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John Brock: A Christmas wish came true in dark days of the Great Depression

  • Wednesday, December 18, 2013

(This column first appeared in 2000.)

Seven-year-old Lucinda was an insignificant, tiny, timid, sickly and unattractive little thing but she reflected love in her eyes that day in 1939 when she expressed an unusual Christmas wish.

Lucinda sat next to me in the second grade. She was one of those children who you knew was not quite normal and I suppose doctors today would have a long thousand-dollar word for her condition. However, during those days, doctors didn’t have the specialized knowledge they have today and Lucinda was referred to in Southern terminology as “a little touched.” We pronounced it “tetched”.

The rest of us seven-year-olds knew that Lucinda was “different” and while a few made fun of her, most of us protected her as we would an injured pet.

We were hard into the Great Depression of the 1930s and none of us had very much in a material way, so, Lucinda’s family poverty went, for the most part, unnoticed. The only people in town who weren’t cash poor were the bankers and the cotton mill owners. Many doctors had to resort to garden produce or farm animal products as payment for their services. Even then, I suppose, some of them were overpaid given the limited medical knowledge of the day.

Although she was frequently absent from school, Lucinda was bright enough to learn to read a little and do simple arithmetic. She was passing in her school work although she remained at the bottom of the class. She wasn’t pretty by any measure of the physical word. In fact, she was not even attractive in the slightest sense. Her elbows, knuckles and fingernails were always grimy; her hair dirty and her clothing thin and dingy but her disposition was forever sunny. In a day of almost universal economic hardship, she was not alone, so, nobody paid much attention. We did notice, however, that Lucinda was sick a lot and suffered from an irritating deep cough.

During those years, school children in the first three grades did not stay in class all day. Therefore, we second graders went home at 1 PM for lunch and an afternoon of play. While we did not have a lunch period at school, we did have a 20-minute break in the middle of the morning known as “Little Recess”. The older kids called their 45- minute lunch break “Big Recess”.

Most of the kids would bring a snack from home, which often times consisted of leftover food from last night’s supper table. Biscuits and molasses were a favorite and fried mashed potato patties, another. Once in a great while, some of us were favored with a nickel which would buy a Moon Pie or a little bottle of real chocolate milk in the lunch room which was opened for “Little Recess”.

Lucinda rarely brought a snack but we all shared with her. Occasionally she would bring a small, greasy, brown paper sack of homemade potato chips. Her mother or someone would thinly slice potatoes and fry them in lard until they were a crisp, tasty delicacy. Lucinda was a popular young lady on those days. I was no exception.

The weather turned cold early that fall and those of us who had coats started wearing them to school. I was aware that Lucinda walked to school in her short-sleeved thin cotton dress — the same one that she wore most days. We all noticed that Lucinda was coughing more than ever but she insisted that she was OK. Cold weather meant that Christmas and the holidays were near and a new atmosphere permeated the classroom as we augmented our studies with periods of handicrafts. Each of us made a macaroni necklace for our Mothers and a clay ashtray for our Fathers — whether they smoked or not. For siblings or grandparents, we made splatter painted snowflakes by applying paint onto a pattern with a toothbrush over screen wire, stretched across the top of a shoebox. It was an exciting time in those drab days.

A short while before Christmas, the teacher asked each of us what we would like for Christmas. We were a realistic lot and each was well aware of the economic circumstances of most of our families, so, we were practical with our expectations. We asked for simple things and, hopefully, a toy of some sort.

Answers to the teacher’s inquiry ran the usual gamut until the teacher got to Lucinda — who shocked us all. Her heart’s desire was to wish Jesus, “Happy Birthday” — in person! Most of us were puzzled and some snickered. The teacher glossed over her request with a somewhat embarrassed that’s-a-nice-thought kind of response and we went on to other things.

Just before the Christmas holidays began, Lucinda was absent almost all week. Although we had noticed that she looked pale and her cough seemed to be worse, we didn’t think too much about it. But, the teacher told us that Lucinda was very, very sick and we should all take a few minutes and make her a “Get Well” card from colored sheets of construction paper. We did and then went about enjoying ourselves during the Christmas holidays.

When we returned to school in the New Year, our teacher met us with a sad, sullen face as she told us about Lucinda. It was only then that we realized how very sick our little classmate had been.

Lucinda had gotten much, much worse during the holidays and late on Christmas Eve, “the angels had taken her to heaven”.

There was a deep, deep silence as our seven-year-old minds tried to fathom this revelation. Then, in unison, we all came to the same conclusion as we almost shouted, “Lucinda got her wish!”

Our youthful minds conjured the image of Lucinda at the Pearly Gates on Christmas Day greeting the Lord with her cheerful, “Happy Birthday, Jesus!”

In my own infantile mind, I even envisioned her offering Jesus some homemade potato chips from her greasy, brown bag of bounty.

I had no doubt that Lucinda, a slow, unattractive but loving child while on this earth, had surely become one of heaven’s smartest and most beautiful Angels.

At that moment, the whole concept of redemption was forever tattooed across my soul.

John Brock is a retired resident of Georgetown County. He can be reached by mail at this newspaper, or by E-mail brock@johnbrock.com.

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