MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 16 – Our First Christmas Together
© 2003 Diane Sanfilippo
Chapter 16 – Our First Christmas Together
We both were looking forward to our first Christmas together and were anxious to decorate our apartment and to buy our first Christmas tree. Although we would spend a few days in Griffin and then go by to see my family in Atlanta we wanted our own tree and to begin our own traditions. I was apprehensive about the holiday in Griffin, and perhaps Billy’s anticipations were too high, as was usual in alcoholic homes, but he thought, by now, his mother would have accepted me. However, that was not to be the case.
One of the construction companies Billy had worked for during the summer called and asked him if he was available for a short-term temporary job that paid far more than Mr. Moore could offer. He would be installing air conditioning ducts in a new church under construction in Gainesville. Since Mr. Moore knew it was temporary and he could not offer the same wages, he told Billy to take the job, only if he promised to come back to the store when the work was finished. With the baby coming in the spring, he understood we needed the extra money. He also made Billy promise to continue to shop for groceries at the store using his ‘employee discount’, but we knew he wanted to add the extra meat to our order.
We received a turkey for Thanksgiving, as did all of Mr. Moore’s employees. I thought we probably would find the same in the box for Christmas. Although we would be in Griffin on Christmas Day, it certainly would not go to waste since I could get several meals out of it to include Billy’s ‘favorite’ hot turkey sandwiches - white bread topped with slices of turkey meat, mashed potatoes, then smothered with gravy made with the turkey drippings. When I envision this dish today, and the way I cook now, I would never think about fixing this cholesterol, carbohydrate laden, fat-filled entrée, but Billy loved this kind of food. With him so hard to please, I was grateful when he did like something I fixed, so I cooked only for him. It is a wonder I managed to stay as small as I did, except when pregnant, but I guess I burned the calories off cleaning house, keeping up with babies, and of course on our nightly trips to the moon.
Billy was working high over the sanctuary floor, once again on a scaffold. His job was to cut pieces of ductwork and then install them, so he was up and down the ladders all day long. Had I known that once again he would be dangling from such a height, I am sure I would have been practically frantic the entire day. He had deliberately not told me exactly what he was doing. He did not lie and told me he was working on the air conditioning and heating system, he just left out the part about the scaffold since he thought if I worried too much it might affect my pregnancy. He wanted this baby as badly as I did, and was always worrying about one thing or another, and he catered to my every need.
The shoe fit both of us and I certainly could not always tell him what I had done during the day, sometimes cleaning the bathroom or the floors since I hated to see him work so hard all day long and then come home and clean house too. He seemed not to notice I was cleaning, and once when he commented about how shiny the kitchen floor looked, and that it seemed freshly waxed, I just said I took a damp mop to it, and I had. I just waxed it afterwards, on my hands and knees. In order to keep each other from worry, we both left out certain details of our day.
We had debated about going to Griffin that Christmas, and neither of us were looking forward to the visit, but Billy did not want to disappoint his little brothers, and that, I could understand. With me pregnant, he thought surely his mother’s attitude would have changed. We also planned to visit with my family, exchange gifts, and see my grandmother at my aunt’s home the day after Christmas.
Billy, for obvious reasons, still did not feel comfortable around my parents, and was just now beginning to feel welcome by my aunt and uncle. My aunt, in particular, had fallen for Billy’s charm, which he put on thick when we were with them. My uncle called him a "fine young man, from a fine family", obviously not knowing about Helen’s alcoholism. In fact, my uncle had grown up just a block away from the Smith family home in the west end of Atlanta, and the families knew each other quite well.
Fortunately, my grandmother, aunt, and uncle had long ago forgiven me for throwing away my education after I explained to them that I honestly thought they were only going to pay for one year in college. After they had been around my handsome husband some, at least my aunt understood why I gave up everything to be with him. My uncle assured me if I had continued to do well, he would have found a way to keep me in school, but it was far too late for that now. Besides, I would have just left anyway after Billy graduated since our long-range plans had been to marry right after he received his commission.
My parent’s house was the last place I wanted to spend Christmas, in spite of missing my younger siblings. My father routinely went on a binge over any holiday, and Christmas was always the worst day of the year in that house. Santa Claus was usually most generous, although there had been lean years, and all of us had such mixed emotions about the holiday that we looked forward to it and dreaded it at the same time. As soon as we opened our gifts, we immediately took them to our rooms so they would not become ‘missiles’ to throw when the alcohol took effect, and all hell broke loose.
I remember one Christmas, one of the last while I was living with my parents, even the Christmas dinner wound up in the fireplace, so now that I could, I avoided being around on holidays. I also vowed that my own children would never be witness to their alcoholism, and they would grow up looking forward to all holidays and family gatherings. Fortunately, I was quite successful, and now they all say that Christmas was the best time of year in our home.
Two days before we were ready to leave, Billy left the car at the Philip’s station to have it serviced. He asked them to check everything, oil, belts, tires, etc. before we made the long trip to Griffin and back.
We finally had to get rid of the old Ford late that previous fall when the cracked block no longer responded to the oil treatments, although I hated to see it go since we had so many good times together in that ancient car. Billy had found a used, but very clean, 1953 black and white Chevrolet sedan at a used car lot in Gainesville, and he had been planning to have it checked over thoroughly anyway. Unfortunately, it seemed as though we always had an unexpected expense, and he had kept putting off. Now he had no choice, so he left the car with his friend, although if there had been major repairs needed I certainly do not know how we would have paid for it.
Late on the afternoon of the 23rd, the manager of the station, followed by another employee, returned the car to our apartment and I piled the packages and a small suitcase for the two of us in the backseat. Billy had asked me not to try to open the heavy trunk, and I am not so sure I could have anyway.
It was close to 4:30 p.m. when I began the drive to Gainesville to pick up Billy at work since the church was convenient and on our way. To drive back to Dahlonega made no sense at all, but would just delay our arrival in Griffin. Billy had been able to get a ride to work that morning with another employee at Moore’s store who was going into Gainesville to pick up an order for Mr. Moore, so that worked out really well for us. In fact, the employee was coming right by the house to deliver our Christmas basket, which, as we suspected, included a large fresh turkey and all the fixings for a Christmas dinner. We certainly would be able to use the generous gift when we got back home!
As usual, Billy wore his old fatigues to work, and when I picked him up, at first, because of the early darkness of the evening and the dark green of the fabric, I did not see his shirt stained red with blood! I could see that bandages all but covered his right hand, and while my heart began to beat rapidly, he hastily explained he had almost cut his finger off. Severing the tendon, he had been to the hospital to have it stitched and splinted. He then told me about his work on the scaffolding and this time my heart did stop beating, just for an instant. I held him as I had never held him before, just imagining what could have happened if he had fallen from the scaffolding when he cut his hand, but he had been on the ground, cutting pipe at the time.
When he kissed me, like he always did when I picked him up at the store or at work, my heart began racing so I thought it would jump right out of my chest. I think that day I knew what it would feel like to have a heart attack. I could not even catch my breath, at the very thought of what might have been, so great was my love for my once again wounded husband. I blamed myself since if I had a job, he would not have to work so hard, but Billy reminded he would work over the holidays anyway.
As I expected, he said he could drive. As we left Gainesville, I cradled his injured hand in my lap on the down pillow I have carried with me since I was a baby. I leaned my head against his shoulder, and I hoped he could feel how very much I loved him. What would I do without him? I loved him so much it was impossible to think of any future without him in it. He was my heart, my soul, and my life, and nothing else mattered to me but him. He was all I had ever wanted in a husband. He was the boy of my teen-age dreams, and the icing on the cake was he loved me just as much as I loved him.
