Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Hocked Pocket Watch and Christmas


My father was a steamfitter, a term used back in the forties for a pipefitter who assembles, fabricates, maintains, and repairs mechanical piping systems. Dad frequently worked at the Standard Oil Refinery in Sugar Creek, Missouri, on looming cat-crackers that produced gasoline and other products from crude oil.


         However, during the winter months, he was often laid off as no work was being done. During those months, he’d get unemployment, but week after week he’d drink away the money in local bars. My grandmother would send us care packages of food.
         Every few days, he’d drive into Kansas City and check in at the Pipefitters Union Hall to see if any work was available. His union was on the second floor of a brick building; the first floor was a saloon. After the union meeting, he'd spend the day on a bar stool, mushrooming his beer tab.         
         In November 1946, when I was in fifth grade, we had no money and so Dad hocked his watch in a pawnshop uptown by the Independence Square. It was a gold pocket watch, which had belonged to his father. He missed that watch, and I missed seeing him take it out of his watch pocket, flick it open, and peruse the time.
         That Christmas, Mom managed to buy a gift for my brother and one for me. Both beckoned us from beneath the tree. Surprisingly, she somehow also managed to get Dad's pocket watch out of hock. She swore both my brother and me to secrecy, explaining that she wanted that watch to be a big surprise for my father on Christmas Day.


         That December, Dad came home drunk night after night. Mom would send my brother and me to bed, but I’d lie awake by my window, waiting for his car lights to pierce the winter darkness.        
         On Christmas Eve, as snow fell heavily, he didn’t come home at all. Then the police called: Dad was in jail, picked up for drunken driving. He’d be released the next day, when he was sober.
         Christmas morning my brother and I stood looking out the living room window, waiting for him to get home so we could open our gifts. He didn’t come and didn’t come. Then, through the side window, we saw him tramping the deep snow. The police had released him, but not the car, so he’d walked the three miles from the Square, out into the country, and over the fields to our home.
         I watched him leaving a unwavering pattern of footprints on the blanket of snow and thought, “He doesn’t deserve to get his watch back.”


         Dad came into the house, stomped the snow off his shoes, and mumbled a few words that were lost as my brother and I tore open our gifts.          
         After we’d hugged and thanked her for our presents, Mom asked my brother to give Dad his gift. We all watched as he opened it. When he saw the watch, tears welled his eyes, trickling down his cheeks and falling on his wrinkled shirt, which was flecked with vomit.
         That was the first time I ever saw my father cry.
         He held the watch gently in the palm of his left hand and slowly ran the fingertips of his other hand over the inscription.  He had no words. He simply sat there in the worn easy chair, his eyes glazed with tears.
         We waited. Unsure what to say.
         “Thank you,” he finally murmured, raising his head and taking in the three of us standing in front of the tree. He seemed to see all of us for the first time.
         My little brother and I went over to the easy chair and hugged him. He was home.

Postscript:
If you haven’t read the guest posting for this past Monday, please stay for a few more moments and read about being homeless in Hawaii.

All photographs from Wikipedia.

53 comments:

  1. Oh my. This is a beautiful story. I am reminded of "The Gift of the Magi":

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    1. Dear Teresa and Broad, you know I never thought of O. Henry's story when I wrote this Christmas remembrance yesterday. But I'm pleased that it reminded you of that wonderful story that has touched all of us--of a certain age! Peace.

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  2. I've been awaiting my lunch period so I could read this, and what an amazing story. I had to wipe the tears from my eyes. What an amazing woman your mom was, and despite everything, it is easy to see the love your family shared.

    Was your dad ever able to give up drinking? What a hard thing that must have been to live with.

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    1. Dear Shelly, Oh my, to think that you wait for my stories. What a lovely gift to me. My mom was an amazing woman. Like so many women, she had a hard life, but as she said more than once, "I made my bed and now I'll lie in it."

      Dad never gave up his drinking. Sometimes he drank hard liquor like whiskey. On one occasion he became violent and his treatment of my mom at that time is a bitter memory. For many years I couldn't forgive him for that. But when I was older--a nun--I realized that to understand all is to forgive all. And I came to understand the demons that drove him to drink and his weakness that had come out of a childhood in which he tried to please a mother who was implacable and a tyrant. Also, I came to realize that I, too, have a dark place within me. We all do. Peace.

