The radio crackled and spit, the tubes echoing faint light off the wall, plastered with newspaper for extra insulation. Arlene Harris climbed into bed with her 13-year-old twin sister, Darlene. It was late December 1933 in Boone, Iowa. The icy wind blew across the snow-covered frozen farmland where Robert Harris was trying to scratch out a living for his family and hired hand and despite a voice from Washington telling them that they had nothing to fear but fear itself, the odds were stacked against him and he knew it.
A drought had left him with dwindling stores of crops and hogs and cattle that had lost most of their weight by late September. Robert Harris looked out upon his 250 acres, at the skeletal corn stalks that looked like compound fractures piercing the frosted frozen earth’s skin and wondered about God, then the letter from the bank that lay heavy on the old roller desk. A wife, four kids, a hired hand, not enough livestock to slaughter to make early spring and no credit left, even the old English 12-gauge in the corner offered no solution.
Robert Harris looked out past his fences and the gate upon a small trail of smoke eddying up into the slate grey sky and wondered about those folks. The ones with distant tongues and heavily accented language, a steady parade of grim humanity, trudging and struggling steadily westward toward a setting sun each day that swallowed them up until days later when the next group came along. In Robert Harris’ house and not a few of the locals’ eyes, they were all Godless, thieving “gypsies,” known to rob clotheslines, steal stock and even children. But for the county sheriff and some incidental Sunday devotion to the tenets of Christianity, many might have met an immediate fate worse than the one they had inherited here in the land of the free.
Certain things in Robert Harris’ house ranked equally up there with the Ten Commandments and all were born of survival. Robert Harris had two ferrets he would tether and send down jackrabbit holes to flush out the family dinner into shooting range. Arlene, who never had been unable to find some decency or beauty in any earthly thing or landscape, seeing my grandfather starving the ferrets to make them better hunters, took some of her dinner one time to feed them. Caught by her father, she went to bed with welts from the thick leather belt that he was unsparing with, especially when he’d been drinking.
That ‘hiding,’ as Robert Harris used to threaten, spared no one, including his polio-crippled wife, Grace. Like many country women in that patriarchal place, the expectations were substantial and severe, the decisional input minimal. Despite a badly twisted leg from that childhood disease, she rose each morning before dawn to cook and feed her family and hired hand. She cleaned, cooked, fed the stock, bore her children, schooled them, doctored them, made their clothes and got them to church. She mended fence, bailed hay, shoed the horses, picked crops and quietly accommodated Robert Harris’ drunken gropings or belt in equal measure. And yet, no one had ever heard her complain, seen her cry or even raise her voice in anger.
It happened to be Christmas Eve, that frozen night in Boone, Iowa, although something called the Great Depression had rendered the joy of presents and the sweep of carolers to memory. Any celebration was found in the sparse, sticklike appearance of the Christmas tree Robert Harris, as a second thought, had cut and placed in the living room only two nights before. The ornaments on that tree were some small paper mache Doves of Peace, Arlene and Darlene had learned how to make from an old Farmer’s Almanac that had been saved to make additional insulation.
That evening after supper, a thin trail of smoke trickled up through a stand of trees on the southeast acreage of Robert Harris’ farm. Arlene and her twin sister wrapped themselves in their woolen jackets, lined with empty burlap seed bags by their mother to ward off the freezing cold. They snuck out the back of the barn, down the fence line, across the frozen creek and quietly crept up toward the clearing, where voices spoke sparingly in thick, heavily consonanted words that sounded like clearing your throat to Arlene and Darlene.
Around a small fire sat five adults and one small girl and boy. Over the fire was a spit with a chicken on it. Darlene whispered, “Papa’s gonna shoot them if he sees that chicken.” Arlene, looking at the children who, despite their strange language, looked remarkably like her and Darlene, although dressed in layers of rags she feared would catch fire from being so close to the flames. Darlene said they’d better get out of there before they got kidnapped.
They ran between the frozen corn stalks, over the crusted ground and back to their house, where the smell and heat of burning manure filled the house. Arlene went to the scrap barrel where Mama Grace put the leftovers from the meals and later fed to the livestock. She removed some fat scraps, a scoop of hominy and on the way past the barn, grabbed three burlap seed bags.