Occasionally during the long drive, he would lean his head over to touch the top of mine and tell me he loved me, and I think, no, I know he felt the love flowing out of my heart into his. Not in my wildest dreams had I ever imagined I could love anyone this completely, and while I was still not sure if I liked this total loss of control, I did know I would not change places with anyone else on Earth, not even someone as rich as a Rockefeller. Billy and I were rich in love, and he was mine and mine alone. With each passing mile, we conveyed our love for each other, mostly without either of us saying a word, but it filled the very air we breathed.
We rarely came to a time in our journey when we had to stop since we were traveling during the nighttime, on almost deserted highways, but when we did, Billy would pull me close and kiss me as tenderly as if we had never kissed before. Once when he thought I had been crying, he pulled the car over to the side of the road and asked what was wrong. I explained I just loved him so very much that when I saw he had hurt himself again, my heart broke and I just needed to let my tears out or I would drown. He held me close and kissed me deep and long, and promised he would just have to try harder to be more careful. All I could do was hold onto him tightly, as if I could ever let him go. As we continued our journey into the night, he put his right arm around me, pulled me close to his side, and I held my cheek to his injured hand. In this way, we continued on to Griffin.
We talked a little bit about his accident after I had calmed down, and he told me he was sorry for having ruined our first Christmas by his carelessness. Of course, I told him that only without him would it be possible for my Christmas to be ruined, and I just wanted him to keep his promise to be more careful. I reminded him not only did I need him, but that soon his son would too.
To my great relief, he told me he would not be able to go back to the job on the scaffolding with his hand in a splint, but the construction company now had to pay him until his injury healed under some kind of law that protected the employee. He had a choice. He could either go back to work there doing menial chores, like picking up after the other workers, or he could go back to work at the store and the construction company would make up the difference in his wages. There was no choice involved in it for me! How I longed to have him working close enough to our apartment to come home for lunch every day, and not be far away in Gainesville. Of course I wanted him to go back to work at the store, and even if it meant he made less money, which, for a while he would not; I never wanted him to work on a construction job again. I do think he was actually pleasantly surprised how fervent my response had been, as if it was some kind of test of my love for him, and I passed easily!
He agreed it was far more practical and would save money on gas if he went back to work in the store. He winked as he said, "And I can come home for lunch every day". I knew exactly what he had in mind, and it was not soup and sandwiches.
We drove through Atlanta on the downtown expressway and made our usual stop at The Varsity drive-in restaurant. This Atlanta institution was separated from the campus of Georgia Tech by a bridge over the expressway, and Billy loved their ‘steak burgers’ and fries. I preferred their chili hotdogs and their chocolate milk, the glass filled with chipped ice, and both of us had looked forward to our ‘supper’. Billy’s boss had cashed his paycheck, which even included a small Christmas bonus, so we were well able to afford a supper at The Varsity. This was a rare treat now that we lived in Dahlonega, and drove down to Griffin infrequently, since when Billy was not in class, he was working.
Besides, he knew Gene would not be waiting with cash in hand anymore, and we cherished our Sundays since that was the only day we could be together, and alone. Except for drives in the countryside when the weather was nice, our Sunday routine consisted of attending church at 11:00 A.M., walking when the weather was cooperative, and then coming back to the apartment. While Billy studied or napped, I fixed a nice Sunday meal, usually ham, fried chicken, or a roast, depending on which Mr. Moore had added to our weekly order. After dinner, which usually ended about 3:00 pm, we would sit on the couch, watch television with our arms around each other, and usually wound up making love on the sofa bed.
It had been months since we had been to The Varsity, besides we had not added eating out, even an occasional hamburger, to our budget, and we rarely had any money left by the end of the month without this luxury. Thank goodness the ‘steak burgers’ were small and Billy had no difficulty using his left hand to eat his usual six burgers with a large order of fries and a large coke. I could barely swallow since the lump in my chest had moved to my throat, and about all I could do was watch my hungry husband with his bandaged hand, gulp down his ‘steaks’ and fries while I sipped my chocolate milk.
Oh, how I adored my handsome husband who made my heart ache with the love I felt for him, the father of my child, and my lover for life, who I was sure, would always offer new challenges and find new ways for me to love him. Obviously, he was not in so much pain it had affected his appetite, but then again I never saw that affected by much of anything, as long as he liked what he was eating. I think too that he knew, at this point, he could get just about anything he wanted out of me, and I knew I was in for a romantic Christmas.
Later I would sometimes wonder if he ever hurt himself on purpose, knowing I would melt and give in to anything he wanted, or at least almost anything. He still used his cuts and bruises in an effort to coerce me to forgive him for any transgression, or to end an argument, in other words, to get my sympathy and a lot of sex. He definitely could work me! The small injuries no longer bothered me although he continued to want me to bandage his cuts and hold ice to his bruises, but the major accidents broke my heart.
Now The Varsity is famous for several reasons. One is the well-known comedian, ‘Nipsey’ Russell, who got his start as carhop number 69. The carhops waited at the entrance and when a car pulled into the parking lot, they would quickly stick their numbered card under the windshield wiper, and then ride on the car’s bumper while directing their customer to an empty place in the parking area. When I was in high school the number 69 cards were coveted, and I knew the number meant something about sex, but I was not sure what, although eventually Billy explained it to me.
The food was greasy and plentiful. Years later, I took my children to eat lunch there on a trip to Atlanta, and it did not taste that great anymore. Whether it was just the expectation to recapture the old memories or a change in cooks, I do not know, but with its new two story parking deck, it was not the same old Varsity that Billy and I had so enjoyed.
It is still an institution in Atlanta, especially for the Georgia Tech students. Also for girls hoping to meet a ‘Rambling Wreck from Georgia Tech’, particularly since the college was not coed then. During my senior year in high school, I had enjoyed their fraternity parties during ‘rush week’, and the attention of the budding engineers, who, like the North Georgia cadets, had even less girls to choose from for a date. I had my first beer at a Georgia Tech ‘rush week’ party, and my first ‘hard drink’ at an Emory University party with the young medical students. Even with all of those female starved students, never had I found one who even remotely made me feel like my Billy did. Perhaps, that is why I finally gave in to him, and I had a feeling, as the years slipped by, there were more pregnancies in store for me. In fact, without a doubt, if we did not learn to curb our desire for each other, we could wind up with a dozen children!
As soon as we finished eating, Billy put the tray filled with our trash on the ground beside the car since he had already paid, and we did not see our carhop around. He then told me we had to make a stop in downtown Atlanta. When I questioned where and why, he was evasive and said he would tell me later, which just made me more curious. In spite of my pleas, he was adamant and remained mute about our ‘errand’. Leaving the bright Christmas lights behind, we drove into the derelict warehouse district down by the old train station, and I will have to admit I was a bit uneasy, even though my pistol was in the glove compartment. Usually, when I was with Billy I never felt afraid of anything, but this night I had an ‘uneasy’ feeling, as if someone was watching us.
Billy assured me we were ‘safe’ and this would just take a few minutes. I begged him not to leave me in the car alone, and he told me he was not going anywhere, although I sensed he was a bit apprehensive too. Shortly, he pulled the car into a narrow alleyway between two large buildings, where it was pitch black without the benefit of streetlights. When I cracked the window to let some fresh air in since I was beginning to feel a bit queasy, the acidic odor of urine seemed to flood the car so I quickly rolled the window back up. Billy left the engine running, cut off the headlights, then got out of the car, and while I held my breath, I heard him unlock the trunk, which I had thought was empty. He then got back inside the car, locked the doors, and pushed the rearview mirror up so it pointed to the ceiling, then put his arm around me.