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  3. Hi Dee, I always enjoy your stories!!!!!

    We are enjoying the beach in beautiful Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina. I will think of you today at 12 minutes and 12 seconds after 12 noon on 12/12/11.... Unbelievable.

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    1. Dear Betsy, I'm so pleased that you enjoy these small stories I tell of years so long ago. I'm glad to learn that you are enjoying the beach in North Carolina. I hope it is warmer there on the beach than here in the chilly Mid-West! And I hope that 12/12/12 was a day filled with surprising delights for you. Peace.

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  4. It WAS reminiscent of "The Gift of the Magi", except their problems weren't due to drinking.

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    1. Dear Fishducky, true. No drinking in "The Gift of the Magi." That story by O. Henry must be one of the most memorable short stories of the 20th century! At least you and Teresa and Broad and I remember! Peace.

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  5. Dee this brought tears to my eyes and lump to my throat as I read it. Such wonderful story-telling and such a moving and human story. I wondered as I read whether your father drank because he wasn't working and was bored and even ashamed of not being able to keep his family? Like Shelly I would like to know whether he managed one day to conquer his demon.

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    1. Dear Perpetua, I've now responded to Shelly's question about whether Dad ever conquered his demons. Please scroll up and see what I wrote there.

      He was a dear man in so many ways and he loved me deeply. I was "the apple of his eye." And yet for many years, I was ashamed of him and angry about his drinking.

      More than once, many more times than once, I begged my mother to leave him. But she, like so many woman of her time, feared that we'd be destitute if she took us and left. I assured her, even at the age of ten, that I'd make a living for us. But Mom merely looked at me with what I know now is grief in her blue eyes and said, "Ah, Dolores, it's I who'd need to support us and I have no skills."

      The truth is that she didn't have what's known as "marketable" skills in today's parlance, but she had the skill of being a warm and loving and wise human being. She was a master at being a mother. Peace.

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  6. What a beautiful,touching story. Your mother was quite a woman and I hope your father got past his troubles.

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    1. Dear Arkansas Patti, Dad never got "past his troubles." I've written about this in the replies to Shelly and to Perpetua, which you'll find above now. But fortunately, I got past being ashamed of him and worked through my anger before he died. Peace.

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  7. Thank you for sharing this. Even at my ripe old age I had the same reaction as you - that he didn't deserve his watch - but the lesson you learned from this was so powerful. It gives me pause and makes me hope I can be as loving a role model for my children as your mother was for you (and your father).

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    1. Dear Kari, I suspect that you are "as loving a role model" for your children as Mom was for me and for Dad. Your postings reveal a deep tenderness that is at the heart of being truly human. Peace.

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  8. You wrote this sad and touching story so beautifully.

    Love,
    Janie

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  9. I can relate to many parts of this story and I have tears in my eyes. I am sure your dad was a good man who could not deal with his demons, but your mom was a very brave lady who did what so many women had to do in her day. She stayed the course and did her best for her family.

    Women have always been the stronger sex.

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    1. Dear Arleen, Dad was a good man, but he was weak in some ways and could not resist drinking. I've posted before about the influence his mother had on his life. The drinking began when he wasn't able--because of being blind in one eye--to join the armed forces during World War II. He always felt less than other men.

      I surely have met many strong women in my life. Many in the convent as well as among the friends who've enriched my life since those days.

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  10. A poignant story, Dee, and tenderly rendered with your grace and truth.

    I am constantly amazed by your mother. How she treated those less fortunate, how she encouraged you in your school attendance as a young child, how she cared for each of you and the examples she led by, still leads in your telling, of kindness and forgiveness and, in this story, the meaning of Christmas.

    Thank you.

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    1. Dear Penny, as a child, I thought all moms were like mine. It has only been as the years have passed and I have heard other women speak of their mothers that I've realized just how wonderfully wise she was. For many reasons, mostly economic and cultural, she was never able to leave Dad. When I think of her living fifty years later, I think of a force of nature. And yet she lived when she did and left her mark so strongly on my brother and me. She was, perhaps, the greatest blessing of my life. Peace.

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  11. Shades if O Henry. Thank you Dee. This is, as always, a very moving post and an incredible affirmation of the example your mother set for you. A truly amazing woman.

