Until I was eight years old, I lived in a very rural part of Michigan on a small dairy farm off a dirt road. My father owned about twenty milking cows, three hundred acres of corn, and one very scary bull.
Dad was a fourth-generation farmer and farming was his only job. All the money we had came from selling milk and corn. While farming had been the family business for generations, by the time I was born, it was no longer a path to a comfortable life. Massive factory farms had pushed down the prices of crops and many of the farmers around us had moved to the city for better jobs working in factories.
Looking back on it now, it’s clear to me that we were quite poor. I remember the heaps of black coal in the basement that kept our house warm in the winter. I remember scrupulously avoiding the large nest of bees that made their home on the back side of our old farmhouse. I remember not being allowed to go upstairs because the second floor wasn’t safe.
One Christmas, I begged my father to let me open one Christmas present early. He resisted at first, but eventually he agreed to let me open a gift of my choice on Christmas Eve. When the moment arrived, I ran over to the small Christmas tree and grabbed the heavy rectangular present that had mesmerized me since first appearing under the tree. I tore open the wrapping paper, sending it into the air like flakes of snow, in an urgent rush to find out what was inside.
When the strips of wrapping paper had piled up like a snowdrift next to me and the box was finally opened, I learned that my dad had bought me a calculator for Christmas. Forty years later, I still remember it well. It was a light buttery brown color, featured a small liquid crystal display and had what seemed like a million tiny keys.
I was probably six or seven years old at the time, but this technological wonder amazed me so much that I spent the better part of the next week finding excuses to do computations. While I loved that gift and have fond memories of it, I always wondered why my dad bought me that calculator. I hadn’t asked for it and what real use did a six-year-old have for something like that?
My dad is gone now, so I can’t ask him why he choose to buy me that calculator. But as I reflect on it as another Christmas beckons, I can’t help but wonder if that calculator symbolized my father’s hope for a better life for me, a life of mental labor instead of the back-breaking physical labor that he did seven days a week.
The story of my Christmas calculator flooded back to me recently after reading — and then watching the film adaptation of — J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy. Vance recounts his own calculator story in the book, except his symbolic calculator is a gift from his beloved Mamaw to encourage him to do better in school and it doesn’t come at Christmas time like mine did.
Much like me, J.D. Vance grew up poor. While I grew up in Michigan, Vance grew up in Ohio, the grandson of transplanted Appalachian hill people. In spite of a childhood filled with chaos and addiction, Vance joined the Marines out of high school and then, after his tour of duty was over, he earned a four-year degree at Ohio State in less than two years. He then went to law school at Yale, one of the few students admitted without an ivy league undergraduate degree.
J.D. Vance’s story is a big Hollywood version of the American dream, going from dirt poor to the highest reaches of American society in a single generation. I imagine the father who gifted me that calculator for Christmas would have beamed if I’d gone to Yale like Vance. But my higher education was state college all the way. And while I have written a book, it never threatened to break into a single best seller list.
But while I haven’t achieved the kind of success that Vance has, I’d like to think that the dream gifted to me along with that calculator so many years ago has come true in a smaller, quieter sort of way. My state college education qualified me for a job where I leave work at five o’clock and never have to work weekends. My employer offers me a generous pension, health insurance and a level of security that my father could only dream of.
It’s trite to say it, but Christmas dreams really do come true. Maybe they don’t come true as dramatically as they do in the movies, but sometimes rural kids of questionable birth really do bless the world in unexpected ways, especially around Christmas.
I hope a lot of kids get calculators for Christmas this year, and I hope that the loved ones who give them live to see their children thriving in a way that surprises and delights us all.
Charles D. Thomas is a writer and psychotherapist who made Three Rivers his home for over a decade. Feedback is welcome at [email protected].
Any views or opinions expressed in “Big World, Small Town” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.