The year of the dictionary

Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy

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He wore a blue mailman’s uniform, not the classic red suit and fur-trimmed hat but my Uncle Roy filled the shoes of Santa Claus as well as anyone I’ve ever known. In 1972, he made one little girl’s Christmas both bright and memorable with two simple actions, both inspired by love. And because of him, that long-ago Christmas set the scene for my favorite holiday memory.

I grew up in St. Joseph, Missouri, a weary old river town where the short-lived Pony Express made history and where infamous outlaw Jesse James met his end. St. Joe sits on the banks of the Missouri River and is just enough north of Kansas City to retain a sense of small-town life.

Until the age of 10, my world was located within the boundaries of our neighborhood. We lived around the corner from the hospital where I was born and near enough to the Goetz Brewery to hear the whistles the signaled the beginning or end of a shift. If the wind were right, we could inhale the aroma of cooking hops on the way to becoming beer.

But the beef packing plant where my dad worked before and after his Army service closed and so our family moved so he could begin a new job as a USDA poultry inspector. That move took us from one end of Missouri to the other, putting me in a new school, a very small town, and a different way of life. My large family had anchored me to life and now they were several hundred miles away.

Christmas had always been a multi-generational event held at our house, an old brick Victorian house. We had a big dinner, Santa never failed to deliver, and family gathered.

In 1972, our family lived in a small mobile home and at that time my dad didn’t plan to stay in Neosho. I wrote letters to my cousins and we often recorded messages on cassettes, mailing those back and forth as well. I struggled to fit into a new school where my maxi-dresses and beaded headbands were the oddity, not the norm.

But my parents decided we would go home for Christmas, to Granny’s house. While I loved that idea, there was one small problem. Old-fashioned to the core, raised by a strict English born father who’d served in Her Majesty Queen Victoria’s Royal Navy and a midwife who was the daughter of an Irishman, Granny didn’t put up a Christmas tree. She had when her three boys were small, inspired and cajoled by her German husband. I craved a tree, but my parents said there just wouldn’t be one and to get over it.

I said I would but of course I didn’t. And when we arrived at Granny’s late at night just a few days before the holiday, there was no tree in the window. With a heavy heart, I trudged upstairs to what had once been my father and uncle’s bedroom to sleep and found a Douglas fir propped against the wall.

I hooted and hollered and laughed with joy, hugging Granny, and thanking her.

“I didn’t have anything to do with that,” she said. “That’s your Uncle Roy’s doing – he said you kids had to have a tree, so he brought it.”

It wasn’t the prettiest tree. That close to Christmas I suspect it had been passed over many times. It wasn’t very tall or straight. Some of the branches were sparse but it was a genuine Christmas tree, and it wafted the scent of fresh pine into the bedroom.

Our ornaments and lights were in Neosho, decorating the tree there so we managed to come up with a string or two of old lights along with some ornaments bought at the dime store downtown. Two days before Christmas we decorated the tree and it was, at that time, the loveliest tree we’d ever had, bright with dreams realized and sparkling with love.

The tree was the first of two things my uncle did for me that year.

The second helped set me on my path to becoming a writer.

That December had been cold and snowy in my hometown. Granny hadn’t had a chance to head downtown to shop so she asked my uncle if he would do her holiday gift buying. So, in between his mail route, which he walked daily in all weathers, delivering a soup bone each week to Aunt Sophie and cigarettes to Uncle Clare, Uncle Roy went shopping.

Granny’s standard gifts were an article of clothing, a dress or pretty blouse or maybe a coat plus a coloring book and a new box of crayons.

That year, there was much more and one of the items for me was a paperback Merriam-Webster dictionary. I was delighted and when once again I went to thank Granny, she shook her head.

“Don’t thank me,” she told me. “Your uncle picked that out. He said he could stretch a dollar farther than me.”

At that young age, I already dreamed of becoming a writer. The previous year a small poem I’d written titled “Olden Days” had been published on the Saturday kids page of the local newspaper along with other poems, brief stories, and drawings from local children. I’d wanted a dictionary, but I’d told no one – not even old St. Nick.

As a book geek in the making would, I carried that small dictionary with me everywhere. I took it to school and read it – the dictionary – in my spare moments. I poured over it, cover to cover, delighting in gaining knowledge about words, opening new pathways, and learning about a wider world.

A few years later, my other grandmother bought me a college dictionary for a junior high student, and I embraced that gift as well.

But the wonder is that my uncle knew my heart so well. He somehow divined that I wanted to write, that somewhere beneath my waist-length hair and giggles a writer lurked, waiting to be nurtured into being.

My uncle died just two years later and didn’t live to see my early bylines but I like to believe that somewhere, wherever the essence of his spirit remains, he knows and that Christmas, between the tree I never expected and the dictionary I needed to feed my writer’s soul, ranks high among the best of my life. #nbholidaycheer

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I am an experienced newspaper editor and reporter. I spent seven years in broadcast radio before returning to print media. I am also a freelance writer and a published author.

Neosho, MO
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