreed that yes, it was the most beautiful school bag they'd ever seen.

Not a single one of my gifts that year plugged in.

The doll was to cuddle and confide in. The clothes were to keep me warm. The school bag was to carry books like "Blueberries For Sal," to my first grade classroom in a school that's had its name changed but whose shadow, on a short winter day, is the same as it was years ago--falling across the path of a girl on her way home, one hand in her mothers', the other holding tight to the best Christmas present ever.

I hope you get your red school bag this year.

No comments:

Post a Comment