It was so quiet and dark in the alley I would have thought I could have heard a pin drop, but I did not hear a sound. I was even too frightened to neck, but not Billy and that is exactly what we did. It must have been about fifteen minutes later, I heard a dull thud when an invisible hand closed the heavy trunk, and immediately Billy pulled out of the dark alley and once again headed back to the lights and the highway. About a block from the expressway, he pulled over to the curb, got out of the car and walked to the back. I heard him unlock the trunk, hesitate a moment, then slam it shut again. This time when he got back in the car, he seemed far more relaxed than he had in the alley, and I was full of questions he still was not ready to answer.
I continued to beg until finally, safely on the road to Griffin, he blurted out, as if it were an everyday happening, "We just delivered a load of white lightning!"
I could not speak! I could not even close my gaping mouth! Words would not come as thoughts of federal agents and scenes from that old movie ‘White Lightning’ tumbled through my mind, especially the one when the federal agents chased the car and it flew off the road, over a cliff and crashed far below. Billy then handed me a wad of bills he retrieved from the trunk and told me to count it; that there should be $100. I still could not speak, so I counted in silence and nodded confirmation that the money was all there. Finally, he looked at me and said if my eyes were any wider; my eyeballs would fall out of my head!
At last, I was able to conjure up the courage to ask him why he took such a chance. If caught, it would have been the end of his military career and we both would have gone to jail! He said he knew we would not be caught; that revenue agents were not looking for students with pregnant wives, who drove blatantly to Gainesville and then on to Atlanta to eat supper at a crowded drive-in. We could not have looked more innocent, and it was important we seem above suspicion so he did not tell me since he knew I would be frightened and nervous. I explained that I was frightened anyway, not knowing why we were parked in a dark alley. Then he gently laid his bandaged hand on the tiny bulge in my tummy, and he said he did it so we could buy a crib and a chest for the baby, and I just loved him even more. He loved his baby enough to take that kind of a risk and I think in his own reckless way, he was proving how very much he wanted our child, and how much he loved me. We also had our car completely serviced and some minor repairs done free, but we never ever did it again, and Billy knew better than to even ask. He liked to live on the edge, but I liked my world to be familiar, friendly and comfortable, and it was anything but while we were parked in that dark alley.
That first Christmas was both a blessing and a nightmare. The tiny life within me began to make me sit up and take notice, particularly when I wanted to sleep. Billy loved to feel his son’s fluttering movements and would often put his head to my stomach and ‘talk’ to the baby. He said he wanted him to know his voice so he would recognize him right away when he was born. Constantly he asked me if I felt O.K., and if I had felt the baby move that day. I could assure him he had a football player in there, and a son who would not take naps! It seemed as if this little one never slept, especially when I wanted to sleep. Just to know he was healthy, and the pregnancy seemed to be going so well, except for my occasional bouts of nausea, I felt as if perhaps God had forgiven me for taking the life of our first son. I also wondered if Billy would be nearly as concerned or ‘involved’ if we had not gone through that nightmare experience together, but of one thing, I was positive and never had one doubt, in the spring he would have his son.
I knew, as we approached Griffin, that he would not tolerate any insults from his mother directed my way, and the closer we got, the more my trepidation grew. Feeling a bit cocky, I was almost looking forward to her seeing me obviously pregnant with her favorite son’s baby. Now there would be nothing that anyone could do about it, since we were on our own, or almost, and if ever I was positive of anything, this I knew!
The boys were just getting ready for bed when we arrived, but wild horses could not have prevented them from greeting us and to say ‘good night’ with their attention hungry little faces. I loved each one of these little boys who seemed so much like my own brothers, and Dickie was about the same age as my youngest brother, Steve. I knew how it felt to live in a home with an uncaring, alcoholic parent, and my heart ached for them. I would have adopted them all without a thought. They were so excited about the new baby, and they too were sure it would be a boy, but just as I suspected, Helen was obviously agitated by my condition, and by the boys’ excitement. Gene was still at the store, or so he had said, and after we settled the boys into bed, Billy took our small suitcase down to his room so he could get out of his blood stained shirt and work boots.
His mother had been so drunk she had not even noticed his bandaged hand or bloody shirt, which was just as well since we were both tired - Billy from his long day at work, his accident, the excitement of our delivery in Atlanta, and then the long drive to Griffin, while my tiredness was mostly emotional and my pregnancy. Even pregnant, I still insisted on taking off his boots, but he would lie on the bed with his feet hanging off the bottom so I would not have to kneel on the floor. This he would not allow me to do while I was pregnant, but I did not want any of our routines to change because of the baby. Besides, he still needed some babying himself after such a long and hectic day.
We showered together so I could bathe him while he held his hand outside the plastic curtain, although his fondling almost made bathing impossible. He was excited about the changes in my body, the small bulge in my tummy, but particularly the swelling of my breasts. We were at odds about my nursing the baby, and he was insistent I not nurse. Although I explained how much better it would be for the infant, Billy insisted that ‘they’ (my breasts) were his, and he was not ready to share them! However, this night as his finger slowly drew circles around my nipples and they responded to his gentle touch, I felt as if I were going to explode inside. The love I felt for this boy, verging on manhood, was overwhelming, but I was careful about letting him know just how much of a hold he had on my heart. I just might lose the upper hand, although it was quite unlikely in my present condition. Somehow, it seemed as if the more I loved him, the more he loved me back, so I was generous with my endearments.
As I bathed him tenderly, I knew neither of us would wait up to greet Gene when he got home. Our passion was far too great to deny, not this night, not ever. His mother was too drunk and his father too late so we indulged our basic instincts, making love in his boyhood bed at least half a dozen times before falling asleep in each other’s arms exhausted and satisfied.
The next day was Christmas Eve and Billy and I spent the day with the boys, wrapping gifts, talking about names for the baby, their schoolwork, their ball teams and their ‘girlfriends’. It seems all the McConnell boys started noticing girls early and all of them had their favorite one, or two, even three. Each of the boys was a charmer in a very individual way, just like their older brother.
Billy started a ‘contest’ between them to think of the silliest name for the baby, but the ‘prize’ remained a secret, and the boys had a lot of fun with this game, suggesting names like Nimrod, Dagwood, Bartholomew, and others even more ridiculous. Finally, when their excitement reached a fevered pitch, Billy proclaimed that they all were the winner and the grand prize was tickling. With his bandaged hand held high in the air to protect it, he pulled first one boy and then the next to the ground and tickled them until they said ‘uncle’. The ‘real’ prize was lunch at the local Dairy Queen since Helen was working half-day at the store, and Billy and I did not really want to be at the house when she arrived home. He also knew his father would pay us back if we took the boys out to eat, thus getting our own meal free.
It was a lot easier to handle Helen after she had a few drinks, and after Gene arrived home, since he acted as a buffer between Helen and whoever was the ‘target’ for her sharp tongue. I was sure it would be ‘my turn’ as it always had been since I married her favorite son, and particularly now we were making her a grandmother! Before any and after too many drinks, she became verbally abusive, and not passive in any way. So better to be out of the house until we were sure she was beyond her worst behavior and more mellow.
After lunch, we drove around Griffin with the boys and out to Lake Jackson where Billy had broken his knee water-skiing the summer before we met. He told me his father had once offered to build us a house on the lake, and to send him to law school after graduation if he would only serve his mandatory two years in the service. He would have made a great lawyer. He could have won cases easily by charming the juries, but his grades would never get him into any law school and he knew it.
