Making Do at Christmas

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There was a year, maybe when I was nine (i.e. around 1963), when there wasn’t a lot of money for Christmas. We children hardly noticed, because my mother was so creative at taking a little and making it into a lot. Ironically, I remember my gifts from that year more vividly than many I received in other years.

Mom must have labored intensely that season to make presents and “repurpose” others. One of her projects, possibly a technique she picked up from the latest issue of The Workbasket, was to coat things with salt dough, imbed macaroni and shell pasta in the dough, and bake it, then spray paint it silver or gold. I recall Grandma Martha getting a jewelry box (i.e., cigar box) decorated that way, although I’m sure there was some other element to the gift as well.

I got vanity items decorated in this manner, too, but they were part of a bigger, more dramatic production. My mother had gotten a dressing table someone in the neighborhood was discarding. She salvaged the marred, paint-splattered surface by covering it over with pink contact paper. She made a dreamy, billowing pink tulle and faux satin skirt for the table, and fashioned a seat by covering an upturned conical fruit basket with the same fabrics. She also sewed a ruffle for an old mirror that would hang above the table. In addition to the silver-painted salt dough set (an altered dimestore box of talcum powder and similar items), I also received a new brush and comb with matching hand-mirror; a tub of scented powder with a fluffy pink puff; and a quilted pink satin bathrobe, which was draped over the fruit crate seat, with fluffy pink slippers as part of the tableau.

Mom also retrieved from the basement the walking doll I’d received when I was six and dressed it out in a new homemade green frock with matching bonnet trimmed with felt holly leaves and berries. I don’t remember if there were new store-bought gifts that year (except for my robe and slippers). It didn’t matter. The impact of that pink dressing table and matching robe and slippers couldn’t be topped.

I think Mom dressed up some old toys for my brothers as well, such as giving some cars and trucks a new coat of paint. Again, I don’t remember anything about store-bought gifts, although there must have been at least a couple. At the time, I had no idea my mother had been economizing. Only later did she tell me how tight money had been and how desperate she’d been to fill out the spread of gifts Santa always set up in our living room.

That Christmas, sitting at my opulent new dressing table, cozy in my new robe, I felt as rich as a princess, unaware we were celebrating the holidays amidst financial strife. As far as I was concerned, my life was very full, and it was a wonderful Christmas.

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