The windows rattled with a late November night wind in Oklahoma, a state known for its winds. That chill wind set tree branches scratching and thumping against those windows and the walls of the old house where I sat up late in concerned responsibility for my little brothers and sister. I would have been reading, except I'd already read all the books in the town library, and we didn't own any books of our own, except the Bible that I'd already read through ten times. I should have been in bed long before, but I was the closest thing to an adult in that house. I didn't see how I could protect the babies if I slept.
My partner in responsibility sat up with me, Queenie, my aging collie. Her presence provided a measure of comfort and a small sense of safety. Hours past my bedtime, that warm, solid presence at my feet allowed me to start to drift into sleep in the big green armchair with stuffing poking out of its left side.
Pounding on the front door startled me awake. Loud men's voices and fists beating against the door. I jerked upright, heart racing.
“Come on, Stephanie! Open the door.”
Queenie leaped to her feet, barking a warning.
“Yeah, open up, baby.” A different voice slurred these words. These men were drunk. I recognized the sound of it from experience with my father. “You got to be lonely with your man gone. I got what you need, and you got what I want.”
Men's laughter rose up outside the door, and Queenie crouched and growled. I shuddered, but then walked to the coat closet to grab my brother's baseball bat.
The men pounded on the door again so hard it shook, and a third voice, familiar from somewhere, higher, less rough than the other two, shouted, “Come on, woman! We know you've been running around with airmen, so don't play coy with us!”
By this time, I stood in front of the door as they started to beat on it again. I had a nightmare image of the door shattering underneath their fists. Queenie stood beside me, growling and barking.
“My mother's not here,” I called out, voice quavering and cracking. “Go away.”
Silence fell for half a second, and I hoped they were turning away.
“Open the door, and we'll wait for her, honey. We can have a party while we wait for your mama. Wouldn't you like that, sugar? A real grown-up party.”
The voice I'd recognized protested. “Wait a minute. Jesus, she's just a kid.”
“Like mother, like daughter, sluts, all,” one of the rougher drunker voices said before shouting at me. “Come on, kid. Open up. We'll make it worth your while and show you a real good time.”
Queenie lunged at the door as if she'd understood what he said and could reach him through the wood to tear out his throat.
“No, I won't open the door, and you'd better not try to break it down because my dog will rip your arm off if you do.” I drew myself up to my full four feet four and a half inches and, holding my bat in both hands, pulled it back over my shoulder for a good, hard swing. If those men came through that door, who knew what they would do to my baby brothers and sister. I'd seen how violent my father got when he was drunk. Drunks were dangerous, I knew all too well. “If you don't go away, I'm going to call the police.”
Of course, I knew I couldn't call the police because no one could know officially that Mother had left us alone for the past three days and nights. If the law found out, they would take us away. But I hoped the men were too drunk to realize this.
The bleak years when I turned eleven and twelve, I lived in a tiny town in southwestern Oklahoma, not up in the Cherokee Nation in the northeast of the state near my father's mother and not in the middle in Oklahoma City where my mother's parents lived, but in this little town near the farm of my aunt and uncle. My father had driven us out to this town from San Diego and dropped us off—my mother, my five younger siblings, and me—promising that our stay would last no longer than his tour of duty in the Pacific on his aircraft carrier.
I hadn't actually believed him, of course. My father lied often, spectacularly but always compellingly. Also, we'd always stayed in San Diego before when he went overseas, though often, my oldest younger brother and I spent the summers of those periods in Oklahoma with our grandmother—until all the little brothers and sister came, and Mother needed my help. So I suspected there was something wrong about his decision to unload his whole family in the state where we had kin.
We'd arrived in a bitter snowstorm. I'd never seen snow before, except on mountaintops. Like most of life, I only knew it from books. I'd never lived anywhere but a city before, either, and held high hopes for what life would be like in an idyllic small town, the kind portrayed in many of my books. Like so much else in those years, snow turned out to be a major disappointment.
By the time summer slid past us and we were in the throes of school again, my mother realized that my father not only would never send us money as he'd promised, but he had no intentions of coming back for us. She began to drink heavily and date men from the nearby airbase, desperately hoping to find a new husband and father for her many children. As 1958 ended, she began to leave me in charge while she went on “vacations” with her new boyfriend to Lawton and Oklahoma City.
Since there was never enough money, we'd run up a bill at the grocery store that we couldn't pay off, not even after I took an illegal job stocking shelves at the local drugstore. The grocery store had finally cut off our credit. I couldn't blame the owner, who'd given us plenty of chances, but we ran low on food often after we could only use cash. Finally, we'd been in really bad straits for weeks when some kind soul left a bushel basket of turnips on our back steps. My mother stayed sobby drunk for two days while I fixed turnips every way I could think of. (To this day, I can't eat the things, though I'd loved them before that.)
At the end of those two days, she left for Oklahoma City with her boyfriend, confiding in me, as she often did, her hope that she'd be able to persuade him to propose. She was, of course, still married to my father, but she seemed to think that would all work itself out. My mother was, like most women of her time, a great romantic.
So, for three days, I'd been trying to take care of the little ones without missing too much school, cooking turnips a million ways from Sunday, and sitting up in the old green chair every night.
“Come on, honey, shut up your dog, and let us in. It's cold out here. We won't hurt you. It'll be fun. I promise.” The deep, rough voice with its drunken slurring didn't sound like anything but trouble and hurt to me.
