It was a game they played every year. I watched them play it as an eager child, not understanding the rules, and tried to join in, the amusement of some and the disapproval of others skillfully communicating that the game wasn’t for me, that I should know better, that my place was in neither camp. I watched them play it as a disdainful teenager, despising them for being old and stupid, stuck in their ways, perpetuating the wrongs of yesterday, and was smugly satisfied that my place was in neither camp. I forgot the game, and them, as a scurrying adult, snared in the tyranny of the urgent, too stupid to understand that urgent and important were often distinct, at times antithetical. Now, when the road behind me stretches far longer than the road ahead, I look back, looking for the sense that must be hidden in the game, the meaning that I can accept today. I suspect there is none.
It was a simple game for two players, played, some would have said, out of affection of sorts. A recognition of the relationship between them, others would have said. There was only one spoken rule. It was the unspoken rules, the background music of a fading culture, that made it no game for a little girl who had no idea how to listen to the music, how to read the rules in the gnarled knuckles and wrinkled flesh.
It was played on one day of the year, the longest in the calendar of children, Christmas Eve. There might be a bit of leeway to play it on Christmas Day, if circumstances warranted, but only if those two had not played the previous day. It was, in the parlance of today, a once-and-done. The spoken rule was this: upon seeing one other for the first time that day, whoever said before anything else, “Christmas Eve gift” was entitled to receive a gift from the other.
The unspoken rules? A snare for the unwary, they dealt with status, class, and above all, race. Perhaps the white folks spoke the words to one another, but there was no expectation of a gift changing hands, though a token might be given. The real gifts would come later. Perhaps the black folks spoke the words to one another also. I never knew. My world was the white world, the privileged white world. The words were spoken between the races, across the chasm that divided us, humans all, into tidy little categories and nailed our flesh to the wall of proscribed roles. “We”—and oh, how I hated being part of that pronoun—never spoke it to “them”. It wasn’t the done thing, whispered in my uncomprehending ear. “Don’t embarrass them, child. They can’t give you anything.” “Why not, Uncle Wright?” “They don’t have the money.” “Why not, Gran?” “They just don’t. Stop asking questions and sit still.” “Oh.”
The years I was wise, or perhaps simply pinched under the table, I stopped asking and sat still. The years I grew wiser, or perhaps simply more experienced, I watched and thought, pondered and reckoned. The years I found a voice of my own, I lectured and cajoled wearing out not only my welcome but my family’s as well, and demanded that it be made right immediately, for I had seen that the reason “they” didn’t have the money was because “we” didn’t pay them adequately. What are fair wages for cooking and cleaning, for washing and waxing, for polishing and scrubbing, for wiping small bottoms and elderly wrinkles? What are fair wages for being at someone’s beck and call, for tolerating the supercilious, for the nod and yes ma’am, yes sir, the self-deprecating chuckle when “we” said ‘no-count’ and ‘stupid’ and ‘just like children’ in front of them? What are fair wages for being black in the white Deep South?
And yet, there was affection there, of sorts. My great-uncles looked with fondness on those who saw to it that their lives didn’t have to include understanding how to operate the stove or when bacon is done. There was genuine feeling there. Fondness, gratitude, and a blind understanding of the lives of ‘them’ as long as they were within the front rooms of the big house where the white folks lived. The great-uncles had no clue how life was conducted in the back rooms. Neither did I. I tried sitting in the kitchen a time or two, and rather than the soft laughter I’d heard from the hall, there was the polite scraping of chairs along the floor as the table was vacated and “What can I do for you, Miss Susan?” bounced off the hollow walls.
Is it nostalgia brought on by that ever-shortening path ahead of me that causes me to smile when I hear the old words, “Christmas Eve gift, Miss Joyner. Christmas Eve gift, Miss Susan,” I wonder? I have no desire to return to that time. I fought to change those ways, that culture. And yet, my memory brings the soft sounds, the shy triumph grinning beneath respectfully-lowered eyes, the doffed cap as the uncles approach the walk to the front door, the fisted apron in the kitchen, the hands reaching, for a shining fragile moment, across the chasm.
I remember, and stand watch. For you, Sug. For you, Lowell. Christmas Eve gift.