Christmas was coming and my father was between positions again. It was the late seventies and well after his temporary gig driving the van delivering flowers in downtown Philly. It must have been between computer-programming jobs, possibly Textronix in Blue Bell and Arthur’s Travel in Center City, the job that would launch him to California and alter the trajectory of his life.
But in the winter of 1978 or ’79, my Dad had nothing. He was broke. I remember him hinting at this, but I don’t have a great sense of feeling any danger because of it. As best I knew, he could cover his child support and his rent on a decent two-bedroom apartment in a generic development in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. His child-support payments were low, but he wrote the check each month. It was over at my mom’s, living in a one-floor three bedroom and eating chicken five times a week that I felt closer to poverty. My dad lived in houses, whether he rented or owned, and he would spring for vacations and steaks in restaurants when the dough was coming in. But my Mom had her steady job, her teaching, and maybe I just thought I’d go live with her permanently if Dad couldn’t afford to have us visit.
Despite his lack of work, he cobbled up enough cash to take us to a tree farm to pick out a Christmas tree. It was one of those places where you go exploring in the farm’s woods, find one you like, and then cut it down yourself. My father may have thought this would be cheaper than getting a cut and clipped tree from some corner lot in South or West Philly. That year, trees were expensive; a gift of “stagflation” or for some other reason, I’m not sure.
But we’re at the farm, walking through the snow and slush, and I know Dad is feeling the pinch looking at the prices because he mutters about how much they are. We wind our way through dozens of trees, and then return to where the tree guy waits.
“Say, do you have any cheaper trees? Any discounts?” My father figures it can’t hurt to ask.
The guy takes us to the cheapest ones he has, but even those prices aren’t meeting the family budget.
And then he gets his big idea. “See, I’m kind of short this season. Could you cut us off the top of a tree?”
The man seems to understand now, and he does it. For ten bucks we get the top two feet of a Christmas tree.
We take it back to my father’s Lansdale home, a stale beige unit surrounded by similar clones. And Dad puts a sheet over a small table, and sets up our stump in the Christmas tree stand. It fits easily, and looks quite nice perched on the table.
Soon there were small wrapped gifts on the table, too, and in the morning, I’d open mine and find two mass-market novels, both by Madeleine L’Engle, and one was A Wrinkle in Time. I cannot recall the other title but remember the dyed mint green sides of the pages, something we rarely see these days. Although I’m not certain I ever finished either paperback, I remember enjoying the gift giving and the holiday. Whatever I understood as his poverty then only felt like a temporary bump in the road. It was much different from his bottoming out in the early nineties and then the mostly minimum wage work, when he had it, for much of that decade. That downturn seemed like such a permanent place for my father that I was surprised, maybe shocked, when he found lucrative tech work again toward the end of the millennium, just a few years before his passing.
Note: “A Poor Man’s Christmas” is an excerpt from rough draft of The Book of Jay, Alex Kudera’s memoir with journal selections from his father, the poet Jay Roberts. Other sections appear online at When Falls the Coliseum (here and here) and Atticus Books (here and here and here). It’s a work in progress that will consist of intertwining memories of each writer’s father. Kudera’s published novels are Auggie’s Revenge and Fight for Your Long Day.