An American Christmas Story, 1991 by Deirdre Fagan

I was twenty-one, at university for the first time, and had my first golden credit card: $500.00 limit.

Winter was on its way in the Northeast and having just moved from Arizona, the warmest coat I owned was an unlined, denim Lee jacket.

In November, I drove my unheated ’80 Malibu to Wilson’s in the local mall and charged a roomy black leather coat for my 22nd birthday. My first major purchase, ever.

I proudly wore that coat back to my dormitory, feeling richly embellished and deserving of good.

In December, I flew home to my mother’s trailer in the Southwest sporting my new mind and coat.

A few days before Christmas, my mother’s sister, a farmer’s wife, had gifted a crate of oranges to my mother via the postal service. The relationship between the sisters was close but occasionally strained, as sibling relationships tend to be. They had been raised in the same foster home and had both married “well,” as they say, but my mother’s marriage ended in divorce long before her sister’s would, and so such gifting was something my mother appeared to both appreciate and reluctantly accept.

On Christmas Eve, my mother loaded all but a handful of the oranges she had received, along with some other homemade items, into her ’76 Skylark and asked me to join her while we delivered these items to local, unknown to me, acquaintances.

We stopped at the gas station where my mother pumped in a mere $3.50 worth of gas.

We stopped at what appeared to be a one-room apartment in a strip of about ten such apartments.  I stayed in the car while a young boy, about eight, brought the gifts from my mother inside.

We stopped at a trailer in a different park from our own and an older man also took gifts from my mother inside.

We then stopped at a small leaning house and this time my mother asked me to help her carry in the gifts. She wanted to visit.

We were greeted by a young child of about four, and three women ranging in age from their mid-twenties to mid-thirties. A tall, slim teenager, with some beckoning, soon emerged in the living and kitchen area from one of the two bedrooms and was introduced. She eyed me suspiciously from beneath her dark bangs as my mother explained I was visiting from “college in New York.”

Standing in that darkened, bare apartment, I bristled at the phrase.

The teenager peered at my $200.00 jacket, its weight now hanging heavily upon me. My head lowered. My stomach receded. Soon, the teenager did, too.

We sat at a wobbly table in the kitchen where a single, large pot was steaming on the stove: Christmas Eve supper, I learned. Three families lived in this two-bedroom rental. Three women, and several more children. They shared resources.

The young girl approached my mother, reached for an orange, and held it up to her. The girl then put her teeth to its rind, attempting to pierce the rough peel, but quickly recoiled from its bitterness. The girl’s mother said, “Not until after supper,” as she rose to stir whatever was in the pot.

As my mother and I turned to leave, I eagerly inched closer to the door. Turning my head to gesture goodbye, I saw the four-year-old look up at my mother again, hold the orange up to her once more:  “What is this?” she asked.