There were no holiday presents in our family. In fact, there were no presents period. For anything. There was seldom money for rent and food and gifts for children were most certainly never on the agenda. To my way of thinking the reason was frustrating and avoidable.
My father was incurably lazy. Inert as a slug. His aversion to work---and the lengths he went to avoid it might make an entertaining television show. Papa was bright, funny and handsome. He didn't drink, gamble, run around or even smoke. My mother was crazy about him, forgave his ineffectuality and laughed at his philosopical bon mots. However, his laziness was anything but funny to me. Even as a very young child I was embarrassed and resentful---Except for one magic moment when Papa made me a princess. Remembering it now is so bittersweet.
When I was about 6, (for some unknown reason) Papa decided to get a job. He became a insurance salesman for the Superior Fidelity Life Insurance Company. Not surprisingly he was good at it. He could talk anybody into anything---which is how we usually survived. In any case, he received a big commission on an exceptionally large policy and announced he was taking the family on a riverboat holiday.
He bought me a beautiful new dress. And shiny new shoes and fluffy stockings. I really did feel like a princess. My mother, younger sister and brother were likewise outfitted and proud as peacocks we all strutted up the gangplank to the upper section of the white, gold and red riverboat.
The trip was dreamily wonderful. As usual I was left mostly unsupervised. I explored the boat in my finery feeling so adequate, so acceptable, so, dare I say, really special. In the evening I especially loved mingling with other elegantly attired guests in the "salon." Saloon was probably a better word for it, but to me it all was so very, very chic.
A long, shiny bar (probably scratched and greasy). Heavy velvet curtains (probably dusty) draped around probably smudged windows. But best of all, the ornately carved upright piano and the impossibly exquisite pianist. All gold and sparkles, rare jewels glittering on her fingers and wrists. And how she could sing!
The memory that is completely clear---a snapshot in time, is of me peeking through the rail that separated my idol from the crowd. I pressed as close as a could, fairly fainting with excitement and pleasure. The song I remember---and can almost hear now, was "Poor Butterfly." Oh! and she sang it so beautifully I thought my little-girl heart would burst.
Poor Butterfly, 'neath the blossoms waiting
Poor Butterfly, for she loved him so
The moments pass into hours
The hours pass into years, and as she smiles through her tears
She murmurs low, the moon and I know that he'll be faithful
I'm sure he'll come back by and by
But if he don't come back, I just must die, poor Butterfly...
And then it was time to go home. Back to oatmeal, potatoes and moves in the dark. Back to Papa dropping out and sleeping in and Mama working at the dime store lunch counter. But not back to feeling the same as before. I'd been to heaven and that was a gift from Papa I'd never forget.