I knew his father wanted him to come back to Griffin for only one reason, and that was to work in the store with him, but Billy assured me that would never happen. The Army would be our life, and I knew we would thrive in the environment. We both had a bit of gypsy in our souls and we would teach our children to live the Army life too, besides if they knew nothing different, then what did they have to lose? I had never been bothered by the constant moves as my mother followed my father’s little fleet of minesweepers up and down the east coast. In fact, I thought it helped me to never meet a stranger, but since Billy had lived in the same small town all of his life, and he was comfortable in all situations, it had to be inborn in us too. Certainly, our children would inherit this most desirable trait, and I could think of nothing more exciting than to see the world with my handsome husband, and our own handful of handsome McConnell boys!
When the boys finally asked him how he hurt his hand, Billy made up this fantastic tale of heroism about catching a running chainsaw with his bare hands headed straight for the foreman’s head. His story was utterly ridiculous and gory, about how his boss’s severed head would have been bouncing all around the floor of the church if he had not been there to save him, and that his body would have been lying in a spreading pool of blood with his legs kicking. For a short while, he had the boys going, but it did not last long when finally Billy burst out laughing at the disbelief in their eyes. I laughed along with them feeling honored to be sharing this moment with these handsome boys and their even more handsome older brother, my husband. Sometimes I still had to pinch myself to believe this man actually belonged to me and vice versa, and now I truly was going to have his son.
As the lidocaine wore off, Billy’s hand began to throb if he did not keep it elevated. Instead of him having to hold it up in the air all day, I made a sling out of a scarf he found in his father’s drawer and he was much more comfortable this way. I could not take my eyes off him the entire day and I know he felt the love that was pouring out of them. He took every opportunity to put his arm around my shoulder, my waist, take my hand, just to touch me, and the electricity between us must have been visible. I had never felt so loved and in love, and would never have believed I could ever love him anymore than I did on that day, but then I had felt the same on the day before, and the day before that. With each new day, I loved him all that much more.
After supper, a quick hot dog, and canned soup that Helen prepared, we finally got three very excited boys to bed, and I sat on the den couch while Gene and Billy brought inside a truckload of gifts from Santa. Gene had some of his employees assemble them at the store, so it was just a matter of figuring out which bike was for which boy and who got the pinball machine. It was my job to write the labels to put on each gift since Helen had gone to her room not long after supper, but it was that Christmas I realized she was jealous of me.
She did not like another woman sharing the affection of her family! I was an interloper, an outsider, and throughout her life, she never did anything to make me feel any differently. She did not even give me a gift that year, not for my nineteenth birthday on December 16, or for Christmas, although I had carefully shopped for a small gift for her, wrapping it with care. I knew the only gift she wanted was for a hole to open up in the ground and for me to disappear so she could have her son back, but of course that was not about to happen. She had not even asked Billy how he hurt his hand, and in fact had not even acknowledged the splint and the sling.
"How could she be so cold to her own son," I wondered silently, "surely she could not hate me so much she now hated him for loving me."
When Billy and his father finished putting out the gifts Billy happily ate the cookies and drank the milk the boys had thoughtfully left out by the fireplace for Santa, and he made sure to leave plenty of crumbs. He was like a surrogate father to these little boys and he relished his role and their hero worship, and I was more than happy to share this with him. Already I loved them almost as much as I did my own brothers, and in each of them, I saw something of Billy – in Dickie’s eyes, David’s chin, and Charles’s dark hair and good looks, which made them even dearer to me. They also firmly reciprocated the love I gave to them, just like their older brother, and soon we would add our own son to the McConnell clan and I would have one more little boy to love – our child – Billy’s and mine, and for that he would be the most precious of all.
Finally, with all the gifts separated and labeled, Eugene asked Billy what happened to his hand, and Billy explained what he had been doing when the accident occurred. Testily, Gene asked why he felt it necessary to work part-time during the school year, and Billy told him the check he sent simply did not cover all of our expenses, although we lived quite frugally. He told him about Mr. Moore’s store and about the ‘free’ groceries that allowed us to eat more nourishing meals. He also announced, in spite of his job, his grades had improved now he could be in the same room with me while he studied and was not worrying, and wondering where I was, and what I was doing.
Although he would not graduate with his class in June, he would graduate the next December, less than one year from now, and both of us were looking forward to that most important day. Billy had changed his major to ‘non-professional chemistry’ after going to his counselor when I became pregnant and asked him to figure out the fastest way he could graduate. He had started with majors in English, Math, History, and Biology, only to fail or drop one of the courses he needed to complete the major, so he needed a new one he could obtain as quickly as possible. He was now working on this chemistry major and would have a minor in all four of his previous would-be majors.
When Billy told his father how he had to change his curriculum, Gene exploded! With utter disgust and contempt in his voice, he told his son he would never amount to anything with a major in non-professional chemistry. Billy just calmly sat there, with one protective arm around me, and let him rant and rave for about an hour. I had thought Billy would explode too as I had often seen his conversations with his father wind up in a shouting match, but this did not happen on this Christmas Eve.
While his father raved on, Billy just sat there, pulled me closer to him while I slipped my arm behind his waist, and laid my head against his shoulder. We must have looked like two children who had been ‘naughty’ and were taking a tongue-lashing from an irate parent. This was pretty much the case except neither of us were children and Billy’s birthday in November had been his 21st, and now he was ‘legally’ an adult. Gene had absolutely no hold over Billy, no longer received his grades, and I think that fact made him even angrier. Moreover, he knew he would only be slitting his own throat if he withdrew the funds he was sending us monthly since, without a doubt, if Billy had to quit school, the draft would make sure he would never become an officer.
Finally, when his father took a breather from his tirade, Billy, calmer than I had ever heard him, said, "Dad, I am sorry if I have been a disappointment to you, but my future is with the Army. I want to be an Infantry officer and an Airborne Ranger. I do not want to, and I will not come back to work in the store under your tyranny, nor will I subject my wife to my mother’s alcoholic insults, or our children to this environment. They will know what it feels like to have parents who love them for who they are, and not what I want them to become, and this is my final word on the subject. If you want, Diane and I will pack up and leave now if we cannot spend a peaceful Christmas here."
Oh my! My handsome husband was acting more adult than his father was and I was so proud of him for keeping his temper in check. I knew how difficult that must have been for him because I wanted to tell Gene he had no right talking to his son, my husband, as if he was a child. Taking a clue from Billy, I said nothing at all, just loved him even more for his soft but firm reply.
Gene just looked up at him, more with surprise than his previous rage, and I would have sworn there were tears in his eyes, as he said so quietly he was barely audible, "Don’t go, please don’t go."
With that, Billy took my hand, pulled me off the sofa, and we left Gene sitting there, alone, in front of the ‘things’ he thought would buy the love of his sons. I truly do not think he had a clue what it was like to love unconditionally, and he never did learn. The closest he ever came was with his love for Billy, and he discovered this far too late for both of them.
I knew Billy was emotionally exhausted from his ‘speech’, and that at last he had finally told his father his decision to make a career of the Army was final, but he was not physically exhausted, not by any means! After another long shower, once more, we made love again, and again. It seemed like we had just fallen into a deep sleep when David, for once ignoring the ‘closed door rule’, rushed into the bedroom to tell us Santa had come.
Bleary-eyed, I pulled on my robe, Billy pulled on his pants and we made our way into the toy-laden den where three excited little boys were eyeing each, and every treasure that lay piled under the lighted Christmas tree. I had never seen such excess, but I know now that Gene tried to make up to the boys with ‘things’ for his long absences and for Helen’s neglect.