The higher voice that I thought I recognized spoke again, more urgently. “Come on, guys. Let's get out of here. We don't need any trouble. Stephanie's not here.”
I realized whose voice it was, the owner of Harbaugh's Hardware, father of one of my classmates. “Mr. Harbaugh, is that you? It's Emmy from Sandra's class. Mr. Harbaugh, please don't let them hurt me.”
Gruff whispers and scuffling broke out on the other side of the door, and then, footsteps pounding away. A car engine started up in the windy silence and squealed its tires as it drove off. I remained standing at the door, bat cocked, until my arms hurt, and I noticed Queenie had moved back to her spot at the foot of my chair. Figuring that meant we were safe, I propped the bat next to the door, just in case, and resumed my jittery vigil in the big green chair.
Mother returned two days later, hungover and heartbroken that no proposal was ever going to come, so I never told her about the men. She had enough to make her sad.
Besides, I had a new fear—Christmas. As December arrived, I realized we had no money for presents for the little ones. I told Mother, but she had other worries. I couldn't stop imagining the heartbreak in all those little eyes when they found nothing for Christmas, so I began trying to make presents for each of them from whatever I could find around the house. When I finished them, I looked at the amateurish, lumpy, makeshift things and got a little sobby and hopeless myself, wanting to toss all my efforts into the trash.
Afterward, I dried my eyes and reminded myself that without these sad, little gifts, the kids would have nothing, and I carefully wrapped them in some old gift wrap I found (that smelled a little of the attic) and cut an old ragged blouse into strips of “ribbon” to make bows for the packages.
The next afternoon, Rev. Gleeson, from the Methodist Church where I took the kids and sang in the choir, showed up at our front door. For a blessed change, Mother was sober and dressed in something more than house robe and slippers. Rev. Gleeson insisted on my leaving the room, so they could speak in confidence. Sitting in my attic bedroom, I wondered what dire news he brought.
After a brief interval, Mother called me downstairs to join them.
Rev. Gleeson smiled at me. “Your mother tells me that only you can help.”
“An anonymous donor wants to buy Christmas presents for all the kids,” my mother said, looking a little bit relieved. Maybe she had worried as much about those disappointed eyes at Christmas as I had, but just hadn't wanted to show it. “He wants to know what each of them wants the most for Christmas, and I told him you'd know better than I would.”
Of course, I knew, and I joyously explained about the baby doll little Sharon dreamed of, the gun and holster set each of the oldest two little brothers longed for, and the truck and pull-toy the babies wanted. I gave him exact specifications and brand names, and he wrote it all down in a pocket notebook while Mother went to the kitchen to make him some coffee.
“Is the person doing this Mr. Harbaugh?” I asked, remembering that wind-tossed night.
Startled surprise showed for a second in Rev. Gleeson's face. He brought it under control almost immediately. “Emmy, anonymous means the donor doesn't want anyone to know who he is.”
I nodded, overjoyed that the eyes of my little brothers and sister would be shining on Christmas morning. If Mr. Harbaugh wanted to make up for what he'd done that night, I'd take it happily.
I checked to see if Mother was coming and lowered my voice. “My mother needs a new watch. The one my father gave her for a wedding present broke, and she can't afford to get it fixed. She's always trying to check the time, only to find it gone from her wrist.”
Rev. Gleeson smiled broadly and replied in a conspiratory whisper. “Should we fix her old one, or buy her a new one?”
“Oh, fix her old one. It's real silver. I can get it from her drawer and bring it to choir practice tomorrow night.”
So we plotted, and I was thrilled that, not only would the little ones have Christmas presents, but so would Mother. Maybe it would take the despair out of her eyes.
Christmas came with just a sprinkling of snow, enough for that Christmas-card frosted look, but not enough to make cars and people slide into accidents and not enough to turn into nasty, frozen gray slush later. It was almost like the lovely snow in books.
Rev. Gleeson had shown up at the door on Christmas Eve with a big box of wrapped gifts and another full of the makings of Christmas dinner, a turkey and all the trimmings. Early Christmas morning as Mother and I worked in our steamy kitchen, preparing dressing and rolls and pie, it felt like all my book-dreams of small towns had come true, as well—if I didn't think of why all of these goodies had been provided for us.
I didn't care, though. It was all right, if it meant that Mother and the kids would have a happy Christmas, which meant I would have one, as well.
When we finally let the kids open their presents, it was all I had dreamed. All around me, small faces lit up with joy and delight. Then, Mother found the tiny package with her name and opened it to the gleam of her newly cleaned and repaired watch. Her eyes sought mine, and I beamed at the slow smile that spread across her face. My Christmas was complete.
“Emmy, you didn't open yours,” Sharon said, obviously proud that she'd deciphered my name on the tag. She handed me the package.
Taken aback because I hadn't expected that there would be anything for me, I tore open the bright wrappings to find a brand-new book, one I'd never read before—The Day Christ Died by Jim Bishop. I'd read about it, a dramatic detailed, hour-by-hour retelling of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, in the library's copy of Saturday Review, where it had been reviewed before it came out and again after it became a bestseller.
Clutching it tightly to my chest, I looked through watery eyes at my mother and whispered, “Did you tell him what to get for me?”
She shrugged. “I just told him that you'd want a book. I didn't know he'd get you that one.”
“It's perfect. It's just perfect.” I leaned back in the big old green chair with stuffing coming out of its side, Queenie curled at my feet, and began to read.