“Sworn to secrecy,” she told me. “My mama told me, and her mama told her. The pecans from those trees are always the sweetest and most buttery. Good genes. Like us.”
We laughed then as we always did when she told me this story. And she told it every year. We gathered the nuts in cloth sacks and stored them in a cool, dry place. Even after all her Thanksgiving pies we still have plenty left for Christmas. Mama doesn’t hunt for nuts now. This late in the year the squirrels have beaten us to anything worth eating. I’m glad because it’s backbreaking work, stooping over to pick out the nuts from the leaves under the trees. We collected black walnuts, too. They’re hard to open. After we lugged them home, Mama and I spread them out in the gravel driveway and she drove her car over them to break the husks. Sometimes she even lets me drive.
For the Christmas Forage, Mama searched for branches of cedar, fir, and longleaf pine. The sound of her clippers clicking away was like the sound the pileated woodpeckers make. She handed the clippings to me to put in the baskets—magnolia leaves, holly berries, pinecones. When our baskets were full to the brim, the scent of pine was so strong I could almost taste it.
Gathering Spanish moss was Mama’s job. She wore thick gloves and put on a yellow slicker while harvesting because so many bugs were hiding in the moss—the worst of all were the chiggers. She stretched far up with a bow rake to pull the Spanish moss from the trees, then put it directly into black plastic bags. When she was done, she shook herself off like a dog and stripped off her gloves and slicker.
“Someday you’re going to be old enough for this job.”
“Someday.” I smirked. “But not today.”
When we headed back home, we took turns pulling the wagon. The walking and the work made us hungry for more than the snacks Mama had packed us. But we basked in the glow of our success.
“This might be our best haul ever,” Mama said, looking over the baskets that overflowed with boughs and berries.
She says that every year, too. I ventured a smile.
Mama was quick to catch it. “Feeling better?”
“Being outdoors always makes a body feel better.” She walked a few feet, her heels crunching in the composted earth. “I’m glad. You know, I’m sad when you’re sad.”
“I didn’t just feel sad,” I complained, not wanting her to diminish my pain. “Mama, my heart actually hurt. It still does.”
“I know,” she said, more softly now. “And I’m sorry.”
We walked awhile in silence.
“You know, your daddy felt real bad that he had to say no to the puppy.”
I snorted. “He didn’t sound sad. He sounded mad.” I grimaced, feeling a spurt of my anger return. “He’s always mad.”
“That’s because he’s feeling so bad about putting the Miss Jenny up to dock. Working that boat wasn’t just his job, it was his way of life.”
I stopped short and turned to face her. “But, see, that’s what I don’t get. Why’d he do it? Daddy was the best shrimper around—everybody said so. How come he had to put his boat up and others don’t?”
“A lot of others did.”
“Not Dill’s dad.” There. It was what I’d wanted to say for a long time.
Mama puffed out a breath. “No, not Dill’s dad. Captain Davidson is hanging on, but he’s got a smaller boat.” She looked at me with intent so I’d understand. “The Miss Jenny is one of the bigger boats on the docks, so it costs more to run. You know your daddy hung on as long as he could. But the simple truth is he couldn’t afford to keep the boat on the water any longer. The price of diesel fuel has shot sky-high and the cost of imported shrimp has fallen so low—that’s a bad combination for the local shrimp. Plus,” she said enviously, “Brenda Davidson has a right fine job that pays well so she can help keep things afloat.”
“You have a good job.”
Mama smirked. “Well, I have a job.”
“Are we really broke?”
Mama expelled a short laugh of surprise. But her smile fell when she saw that I wanted an honest answer.
“I’m not a baby anymore. You can tell me.”
Mama sighed and reached out to take hold of the wagon’s handle. She gave it a yank and continued walking, her face lost in thought. “Things are tight,” she said, looking down at her boots while she walked. “Not that you have to worry. We’re getting by. We have a roof over our heads and food on the table. But,” she added with emphasis, “we don’t have anything left over for extras.”
Like a dog, I thought to myself.
I remembered how I saw her cutting up her credit cards, how my daddy went out every morning looking for work, and how every evening he sat at his desk late at night, his chin in his palm, looking over the bills.
“So I’m really not getting Sandy.” I knew the answer but just had to ask.
“No, honey. Not this year.” She forced a smile. “But there’s always next year. Or maybe even this summer.”
Mama stopped, dropped the wagon handle, and turned to put her hands on my shoulders. She lowered so we looked eye to eye. “I promise you, Miller, I’ll get you a dog, hear? As soon as Daddy finds full-time work.”
I nodded okay. It was only polite, knowing she was sincere. But I felt all the worse because whatever dog came down the pike, it wouldn’t be Sandy.
We walked a bit longer, and with each step it felt like my hope for Sandy was disappearing in this big ol’ empty hole in my heart.
“Miller?” Mama said in a quiet voice.
“Yeah . . . ?”
“Do you believe in Santa Claus?”
“What?” I swung my head around. “Me? Mama, I’m ten,” I told her with a hint of disgust.
Mama tried to hide her smile. “Of course. . . . Well, do you believe in Christmas miracles?”
My heart skipped as hope seeped in. “Do you?”
Mama paused, then swung her head to look at me and nodded. “I do,” she replied emphatically. “I really do. Take your brother. I prayed and prayed that he’d come home to me, and there he was, in this horrible explosion. Some of his comrades were killed, but he lived. And now he’s coming home for Christmas.” She lifted one arm as though to say, See what I mean? “If that’s not a Christmas miracle, I don’t know what is.”