While Billy helped his little brothers sort through the gifts, and made sure each got their fair share, I made coffee for Eugene and Billy. Although Billy usually was not much of a coffee drinker, I knew he needed it this morning and Gene looked as if he had spent the night sleeping in his recliner, which would not have surprised me at all. The aroma still made me nauseous so I poured myself a glass of orange juice. Helen had not joined us and I did not expect her for quite some time, but I thought to myself that I would always be awake to see the glow in my own children’s eyes as they first glimpsed the toys and gifts under our Christmas tree. I also wondered silently if she realized how much she was missing, but the thought quickly rushed out of my head when I concluded she was far too gone to care anyway.
The boys opened gifts for an hour and each gift received its proper exclamations of delight. Then, as Helen still had not shown her face, I began to fix breakfast for this hungry crew. I had sausage patties frying in the skillet while I beat a dozen eggs to scramble, and I had already buttered an entire loaf of bread for toast when Helen, in her gown and housecoat, came storming into the room. She asked me what I thought I was doing in HER kitchen!
Shocked by her sudden appearance, and on the verge of tears, I told her that Billy and the boys were hungry so I thought I could spare her the chore of preparing breakfast. However, she was not to be soothed this easily. She went on and on, and told me the boys only needed a bowl of cereal, that I was wasting eggs and bread, and making a mess. Billy rushed to my rescue with Gene on his heels, and both wasted no time and told Helen I meant no harm, but was only trying to help. She would not be calmed, so Gene took her by the arm and led her back to their bedroom where we heard shouts and a slap, then silence, and Gene came back into the room, red-faced. We never knew who slapped whom, or if Gene’s reddened face was from a slap or humiliation, and Billy was still holding me with his good arm while I cried on his shoulder. He told his father he thought we should leave now, but Gene would not hear of it. He told us that he intended to enjoy the good breakfast I had fixed, the first the boys had in a long time; then we would all get dressed and go to church.
After we finished eating, Billy harnessed the excited little boys to help us clean up the kitchen since he could not put his hand in the water. We had everything back in its place in no time at all; leaving the kitchen cleaner than it had been before breakfast. Simultaneously each boy hugged me and thanked me for fixing their breakfast and all of us went to our rooms to get dressed.
I had very few maternity clothes and just one dress suitable for church. It was a two-piece black suit my aunt had loaned me, and was not very attractive, although Billy said I looked beautiful in it. This became my ‘uniform’ for dress events and that was what I put on for church this Christmas morning.
The First Baptist Church in Griffin was much larger than the First Methodist Church in Dahlonega, but it seemed as if Gene knew everyone there. When the communion reached us, both Billy and I passed it on without partaking, since we both knew that only Baptists were eligible to join in the communion in their church. Gene looked at Billy with a question in his eyes, and I knew we were in for another ‘discussion’.
Following the lovely service, with all the traditional Christmas music, the gospel of the most amazing birth ever known to man, and the sanctuary filled with poinsettias and pine bough garlands, Gene greeted his friends and neighbors. He introduced me to all of them while Billy looked on with love in his eyes. However, we knew what would be coming, while walking back to the car, Gene asked the question that had been in his eyes during the communion, and Billy explained he had moved his letter to the Methodist church in Dahlonega for several reasons. First, for me, it was simpler being baptized in the Methodist Church, not ‘dunked’ in the Baptist Church, and Billy said, emphatically, he did not want his wife, pregnant or not pregnant, dripping wet with clinging clothes, in front of the congregation. Second, the Methodist church was within walking distance from our home, and we had always met there when we were dating. Third and finally, he explained that his new boss and benefactor, Mr. Moore, was a deacon of the Methodist Church and he thought it a goodwill gesture to belong to the same congregation. Gene, ever the salesman, seemed to accept Billy’s explanation, but obviously was not too happy about it. He asked if we would christen the baby in the Methodist church and Billy replied, "of course".
None of us knew exactly what to expect when we arrived back at the house, however we found Helen up and dressed since she was expecting her parents, ‘Bubba’ and ‘Pop’, for their traditional Christmas dinner. She was bustling around the kitchen and had a ham in the oven, the usual LeSeuer peas on the stove heating and several other dishes I do not recall. Her tiny homemade biscuits were always as light as clouds and she relished the praise she received when she made them. These were sitting on the baking sheets beside the oven, waiting for the proper time to pop them in to bake. It was obvious she had not been drinking, which was a relief to all of us. Later I was to learn she never drank around her mother and father, thus maintaining their image of the dutiful wife and mother. I do not think that Bubba could ever have accepted that her only daughter was a raving lush, even if Helen passed out right in front of her. The entire family kept the ‘secret’ as most families did in those days, long before it was OK to talk about such things and admit how one’s life had been affected by a loved one’s addiction to alcohol.
It was not long before we heard the doorbell, and Bubba and Pop entered, their arms laden with packages. After hanging up their coats and hugging each and everyone there, we all sat down to open gifts. As was the custom, we started with the youngest, Charles, and worked our way up the age ladder with Bubba and Pop being the last to open their gifts. When my turn came, just after Dickie, the oldest of the three brothers, Bubba handed me a beautifully wrapped box, the size of a shirt box. Carefully I removed the paper, saving the ribbon for use the next Christmas and slowly opened the white tissue paper lining. Inside were six tiny soft flannel gowns, all handmade by Bubba, two had blue trim, two had yellow and the last two were pink. Bubba said she was covering all bases, and Helen commented that it would take a miracle if we needed the pink gowns. I could not have been more pleased with any gift, and I was beginning to feel accepted, at least by the boys, Pop and Bubba. Our baby would be their first great grandchild so Bubba wanted to make something special.
Not to be outdone, Helen then handed me a smaller box and inside, also wrapped in white tissue, I found the most delicately made baby dresses and sacques I had ever seen. Each one had been handmade for her own babies, but only lightly worn since all were boys and these dainty garments were more suited for a baby girl. The workmanship was exquisite, each tiny stitch perfect, and the material ranged from the softest of silk to sheer batiste. The surprise on my face must have been noticeable and I simply could not find the words properly to express my delight. Billy observed my quandary and spoke for me, thanking his mother for the gift, and assuring her she could not have chosen anything more appropriate, or that we needed any more. I wondered, silently, when Helen had decided to give me this gift. Had it been after I ‘ruined’ her kitchen fixing breakfast? On the other hand, had she actually realized she would look bad in front of her parents by not having any gift to offer? Either way the gowns were lovely, although I wish I had felt as secure about her intentions.
I had no idea Helen was a talented seamstress, as well as talented in needlework. I had never seen her sew or embroidery, thus my surprise. Much later, I learned when young, she had made many of her own clothes and was always very much in style. Then, since she had just one son, for nine years, she often sewed for her nieces, longing for a little girl of her own, but this was never to happen. In a way, I felt sorry for the dream of hers that was now only a delusion and I felt sure Billy and I would only have sons too, but I knew we would cherish and love each one.
We ate a pleasant meal in the dining room and I cut up Billy’s meat like a good little wife taking care of her husband. The conversation around the table was agreeable and we all even discussed names for the baby, although Billy and I assured everyone we had not made any decisions yet. Rather we had just written down names we heard and liked and would narrow the list as the time for the birth came closer.
Not long after the meal was over, Bubba and Pop left for their home in Atlanta, and a visit with their oldest son and his family. As if they knew their daughter’s secret, their visits in Griffin never lasted long but we all enjoyed the lull in Helen’s drinking. Although I offered to help clean up, Helen told me she was going to leave it for the maid, who would return the next day. Soon she changed into her housedress and began drinking again.
