With the current economy—and indeed, with the world we live in now—there are many places I could take this story. Instead, I’ll just give it to you. Take it where you will.
My maternal grandmother grew up on a farm in southern Illinois, one of twelve children. Big families on farms were common then, even necessary. You needed enough hands to make sure everything got done, and death was always a real possibility. My grandmother’s family was no different—only six of the twelve children made it past young adulthood.
Still, my grandmother loved farm life. As a young woman, she was shipped off to St. Louis to make her way in the big city. And she did, becoming a seamstress in the city’s then bustling garment district along Washington Avenue. But whenever she started telling stories, they were invariably about life on the farm.
To my young city boy ears, none of these stories made me feel that I’d missed out on anything not growing up on a farm. They ranged from slightly dull to downright horrifying. There was one, for instance, of the grown-ups and older kids walking over to a neighbor’s house for Sunday dinner, leaving the middle and younger kids behind [I was never clear why]. While the adults were gone, the farm bull, a creature with a particularly well developed mean streak, broke through a fence and gored the beloved and necessary family horse, Dan. Parents were summoned. When they returned, my great grandfather shot the dying horse and the bull, in that order.
One story, though, stuck with me and changed in meaning as I heard it over the years. Not so much a story, really—just a fact remembered from her childhood, one she shared at some point during the Christmas holidays every year without fail. With twelve children and the no-nonsense take on things that farm living demands, Christmas was not the orgy of presents all too common these days. Still, I know there were dolls and tops and hair ribbons and at least one child-sized wagon or sleigh; I’ve heard the stories and seen photographs. But these were not the gifts my grandmother remembered when she spoke of Christmas on the farm. The gift she remembered—something each family member got every year, but only at Christmas—was a fresh orange.
She never said so, but I’m guessing these oranges she remembered were not the juicy, seedless navel beauties we buy by the bagful, nearly the size of regulation softballs, whenever the mood strikes us. Still, to the young farm girl who became my grandmother, these once-a-year treats were exotic. Magical, even, having traveled an unimaginable distance from some unknown land.
Filtered through my young, urban ears, this story made my grandmother’s farm life seem utterly impoverished, gray and bereft of even the simplest of pleasures—or at the very least, well, backwards. In my early teens, I took the annual reminder of this humble gift as a gentle rebuke of the numerous gifts lavished on my brother and me [although by most standards, our gifts were humble too].
It was only later as an adult, long after my grandmother had passed away, that I understood the look in her eyes, the softening of her features, as she told us of the oranges every year. Even now, with our global reach giving us oranges stacked high in the supermarket year ’round, how can you not respond to the simple pleasure of tearing into the peel of an orange, having its bright fragrance wrap around you, fill the room and linger on your hands the rest of the day? Now imagine having this experience only once a year.
Happy holidays, everyone. I hope someone gives you something as remarkable as an orange.
Last year at this time, I wrote Celebrate, big or small, about extravagant Christmas decorations and an elegantly simple e.e. cummings poem.
Two years ago, “…Christmas gifts. Hahahaha!” talked about a treasured Christmas tradition in our family: Christmas Eve dinner in Chinatown.