The hallway on Christmas morning: We children stood, youngest in front of oldest, not allowed past an invisible line on the floor separating the hall from the living room. We were close enough to see the lighted tree, the fireplace, and the wrapped presents — but not close enough to see the unwrapped presents left by Santa. No matter how hard I peered into the dark room, lit only by the Christmas tree and fire, I couldn’t see if Santa had remembered.
The old black-and-white photos with scalloped edges attest to the excitement of a young boy, being held back like a pony ready to break out of his stall; the pajamas and robe, brought out of the drawer once a year, falling almost to his fingertips (my mother always bought clothes I could “grow into”). But the robe would soon be off, and the pajama sleeves rolled up to facilitate unwrapping.
I was about to say “tearing into packages,” but then I remembered we weren’t allowed to do that. My father — ex-military, ex-Texas A&M cadet — had “rules” for Christmas morning, for “doing the tree,” and those rules started in the hallway. Some years my father’s mother would visit, seemingly for no other reason than to help enforce those rules. Having raised three boys alone, after the death of my grandfather as a young man, she knew something about commanding discipline.
My grandmother would always slow things down. We were required to pass every present from hand to hand for inspection before going on to the next package. Nana, as we called her, took her time, a cigarette always in one hand, turning the gift over in the other, before nodding with approval — the signal I could hand out the next present.
The photos show a modest home with small rooms appointed with a few 1950s-style chairs and a couch, all plain and functional. A television is nowhere to be seen, and the walls are mostly bare because we didn’t stay in houses very long. My father was transferred by the FAA (Federal Aviation Agency) from Kansas City to Minneapolis to Massapequa, New York, to Alexandria, Virginia, and, finally, to Fort Worth, where I started seventh grade.
Dad was slender, handsome, and, it looks to me, slightly sad. His experience fighting over Europe as captain of a B-24, the Liberator, was still fresh in his mind then. Only half of the men who fought those air battles came home.
My mother was a beauty from a small town in east Texas: long dark hair, better dressed than my father, often photographed in a t-shirt. She looked like an elegant young woman who belonged in more upscale surroundings than her husband had yet provided. She attended Duke, pledging Zeta Tau Alpha; he went to A&M because he wanted to be a rancher. That about says it all. The war interrupted his plans of raising horses and cattle — but it taught him how to fly, which became his career, a distinguished one.
The two children in the photos — my older sister Ruth and I — look happy enough, especially when showing off our favorite Christmas presents for the camera. (My younger sister, Elizabeth, would come years later — a “mistake,” as children were sometimes called then.) I had a bad track record with “favorite” Christmas presents. One year, the train I had dreamed about for weeks before Christmas, actually arrived, unwrapped and unassembled in a box in front of the fire. The day was spent with my mother’s father, Hoody, putting it all together. But the one thing I was not supposed to do — leave the transformer on all night — I did, and the train was no more. The small electrical fire that woke my father up in the middle of the night did not help the Christmas spirit.
Then there was the beautiful leather football that ended up on the roof of Mount Vernon Elementary School the first day of class after the holidays, which the janitor never returned. I missed that ball for a long time; it had just the right feel in my hand, just the right spiral as I let it go.
The “rules” for the Hudson family also required champagne and black-eyed peas — “for luck,” my mother always said. One year I actually ate one, repressing my gag reflex; my sip of champagne never tasted very good, and I wondered why. Much later I realized my dad always bought the green bottle at a local convenience store.
My mother always made up for the black-eyed peas with a great turkey, lots of mashed potatoes and dressing, served with all the cranberry sauce I wanted. For me, every bite of the Christmas meal had to include some cranberry on the fork — to this day, I still do that on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The Hudson Family Rules in this generation, like rules in general, bear only a pale resemblance to those handed down by my father and his often-fierce, always-smoking mother, my grandmother. I can, at least, keep my children out of the living room until the appointed time, but my attempts at recreating the line-up failed long ago. I regret we no longer pause at the invisible line and let the mystery grow for a few moments. The feast of gifts, wrapped and unwrapped, seemed even sweeter then because we followed the rules. (Except, of course, for the black-eyed peas.)