Bittersweet Memories

Bittersweet Memories November 21, 2018
By Anne Nicol Gaylor
FFRF principal founder


Thanksgiving signals the season for nostalgia and solstice memories. As this piece notes, “Holidays do stir up memories.” This is from a chapter of the book, Lead Us Not Into Penn Station, provocative pieces by Anne Nicol Gaylor.

All of those exhortations, sermons and slogans urging that we put “Christ back in Christmas” are particularly irritating to those of us nonreligionists who would like to go even further back and put the pagan back in Christmas.The festival known as Christmas is ancient — far, far older than Christianity. It is a relic of sun-worship, a celebration that the days were once again beginning to grow longer, that the life-giving sun was not gradually going out. The festival was usurped by Christianity (one can see why), but it does not belong to Christians. It belongs to us pagans, and we are willing to share, but we do claim the credit.The joy of being a non-Christian at Christmas time is that you can take from this modern-day holiday what you will — the greetings of the season, letters to and from long-ago friends, the music (while forgetting the words), decorations (sans angels and creches, of course), good foods, flowers, and all kinds of presents. For Christmas is a festival. And festivals are very important to children. It is blissful to have special days to anticipate and to reminisce about, and far from Christmas being “just another day” to the nonreligionist’s child, it is a very special time, too.

An absolutely stupendous event when I was little was the holiday program in our one-room country school. We spoke “pieces” and performed little comedy skits — I’m sure they turned out to be comedy, whether serious in intent or not. The same wide planks were stored in the school woodshed and used each year for the stage, and a couple of them had been splintered over the years with gaps a small foot could easily go through. So, in addition to remembering our lines, we had to remember just where, under the rag-carpeted stage, lay those booby traps. There was always at least one nervous performer who forgot, tripped, and set the rest of us off in very unprofessional giggles.

Our programs were not religious, aside from the words of the carols.  We relied heavily on Santa Claus skits and our main prop was a cardboard fireplace with simulated flame — there was never a creche. At the end of the program when Santa Claus came in, he did not bring religion — he brought gifts!

Holidays do seem to stir up memories, and a few years ago I wrote down some long forgotten events of my childhood. Perhaps it is because this is the season for nostalgia. Or maybe I have reached the age where childhood memories start coming back full force. Or possibly it is just that the kids’ conversation was about people who had birthdays on the same day. “Hey, Whitey Ford’s birthday and mine are the same — he was 25-4 one season.” And, “Did you know that Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on the very same day?”

In any event, quite suddenly, I remembered Dottie, with whom I shared a birthday and whom I hadn’t thought about for years and years.

Back in the 1930s, any departure from the normal routine was a memorable event in our one-room country school, but there was high excitement the morning a man in “city clothes” brought a new girl to enroll in school. He brought her in mid-morning after classes were already underway, and I remember someone whispering with a giggle, “She’s late her first day!” For some reason at our school, being late was far worse than not being there at all.

From my seat on the aisle, I covertly studied the newcomer. She looked frail, and a little lonesome and scared, like she wanted to cry. She was delicately pretty with ash blonde hair and green eyes. Her clothing looked skimpy and much too lightweight for our sharp, early winter weather. The teacher and her father were discussing grade placement and I heard him say, “should be in fourth grade, but she’s been in a lot of different schools.”

I puzzled over her father. He seemed young to have a school-aged daughter; and it was curious to see a man on a weekday not dressed in overalls and jacket. He didn’t look like a farmer. Where did they live and why had no one known there would be a new family?  I remember his face, dark and tense, as he said goodbye to his daughter, and then the teacher brought her to an empty seat across from mine.

At noon recess over our sandwiches, we learned that Dottie had been born in California and had lived in Arizona and “lots of other places,” that this was the first time she had ever been in Wisconsin.

We were quite awed. Some of us had been as far away as Milwaukee, and one boy had been born in Chicago, but here was a girl who had lived in the state of the movie stars. Her mother had been in a hospital for years somewhere in California and she was going to stay with “shirt-tail relatives” who lived on the tenant farm adjoining ours. I was delighted. I had a new, interesting friend — someone to walk with on that cold mile to and from school.