Exhausted, I curled up on the sofa with Billy’s good arm around me and read a book while he, Gene, and the boys watched a football game. Like at my house, the fireworks would begin again before long.
Billy and I had decided on the trip to Griffin; that we would always spend Christmas in our own home after our children were old enough to remember the drinking and quarreling, only visiting with his parents shortly, if within visiting range at all. We certainly did not know where we would be once Billy received his commission and finished with his officer’s basic. I have to admit I hoped it would far away from Griffin and Atlanta, and all those mixed emotions that overwhelmed me during the holidays. I knew I would want to be with my own happy family where we could begin our own traditions, and I could plan and cook the meals without anyone making a fuss if they did not like my way of doing things. Later, Billy told me he was thinking the exact same thing while we watched his mother fix drink after drink, and Gene just sat there, never saying a word, although I doubted that anything he said could have stopped her.
Soon, Helen insisted on playing cards for the first time since that last unfortunate effort. Billy’s look of dread was one that I shared, while with some effort both he and Gene ignored her. However, like my father, she was akin to Jekyll and Hyde, although she was never particularly pleasant to me at any time, night, or day, drunk or sober. One moment she would be talking and sociable and the next a raving maniac. I never learned to judge her oncoming tantrums as well as I had learned to judge my own father’s state of drunkenness, but then again I had not lived with her all of my life.
Billy and Gene wanted to watch the ball game until time for the boys to go to bed, so while Helen seethed, continuing to drink, I read, and the men finished watching the game. As soon as the boys were in bed, exhausted after their long and exciting day, Helen told Gene to set up the card table. Judging from the expression on Billy’s face, I could tell he did not want anything to do with playing bridge with his mother when she was this drunk, and I was just plain exhausted. It had been a long day, we had not had a lot of sleep the night before, and all I wanted to do was to go to bed with my husband. Helen was insistent, and not used to not getting her way, but this time all her efforts were in vain as Billy absolutely refused, and told her we were tired and were going to bed.
Well, it was as if we had released all the demons from hell into this room at the same time, as Helen’s face turned a vivid purple. "I WILL NOT BE DENIED!" she screamed at no one in particular. "I have spent my entire day cooking over a hot stove for my ungrateful family, and now I want to play cards!"
I could not believe her tantrum! She acted as if she was six years old and someone had stolen her ice cream cone! Gene rose to calm her but she threw herself at him as if she wanted to tear him limb to limb. He was too strong for her though, and he put both of his arms around her while holding her arms down to her side since he had been scratched badly one time too many. As she flailed and continued to shriek, Gene manipulated her so he held both of her hands behind her back with just one of his and he put his free hand over her mouth, and she bit him! Now blood was dripping from his hand around her mouth, and then he lost his temper too, and Billy rushed me out of the room, but it was too late.
Instantly the same sick feeling came over me I had each time my parents’ verbal fights would escalate to a physical altercation. Suddenly I felt quite ill and rushed to the bathroom just as soon as we reached our room. A combination of a long day, very little sleep, Helen’s morning tirade about breakfast, the tension between Billy and Gene, Billy’s injured hand, and now this ‘fight’ between Gene and Helen, had caught up with me and I was violently sick to my stomach. My pregnancy probably did not help, but I had never really thrown up before.
Billy stayed by my side and bathed my forehead with a cool washcloth while I hung over the toilet bowl, and when my stomach was empty, he led me to the bed, took off my shoes, and curled up beside me. We held each other and made promises to our baby, and to each other, that we would never allow him to see us fight, or anyone else fight for that matter. We agreed that our children would grow up anticipating Christmas, not dreading it, as Billy and I had learned to do.
Billy then looked into my eyes, and with the most serious of his serious voices, he said, "Darling, I want you to make me a promise. If anything ever happens to me, do not ever allow either of our parents to get their hands on our children."
I had told him so many times I could not live without him, and I meant it. He had become so much a part of me I just knew if his heart stopped beating mine would too. Exhausted though, I promised, and we both fell asleep without a shower and for one of the few times in our marriage, without making love. Physically and emotionally drained, neither of us had the strength other than to hold onto each other for dear life.
The next morning we slept until almost noon, but before taking our shower, we made love to make up for missing the night before. Once again, I bathed Billy while he held his hand out of the water, lingering again on the parts of his anatomy where he liked me to linger, while he drew circles around my nipples again with his fingers. We made love again after toweling each other dry and then dressed and packed for the drive to Atlanta and a short visit with my family at my aunt’s house.
Before we left, Billy raided his parent’s medicine cabinet and I carefully redressed his finger. It looked like it was healing since it was not red or swollen, but Billy said it still ‘throbbed’, so I pulled the scarf from my purse and made another sling, which he agreed to use this time. As I slipped the sling over his head, he held me close and kissed me so hungrily I thought we would have to stop and make love again before we left. A sharp rap on the door to the bedroom broke our reverie and I opened the door while Billy went into the bathroom to get himself under control.
Helen was standing in the door and just looked at me as if it made her sick to see me in Billy’s room. She wanted to tell us Gene had called from the store and wanted us to stop by on our way to Atlanta to pick out our Christmas gift, and, by the way, would I mind stripping the sheets off the bed and bring the dirty linens to the laundry room for the maid to wash. Billy came out of the bathroom then and I could tell he was going to tell her not to talk to me that way, or to tell the maid to strip the beds, but I reached for his good hand and squeezed it. Then I told Helen I would be glad to strip the room - anything to negate any further disagreement. Billy helped me as much as he could by grabbing all the towels in his free arm while I took the sheets and pillowcases off the bed.
The boys were outside riding their new bicycles and playing with friends, so after we bid a cautious good-bye to his mother, who had still not asked how Billy he had hurt himself, I thanked her once again for her lovely gifts. We hugged and kissed the boys, and told them we hoped to see them soon. I did want to see them soon, but I did not want to spend a single unnecessary night in Helen’s house!
We got into the car and I sat properly on my side of the front seat, but Billy turned to me and asked me why I wanted to sit way over there. I told him that since Griffin was such a small town (so small that an early baby would be an embarrassment), I thought he would rather me sit over here during daylight hours.
He looked at me so seriously that at first I thought he was angry, but he smiled and said, "Little girl, sometimes I don’t know what to do with you, so all I can do is love you. Would you please come over here and sit by your husband and the father of your child?"
I moved over as close as I could get to him, my heart beating loudly again, and my love for Billy overflowing. He wanted everyone to see him with his wife, his pregnant wife, and I was so relieved I wanted to cry. We parked right in front of the store in a loading zone, but Billy parked wherever he wanted at his father’s store. I asked him if he wanted me to wait in the car for him, but he insisted I come inside because his father had said "your" Christmas gifts. He took my hand as we walked in the large store, filled to overflowing with washers, dryers, stoves, refrigerators, televisions, stereos, small appliances, and cookware. Gene’s recent purchase of the building next door had doubled the store’s size, and he had it stocked with good quality furniture, nothing too expensive, but nothing too cheap either, all well-known brand names.
Whitey, who had worked for Gene for as long as Billy could remember, and was the store manager, was the first one to see us and welcomed Billy warmly, politely, asking what he had done to his hand. While Billy explained his accident, Gene, with his own hand bandaged, came out of his office in the back of the store and much to my amazement hugged me warmly. He asked both of us to go with him over to the furniture store where he showed us several baby cribs and chests and asked us to select a set for the new baby. I was shocked! Billy had taken a chance of driving the illegal whiskey to Atlanta so we could buy a crib, and now Gene was giving us not only a crib, but a chest of drawers too. Billy told his father he could pay for them if he could give us a break and sell them at cost, but Gene insisted this was our Christmas gift, and a small token of his appreciation for staying over Christmas even though it had been altogether most unpleasant.