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    1. Dear EC, I agree with you that mom was "truly amazing." I've left responses now to the comments that came before yours, so you might want to look at how I responded to Penny above. (Life on the Cutoff)

      Mom led by example. She didn't spout platitudes and give me long sermons. She showed me how to live. And my hope has always been to make her proud of me. Peace.

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  12. Beautiful story, Dee -- your mother knew a lot about love. Like the others, I do hope your father was able to stop his drinking -- such a hard 'drug' to bring under control. Now I think I'll pay a visit to Hawaii!

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    1. Dear Broad, true, she did know a lot about love. I think Dad struggled all his life just to be acceptable to his own mother. To make her proud. But there was no pleasing her and so he was never able to love and accept himself. Had he been able to do that, I think the drinking would have stopped. And all the love and support and understanding that Mom gave him didn't, perhaps couldn't, make up for the impassive bully that my grandmother seemed to be. Peace.

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  13. Dee,
    This should be featured in Guideposts! It is such a touching story. So many lessons to be seen here--in one of my favorite posting you've written.
    -E

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  14. This brought tears to my eyes. Your mom really loved him and was able to forgive him. Maybe she understood he had demons he could not control that made his life so miserable. At that moment in time, when he looked up and saw you, I know it must have had an impact on him, even if he later would be unable to overcome his addiction.

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    1. Dear Inger, my mom and dad did love one another just as they loved my brother and me dearly. But the fifth member of our family was alcohol and it left its effect on all of us. Peace.

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  15. Dee this made me cry for the hurt to all of you. Back when there were no meds for depression, men drank, just like your father did. I can imagine how he felt not having a job and feeling worthless. Your mother was a rare gem, she loved him and the both of her children. I find the saddest part here was that although you went to church, no one really knew Jesus as a personal savor.I grew up in hard times also. My father had returned from the war and I and my brother were born after. I had a brother and two sisters born prior. But my mother was so gentle and told us beautiful stories of Jesus. She sent us to Sunday school where we were given such love, and she attended church. Before my father left us all for good when I was eight and mum began going to work, I always remember her singing. She had a lovely soprano voice and sang songs like, "What a friend we have in Jesus,and Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling." You all needed that kind of love then. I am so very sorry that it didn't happen... Please feel my love stretched out across the miles today. Hugs and kisses Crystal

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    1. Dear Crystal, thank you for sending your blessings this way. The truth is that our family was Roman Catholic and we absolutely believed in the Holy Trinity and the love the Father had expressed through the Son. My mother was very devout as was I. That is one of the reason I spent 8 1/2 years in the convent.

      But experience brings new thoughts and new needs and new realizations about what being human means for me. And so I have let go of a belief in the Trinity and in Yeshua as the Son of God. Thus, I am no longer a Christian. But I continue to feel that Yeshua is my dearest friend.

      am a deep believer in the Oneness of all Creation of which you and I are a part. And so, in that Oneness, I thank you for sharing your thoughts and your concerns. Peace.

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  16. What a story, Dee; one that goes to the heart. I love your humanity and that of your dad and your dear mom.

    I pray the things you are going through will include bright spots that bring warmth to your heart.

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    1. Dear Deanna, thank you for your prayers. I find contentment in gratitude and this surely is the season when most of us realize just how much we have to be grateful for. Peace.

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  17. A tender, bittersweet story, Dee. I continue to marvel at your mother. What a complex situation she had, loving you two children and caring for you as she did, and then being in a marriage with alcohol being another whole "person" in the family. Did the watch stay with you or your brother? I wonder what happened to it as years went by. Such a touching memory, both sweet and still a little sad. That seems to be the way I read so many of your childhood stories, my dear friend.

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    1. Dear Debra, I don't know what happened to the watch. I will need to ask my brother if he has it. If he doesn't then Dad must have hocked it again or else lost it on one of those nights when he lost touch with sobriety.

      The memory is a little sad and when I think of my childhood I think both happy and sad stories. The seemingly abandonment when I was five has influenced my entire life and so bittersweet defines much of my memories. It's too bad and yet I'm aware that for so many people their memories are mostly bitter and painful because their childhood had no love in it.

      I was fortunate because my mother and my father did love me and I finally came to realize that as an adult. And to realize just how blessed I had been by having them for parents. Peace.

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  18. Seventy times seven, eh, Dee? A wonderful story. The human touches make it possible for us to forgive even when it seems we are sealed in with resentment. Thank you for this beautiful story.

