(The following was written for my friend Janeson Keeley's blog. I reprint it here for my daughter.)
By Dan Smith
Chris’ face was stony and pinched and she was unusually quiet as I entered the living room of our log cabin after a day at the paper.
“What’s up?” I said. “You look worried.”
“Nothing,” she said, turning from me and moving toward the kitchen.
“Aw c’mon, Chris. Let’s not do the silent thing. What is it?”
“What are we going to do about Jennie’s Christmas?” she said sharply. “I can’t see any extra money; not one cent. This will be the first Christmas she’s aware of and I know the other kids have been talking to her about it. She mentioned Santa today and I didn’t know what to say to her. I don’t even want to mention a wish list.”
I had put off thinking about Christmas because I knew I would get mad at Christ for being born and hanging this financial burden over my head. “You looking to blame me for something else, Chris?” I said. “I’m doing the best I can.”
The “best I can” was being the 24-year-old sports editor of Asheville’s afternoon paper, The Times, a 35,000-circulation bird cage liner that was losing readers on a daily basis. It was a hotshot job—as far as my buddies were concerned—but it would have been a much better gig for a single guy. In 1970, the days of the two-newspaper small town were over and I was on the front edge of the change, earning $90 a week. Most of that went to rent a log cabin in the Kenilworth section of Asheville, food, upkeep on a battered old Chevy and Chris’ school at UNC-Asheville. She was a junior, studying social work and occasionally worked as a telephone operator overnight.
Our three-year-old daughter’s Christmas didn’t figure in that. In fact, Jennie’s expenses in general didn’t figure much. My mother kept Jennie during the day because there was no way we could afford a nursery and most of her other needs were met with hand-me-downs.
I went to bed that night without an answer.
When I awoke the next morning, I had one.
I rolled toward my young wife and blew in her face until she stirred. “Mmmmmm,” she said, and she smiled. “What are you doing awake? It’s still dark outside.”
“I know what we can do for Jennie,” I said. “It won’t really cost anything and I think she’ll love it. It involves a refrigerator box, which I will get at one of the furniture stores, that old watercolor paint set of yours, the curtains you had set aside to give away and a couple of other things we can come up with.”
“What in the world are you thinking?” she said, the smile still there. “Today’s Christmas Eve and we’re going to have to hurry if we’re going to do something complicated.”
“That’s the beauty,” I said. “It’s simple. And I think it’s pretty elegant.”
I only had to work half a day, giving me time to make some rounds and pick up what we needed in the afternoon. Chris was on break from school, but she was taking care of Jennie, so she couldn’t do much, other than decorate a tree, which I had salvaged from a nearby elementary school when the Christmas break started. Jennie delighted in the shared time and the two of them were giggling when I got home from work.
“Did you get the stuff?” Chris said. I nodded.
“Santa’s coming,” Jennie squealed. “He’s bringing toys.” She ran to me and sprang into my arms, wrapping up and hugging me.
At 8 o’clock, with Jennie tucked in, storied, hugged, kissed and snugged to sleep, Chris and I sat about the task at hand: building Jennie a house.
I went out to the ’56 Chevy Bel Aire and untied the refrigerator box from the top. I had broken it down, so it was flat. The box squared back up and I slid a cap over one end to stabilize it. I entered the box with a carpet knife and cut out two windows and a door on the side and slipped the cap on the other end, creating a boxy—quite literally—house. Then Chris went to work with the watercolors, painting in flowers, shutters, a doorknob and patterns in the door. She even gave the front of the house a brick look.
I pulled a small cable spool that I had salvaged at the power company from the back seat of the car and slipped it into the house. Chris covered it with an old bed sheet and we put two pillows at the side of the table. Chris sat cups and saucers at the table and would put out cookies and milk just before morning.
I had picked up a couple of dolls at a thrift store—the Next To New Shop—downtown that my mother frequented so much that she was on a first-name basis with the staff. She had urged me for years to go in and see what was available “for next to nothing.” The dolls were nearly new, quite nice and had cost 50 cents each. Chris put them in the house, sitting them on the pillows at the spool table.
">We looked at each other like we were in the middle of a plot to overthrow the government, grinned, laughed and fell into each other’s arms. We lay there just outside Jennie’s new house in the light of the Christmas tree for hours until I awoke just before dawn. “Better put the cookies and milk out,” I whispered. “Little feet will be padding in just a bit.”
We went to our bedroom and quickly returned to sleep. But shortly, we were awakened by a squeal from a little girl discovering Santa Claus. We ran to the living room and saw a bright, smiling face looking out the window of her house at us. “Santa came,” she said.
Merry Christmas to my favorite daughter. I love you.