Our friendship was instantaneous. On our first walk home after school, we talked about our favorite books and our favorite movie stars (Shirley Temple, of course, with a kind word for Jane Withers). Then, out of the blue, Dottie asked, “When’s your birthday?” “It’s November 25,” I answered, adding, “I was born on Thanksgiving Day.” She hesitated a moment. “That’s my birthday, too,” she said. Our friendship was sealed.

The relatives Dottie was staying with were a young couple who had lived on the rental farm next to ours for several months. I did not know them very well; they seemed rather uninteresting. They had lost a baby; a stillbirth, and I thought perhaps that was why they had agreed to take Dottie, because they wanted a child around.

At first, they were nice to Dottie, but often, when I met her at the foot of our driveway in the morning for our walk to school, I could see she had been crying. She spent more and more time at our house, coming in after school. The stories were starting to circulate about Dottie: that her father had left her with these relatives, promising to send money for her care, but no money was sent, and they did not know where he was. Someone said her mother was not in a hospital at all, but had been in prison for years. One boy told me his mother thought that Dottie was probably illegitimate (a new word to both of us), and he said, “She doesn’t even know when her birthday is. That’s why she said it was the same day as yours.”

I shielded Dottie from these stories and never mentioned them to her. Increasingly, we spent our play time together, excluding others. We had a common bond — our missing mothers. My mother was dead — she had died when I was a baby — and Dottie had not seen her mother for years.

Our birthdays came, and Dottie joined me for a birthday supper. Her only present was my small gift from the dime store. After supper, our housekeeper gave her a half-dollar, an impressive gift to a child in the 1930s. Happily, Dottie told us she was going to buy some stationery and send it to her mother so her mother could write to her.

At our school, the event of the year was the Christmas program held at night, and we started memorizing “pieces” and practicing our songs soon after Thanksgiving. Everyone had something new to wear for the program; it was tradition. My father had ordered a new red dress for me from the Sears Roebuck catalog, but I worried about Dottie, whose limited wardrobe had nothing she had not worn before.

And then, an aunt of mine sent me a dress she had sewn, a pretty blue silk print with long, elaborate sleeves. Providentially, she was out of touch with how much I had grown, and the dress was just too short and tight. But it fit frail Dottie to perfection. The Christmas program night was memorable, and we were both blissful in our finery.

Then, one January morning Dottie did not meet me at the foot of our driveway. I waited, jumping up and down in the cold, and finally walked to the neighbor’s farm and knocked at the kitchen door. The young couple told me, not unkindly, that Dottie’s father had come unexpectedly the night before to take her away. They were not sure where she was going. There had been no time to say goodbye.

Sadly, I walked alone to school, fighting back the tears. The school year stretched ahead, bleak and dreary, without my friend. I watched the mailbox for months, but I did not hear from Dottie. In the spring, the young couple moved away to Minnesota, and even that tenuous link was gone.

For a few years I thought about Dottie on my birthday, and then, unintentionally, I put my memory away. I would never know what happened to the little girl who shared my birthday so long ago.

Anne Nicol Gaylor, born on Nov. 25, 1926, was a founder of the national Freedom From Religion Foundation, serving as its elected president from 1978-2004. A second-generation freethinker and a strong feminist, she was active in the struggle for the right of women to control their own reproductive destiny. Born in rural Monroe County, Wis., she attended a one-room country school, graduating from the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1949. In 1972, she became the volunteer administrator of the Women’s Medical Fund, which she co-founded, believed to be the longest continuously operating abortion aid charity. Anne wrote of her experiences in referring thousands of women for abortions in her 1975 book, Abortion Is a Blessing (1975). Her activism for state/church separation came about because of her conviction that “the degradation of women is a cornerstone of all religions. Until kindness and reason replace religious dogma, the problems in society, for both men and women, can never be solved.” Anne died in 2015 at age 88.

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