Billy wanted me to choose so I selected a pretty, white crib with pastel painted rolling balls on the headboard. The chest was also white with the same pastel balls for drawer handles, roomy and sufficient for a baby’s needs. Gene buzzed Whitey and told him to get us the best crib mattress the store carried and he told us he would have all of it delivered to Dahlonega, as it was far too large to fit in the car. Totally out of nowhere, and shocking both of us, Gene said he was adding a new washing machine since he knew we would not want to be going out to the Laundromat with a new baby. We had an old semi-automatic machine that Mrs. Harris had found at an estate sale, but now we would have our own brand new, top-of-the-line Westinghouse! Neither of us was expecting this gift, and so shocked, that for a moment, we were speechless! When I finally found my voice, I thanked Gene with a big hug, and Billy seemed so pleased his father had made me happy, that I thought for a moment he would hug him too. Sadly, that moment never came, and not even able to shake hands with his father, Billy just echoed my gratitude.
Now we could use the extra money to buy crib sheets, blankets, pads, diapers and all the other essentials we would routinely need with a new baby - and clothes! Now, we had enough money to buy some maternity pants for me, and clothes for the baby. We could shop at Davison’s Department Store in Atlanta, using my grandmother’s discount and get everything we needed. This was really happening. We really were having a baby, and soon we would fill our apartment with all the necessities and accessories. On our way out of Griffin, I sat as close to my handsome husband as I could, and when I looked up at him and smiled, he winked, kissed my forehead, and slipped his arm out of the sling and around my shoulders. What a perfectly wonderful day!
Now it was time for the visit with my family.
The day was quite warm and sunny for December, but this occurrence is not too surprising in Georgia, and I can remember Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays when it was warm enough to go outside in just a short sleeve shirt. This was one of those beautiful days. We drove into Atlanta, making our usual stop at The Varsity, and then into the center of town to Davison’s Department Store where my grandmother had worked for years. That evening we would all be having supper together at my aunt’s house, but we still had plenty of time to shop for the rest of the baby items until we were positive of the sex, using my grandmother’s 20% employee discount. I knew she would allow us to use her charge card, and we would be able to give her all the cash that day due to our fortunate circumstances and not having to buy the baby’s furniture.
All of my grandmother’s co-workers and friends, some who had known me since I was a baby, just could not believe I was old enough to be married and pregnant, and all commented on what a good looking boy I had married. Of course, Billy charmed them all with his soft southern accent and his gracious manners. I just hoped he had not seen the look of dismay on my grandmother’s face when she first realized I was wearing a maternity dress, but it would have been hard for me to miss since I knew her so well.
Of course, she was heartbroken I would have a baby at nineteen, just as my own mother had me, and we would live the gypsy life of an Army officer’s family that would take me far away from her again. We were very young to be starting our family, but I know she would not have wanted me to go through another abortion, although she had never even asked me about it. That was my grandmother’s way – if she did not talk about, it did not happen. She loved me as if I was her own daughter, and in many ways, I had been. When we lived with her more often than not, I shared her bed. Wherever she went on the weekends, I was usually with her, and she taught me to love the musical theatre, the symphony, and the ballet. Whenever I would thank her for the wonderful education that books alone cannot teach she would just smile and thank me for being her "best little companion".
My grandfather, her husband, was ill and had been since my mother was in her early teens. He was now in the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Augusta, and had been there all of my life, so I had never seen him, or at least as far as I remembered. My grandmother never thought about a divorce, or even dating another man, so she gave me all the attention and time that would delight any grandchild. I had spent as much time with her during the summer as my mother would allow. I was definitely her ‘favorite’ and she never denied it. I will have to say that I loved her far more than I ever loved my own parents, and I hated the thought of leaving her again, but I loved Billy more. I knew that Billy would eventually charm her too. She was a hard sell, but he could do it again!
When we told her why we had dropped by the store, and what Gene had given us for Christmas, she told me to charge $100 on her card for the layette, her gift for the new baby. We were thrilled, now we could buy even more than our carefully hoarded ‘secret’ money would allow and get a discount too! She made me promise not to tell anyone in the family of her generous gift since my mother and my aunt who were my grandmother’s only children had always been jealous of each other and both were most careful to keep account of what she spent on each grandchild. Nevertheless, I knew I was ‘special’, this was her first great-grandchild, and she knew she could trust me not to tell.
As we left for the infant’s department, Billy decided to impress my grandmother and act silly. He began dragging his leg as if he were wearing a ball and chain and although I was not impressed; my grandmother got a kick out of his immature actions, which is just what he wanted. I wanted to duck under the nearest display table! As soon as we were out of sight, he stopped dragging his leg since he knew I was getting annoyed, but as usual, all he had to do was smile at me and look contrite and I forgot my anger. We tried to use our $100 wisely, taking advantage of the ‘after Christmas’ sales, but still before long we had two large shopping bags full of all the clothing and accessories we would need when we brought our new son home from the hospital. I carried one bag because of Billy’s injured hand, so we decided to go back down to the basement and leave our first gleanings with my grandmother rather than carry them through the store while I shopped for maternity necessities.
On my birthday, my grandmother had given me a delicate pink gown that buttoned down the front for nursing. Obviously, she hoped the baby would be a girl, but I still needed at least two more gowns. Billy started acting silly again, dragging his leg just as soon as he had my grandmother’s attention, but once again stopped when we were out of her sight. With his help, I chose three more gowns since they were on half price sale, blue (Billy’s favorite color), lavender (my favorite color), and a soft green that Billy said matched my eyes. Out of necessity I then bought six pair of maternity underwear and two nursing bras, although Billy was still not happy about my decision to nurse the baby. I had five months to work on him, and hopefully by the time our son was born, he would accept that nursing was the best thing for the baby, for me, and our budget! He had not priced infant’s formula, and I knew he had a rude awakening coming when he did, so I hoped all would work out for the best.
There was a clearance rack of maternity clothes, mostly for warmer weather, and since the baby was due in May, I bought several pair of pants with tops and a nice spring Sunday dress. Now I had enough outfits to get by, or as much as I would ever have, unless I could get my mother to loan us her sewing machine so I could make more clothes. They could not be difficult to make since there was very little fit to maternity clothing, and I was looking forward to doing something creative. Although not a seamstress like Helen McConnell, I thought I could make simple maternity dresses and tops since I had learned the basics when I took Home Economics in high school. Moore’s General Store carried patterns, fabric, thread and all the other sewing essentials I would need, and it would be a diversion to my normally boring days while Billy was in class or at work.
When we finally finished our shopping, that is to say, ran out of money, except for that bonus $100, we were loaded down with stretch suits, footed pajamas, baby towels with hoods, washcloths, crib sheets and most important of all, 4 dozen diapers! We also bought receiving blankets, one large blanket with a satin lining, blue of course, and a tiny lamp for the top of the baby’s chest with a built-in night light so I could change and feed the baby without disturbing Billy’s sleep. There was so much we needed, but thanks to Gene’s and my grandmother’s generosity, we were ready for the arrival, and I could just imagine dressing our son in these tiny clothes. At this point, I think reality began to sink in for both of us.
My grandmother also bought the baby a bassinet with a lovely skirt, and I could tell the family about this gift, but not the layette. We had to make two trips to the car to load all of our purchases, and then I kissed and thanked my grandmother who would be joining us for supper.