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    1. Dear Kate, that truly is how it was for Mom--seventy times seven. Today I suppose we would call her an enabler. But at that time, women had so few options, and staying with Dad seemed the only feasible one. And she did love him.

      Many of my classmates commented through the years on how much they enjoyed going someplace with me and Mom and Dad in the car. They'd say, "You're parents are so much fun. They love each other!" I wasn't nearly so forgiving as Mom. I harbored a lot of resentment. Peace.

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  19. It's the people who are very hardest to forgive that present us the greatest soul opportunities--but they are so dang hard to forgive--LOL! Your mother was such an example of love and forgiveness and doing what is right, no matter what. And--of putting a little secret money aside. ;) Life is so complex and amazing! *love and hugs*

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    1. Dear Rita, you've pinpointed my mom. That is, she stressed always and ever that my brother and I were to do what is right, no matter what and no matter what anyone else did. We were to march to the drummer of compassion, love, and kindness. Peace.

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  20. You are a brilliant story teller Dee. I had a lump in my throat and tears welled up in my eyes as I read the story.
    I don't think I would have given your Dad the watch if I were your Mum, especially not to a man who spent Christmas eve in jail and staggered home with vomit on his shirt..... Your Mum was a wonderful loving and forgiving person.

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    1. Dear Rosie, thank you for your kind words about my writing. My mom was, indeed, a "wonderful, loving, and forgiving person." She was a great blessing in my life. I am so aware of that at this time of year. Peace.

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  21. What a candid glimpse into love and Christmas in a real, imperfect life. This was emotionally complex and beautiful. Thank you, Dee.

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    1. Dear Emily, thank you for your kind words. You write so beautifully that I truly appreciate your saying that the story was "emotionally complex and beautiful."
      That's like a Christmas gift to me! Peace.

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  22. I like your story too. My husband was fortunate enough to overcome addiction when our kids were little. I think it affected all of us strongly.

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    1. Dear Mimi, many of us, I think, have lived with someone who is addicted to alcohol. I'm so glad your husband was able to overcome this addiction. Having someone in the house who drinks too much can really affect the lives of the children and the spouse who is trying hard to hold the family together amidst the turmoil. Peace.

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  23. What a moment to hold in your memory!

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    1. Dear Stephanie, truly a moment that I've held all these years. But also, after I beacame and adult and could see the past more clearly, it took me many years to let go of my anger at my mom for "enabling" Dad's drinking. Then it took me many more years to let go of that anger and to understand that my mom did the only thing she could do then. What of the hallmarks of life, I believe, is the opportunities it offers us for growth in the human spirit and for the possibility of change. Peace.

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  24. I read this days ago, thought about it, & thought I'd commented on it, then realized I had not. Hmm. It had me conflicted. Then I decided the part that had me conflicted(not your telling of the story..which is good...but the facts of)didn't matter ...your feelings(collectively as a family)did. ~Mary

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    1. Dear Mary, I, too, was conflicted at the time. Many more times than once, I begged my mom to leave my father. Today, we would call this story an example of "enabling." But at the time, there were few resources for women who lived with alcoholic husbands. Mom had only a 7th grade education (although I'm quite sure that 7th grade then is like a sophomore in college today) and she did not think she had the skills to get a job so as to support us. So she put up with his drinking but she also argued with him about it. In fact, the arguing took place when he was drunk and so their dialogue made little sense to me as I sat in the living room and heard the barbs. Well, it was all a long time ago and my parents are both dead now. (Mom in 1968 and Dad in 1975) And I have long since come to understand, at least partially, what prompted the drinking. Peace.

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  25. It's ahamethat alcohol has affected so many of us over the years. Still we have no understanding that we are luered by profit makers to usethose addictive products. In fact addiction ahs been studied and is being used a lot by those who are in the black.

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    1. Dear Heidrun, yes, so many of us have lived with an alcoholic parent or spouse or sibling or child. Thank you for your stopping by. I so enjoy always reading your thoughts on what I post. Peace.

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  26. This was such a sad story. I thought I'd hate the father but I realized in the end that he was just as lost and confused as the kids were. Thanks for the story. Trully inspiring. Thank you!

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    1. Dear Nikki, it was a sad story and you are so right that my dad was just as lost and confused as my brother and I were. He simply wasn't a very strong man and he so wanted to please his mom and never could. Peace.

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