As she hurried down the hall to the back door, that tree that her father had cut just days before, now the family Christmas tree, caught her eye. She thought of the faces around the fire on the other side of their fence. In particular, she thought of the little girl, just about her age, bundled up from the cold. She thought of that little girl, so much like Darlene and her, and she crept on tiptoe down the hallway, up to the tree where she took one of the paper mache Doves of Peace, stuffed down beneath the burlap bag lining of her coat, and quietly snuck out the back door.
She ran back across the moonlit sparkled ground until she stopped, then she crept up to the fence. The seven of them were still huddled close around the dying fire, wrapped in blankets, not speaking. Arlene sat there for a long time as Darlene remembered the telling of it, balancing her fear of the gypsies and what she had seen in their faces. She finally heard the little girl coughing and instinctively made a similar sound. A young man, old and weathered for his early 40’s, cautiously stood and looked in my mother’s direction. Incapable of flight, he pushed the three small children behind the others and slowly walked to the fence line where my mother crouched with some food wrapped in muslin and the burlap bags. They looked at each other across the fence in the frigid Iowa moonlight, as my mother, shaking from fear as much as the winter cold, reached across the fence and held out the four bags. The man looked at my mother for a moment and then through broken, crooked teeth smiled and took them, mumbling a word my mother couldn’t understand. To which, Arlene, then reached inside her coat and held out the small paper mache bird as a gift. The young man placed his hands together, bowed his head for just a moment in gratitude, then raised his eyes to the sky and nodded once again, with that same warm smile, as he gently took the small gift into his calloused hands.
Arlene ran back home, only to find her father waiting at the back door. Incapable of telling a lie, when asked where she’d been, she looked down, shaking, and told him. He yelled at her again to never go near those god cursed gypsies and, through whiskey thick breath, raged that if she ever gave away any of their belongings or leftovers to them again, he’d give her a hidin’ she’d never forget.
Arlene got no sleep that night after her mother finished tucking her in. Mama Grace tried to tell her how her father wasn’t born street gutter mean, he was just plain scared. Scared of the burden of taking care of all of them. Scared of losing the farm and having to go to the factory that was laying people off in town. Scared of the welfare lines and not being the man he was supposed to be, despite dusk to dawn, bone weary and calloused, unable to provide. And how he didn’t deep down hate those “gypsies” beyond the gate-only his God-awful fear of becoming them and the impossibility of compassion that fear denied him.
Mama Grace pulled the blankets up over Arlene that frostbitten December night in a land and time that would only get colder and more barren, with Robert Harris found dead in the barn shortly thereafter of a heart attack and the family forced to sell and move to town and the rolls.
But not before a day that passed in between Christmas 1933 and the New Year. While her father was in town, Darlene came running up and told Arlene there was something she had to see. They ran back to that stretch of fenceline, the one from Christmas Eve and there, on the top of the fence, tied to the barbed wire, was the small paper mache bird she’d given the strangers that night.
She saw that it was misshapen and upon peeling back the paper, found within its crusty folds, a small gold cross, the kind a child might wear.
In the years to come, Arlene left her job as a hair stylist in Boone, Iowa, to join the Navy during World War II. After that, this simple, diminutive farm girl founded a pro bono ride-sharing organization that gave support and transportation to hundreds of women as they traveled back and forth, from Northern New Jersey to Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and other cancer centers in the New York Metropolitan area. She founded a non-profit ceramics business in which all profits went to support her ride share endeavor and other related cancer support projects.
And as it would later be told and re-told, Arlene took two things with her from that cold, Christmas Eve in 1933. She never forgot what Mama Grace told her that night as she lay there on her side, refusing to cry and waiting for sleep that wouldn’t come, that her father was the way he had to be and that wasn’t going to change. And how she had a good heart and that was the way she had to be, that the world was a hard place but to not let anyone or life ever beat it out of her.
As for the second, simply, that in reaching out and touching, you are touched. And blessed.
Merry Christmas to all.
Jon Alexander lives in Crescent City. He can be reached at email@example.com