The day after Christmas was also my mother’s birthday. When my grandmother reminded me, I assured her we had selected a gift, as my mother would be coming for supper too, along with my brothers and my baby sister. We never knew if my father would join us or not, and frankly I would be relieved if he stayed at home.
We had been able to avoid the rush hour traffic and it was still daylight when we pulled into the driveway at my aunt and uncle’s home. My uncle must have still been at work, so we parked on the curb in front of the house not wanting to block the carport where he kept his car. My aunt rushed out to greet us, hugging Billy first, as usual, since he also had her wrapped around his little finger. He always knew just the right words to say to make women, regardless of age, feel good, and he found those words again this day. My aunt went on and on about his hand, and told me I should take better care of him, and Billy assured her I was nowhere around when he cut his finger, but I had been taking good care of him ever since. My cousins were inside watching television in the basement den, and only the youngest, Ginny, came out to greet us. She was also a ‘change of life’ baby, born a year after my sister, Lynne. I was a bit concerned that this phenomenon might run in the family, but I sure hoped not! Although I was looking forward to my baby and to others with Billy, I did not want to be 40 years old and have a toddler!
Billy picked up the baby in his good arm and took her downstairs with him to say hello to the older cousins, while I helped my aunt set the table for the crowd that was expected. There would be a full table of adults, and the children would eat in the breakfast room, probably with my oldest brother and cousin supervising. The two toddler girls would sit with the adults, the youngest in a high chair, and the older on stacked telephone books. I knew my older cousin would resent that Billy and I ate with the adults while he ate in the kitchen, but there was not enough room for everyone at the dining room table. There would be my aunt, my uncle, my grandmother, my mother, possibly my father, Billy, the 2 little girls, and me, and even then, we would be elbow to elbow.
My aunt knew Billy did not eat any vegetables, except for LeSeuer peas and tossed salad, and she had made a green salad for him and vegetables for the rest of the family, along with a fruit gelatin he also would eat. She had prepared a large roast, gravy and mashed potatoes, which Billy loved, along with a pan of refrigerated rolls. Even she was beginning to spoil him!
My uncle was the first to arrive, and not long afterwards, my grandmother. Everyone expected my mother to be late, as she had never arrived anywhere on time in her entire life except for the day she was born! We waited for about an hour for my mother and siblings, but the roast was beginning to dry out, so my aunt, disgusted by her older sister’s annoying habit, began to serve the children’s plates and put out the dishes on the table. Just as we sat down and were bowing our heads for the blessing, my mother’s car pulled into the driveway, far earlier than anyone expected, so we waited for a few minutes until Mother sat down and everyone could settle into their seats again.
Dinner was pleasant and Billy was charming. The baby in my tummy seemed pleased with the food and joined in with light flutters, and I moved Billy’s good hand so he could feel his son’s kicks. My aunt had wanted to place Billy on one side of the table and me on the other, but I told her I would have to cut his meat and butter his bread, so I needed to sit by him. I did not intend not to sit by my husband. She had just become accustomed to the idea I was now a grown woman with a husband and a child on the way, but that is how it was, now and forever. Sadly, I felt she was jealous of my handsome husband and our obvious devotion to each other, as she had always been jealous of my grandmother’s love for me.
My grandmother had bought a birthday cake for my mother at the Davison’s bakery, which was always good, so after everyone finished eating, my aunt called the children into the dining room where we all sang ‘Happy Birthday’, and my grandmother brought in the cake with lighted candles. My mother was thirty-nine years old and before the coming New Year was over, she would be a grandmother. Lynne, my little sister would not be three until July so she and our son could be playmates along with Ginny who would be two in June.
Mother opened her gifts, one from each of her children, most bought by my grandmother, one from my aunt and her family and the gift from us. We gave her one of the photos Billy and I had taken at the spring formal, the closest thing we had to a wedding picture, and the same photo we had given my grandmother for her birthday on December 10.
I then asked Mother about the sewing machine, and if I could just borrow it for a few months while I made some more maternity clothes. Much to my shock, she refused my request with the ludicrous excuse that she might need it! I had never seen her use that machine in the entire time I lived in my parent’s house, and to the day she died, she still had never used it. She always was a very selfish woman, and I have spent my entire life trying NOT to be like my mother. Yes, she was beautiful on the outside, but inside she was vain and needy. In the effort not to cry, I bit my lip, but Billy knew I was on the verge of tears and he squeezed my hand under the table.
At least she loved the photo and commented I looked especially pretty that night, and Billy turned to me and said, "She always looks pretty to me, especially now."
I almost cried from all the emotions I was feeling, but instead I looked at him with the promise of making love in my eyes, and he knew what I was thinking. We could hardly wait to get home to our own little apartment, our comfortable bed and most of all, our privacy.
Being respectful, I offered to help my aunt clean up the kitchen, since I knew my mother would not offer, but my grandmother told us she would stay, and we should get on the road since we had another hour and a half drive back to Dahlonega. My uncle echoed my grandmother’s insistence and after hugs and kisses all around, he walked us to our car. He asked Billy if he had enough money to take care of buying things for the baby, and we both assured him we were well prepared without giving away my grandmother’s secret. As usual, he slipped a twenty-dollar bill into Billy’s hand and told him to take me out to dinner, or buy something we needed.
My uncle was the kindest and the wisest man I have ever known, and I felt blessed that he loved me as I loved him. He was far more a father to me than my own, and it was his suggestion I write this book, once telling me my life had been stranger than fiction and that I could and should write. I thought about it for years but was always too busy or too involved with other projects, but now I know he is looking down from heaven, and I hope, pleased with my effort.
With our Christmas visits finished, we were on our way home, our back seat and trunk filled to the brim with gifts for the baby, who was suddenly beginning to feel real to both of us. I was having Billy McConnell’s son! As I cuddled close to my husband, my heart once again overflowed with love. Even when we were not together, Billy said he could feel my love and hoped I felt his in return. Of course, I said I did, although the old low self-esteem made me doubt he could possibly love me as much as I loved him. After all, I had grown up feeling I was plain in looks compared to my mother’s beauty, and not worthy enough to earn the love of such a handsome man, but Billy certainly acted sincere as if he meant every word he said. In spite of my mother’s dire predictions, I felt loved and lovely, all because of this incredible young man I had first laid eyes on, not even a year ago.
This, our first Christmas together, had certainly been one to remember, for the highs, the lows, and the utter exhaustion created by chaotic alcoholic households, but we were together and that was all that was important to me. I knew I would always feel safe as long as I was with my darling Billy, soon there would be three of us, and we would be a real family. Oh how I hoped our baby boy would be the spitting image of his father, with his heart and his personality, and of course his charm – this magnificent man who I fell in love with more with each passing day.
I fell asleep with Billy’s arm around me on the way back to Dahlonega, and did not awaken until we pulled into our driveway.
"Sleepy, little girl?" Billy asked as he opened the car door and the light came on and woke me, but I did not need to answer because he knew I was exhausted, and I knew he had to be tired too.
I could sleep the next day, while earlier he had insisted he needed to go to work. But oh, how I just wanted one day to be alone with him, and I mentioned how nice it would be to spend one full day together without seeing anyone or anyone seeing us. Sensing I needed him, finally he told me he had decided not to go to work since the air-conditioning contractor had to pay him anyway. He held me close and said he too felt like being alone with me for the entire day, just doing nothing, and I could not be happier. I knew I had a glorious day filled with special moments to look forward to, but right now, my beloved Billy needed some special attention, and I was just the person to give it to him! After all, he made my life worth living, and we loved each other equally - more than life itself.