I pressed my face against the cool glass of the window pane, looking into the gray. White flakes fell from the sky, covering the brown fence of our small yard. Covered by snow, our fence, our yard, our unit in the McDonough Housing Project, 1475 Timberlake Road, Apartment C, was no different from any of our neighbors’. It was Christmas Day, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993 — from the time I was 6 years old until the younger kids came into our lives, and Christmas lost its hold, I spent my Christmas Days waiting for my mother to come home.
I have no memory of when my mother left each Christmas Day with my aunt. I hold every memory of her return home. It was the same each year.
My mother wore her tan coat, the puffy one that she got from the church basement. It was too big for her. The hood fell over her face. Her hands were lost in the long arms of the coat. Her legs peeked from the bottom of the heavy coat. She walked slowly. She had her purse on her left shoulder. In her right hand, she held a clear plastic bag.
From the window, I could see what was inside the bag. I could see the two stuffed animals, the coloring books, the packs of crayons, the containers of Play-Doh, mittens and a scarf. I bit my bottom lip. These were the things I drew for my teachers, and whispered to my classmates about when they asked me what I got for Christmas. Every year the contents were the same. Dawb, my older sister, and I ran to the door. I turned the cold metal of the lock, and I settled my weight on my heels, using all the strength in my arms to pull the steel door open.
My mother pushed the hood back from her face when she saw us opening the door without her knocking. She smiled and the lines on her face deepened, shadows beneath her eyes, creases on either side of her mouth. Tendrils of black hair fell to her forehead. I thought she was beautiful. She brought the scent of the cold day with her. She extended her hand with the plastic bag. We rushed to take it from her. We sat on the cold tile floors and divvied up the goods, one for each, a scarf for Dawb this year and the mittens for me. Our mother and father talked quietly in the background, Hmong voices speaking Hmong words about the coming of the new year, the calling in of our spirits with chickens and eggs. We listened to them, waiting for a good place to interrupt, to ask if we could please go for an evening drive past the big houses on Summit Avenue or the wide open front windows of the houses around Phalen Lake; we wanted to see the glow of Christmas lights, the twinkling of the trees.
We did not ask our mother where she had been all day long. We did not ask her where the gifts came from.
Longing for a tree
The first Hmong family we knew who got a Christmas tree was Uncle Chue’s. I remember going to their house and seeing the little plastic tree full of candy canes in the corner. There were no gifts that first year because they couldn’t afford any, either, but the tree in the corner marked a shift in all of our lives — the dawning of a realization that the shine we drove past on our night rides across the nicer parts of town, we could bring into our own homes.
By then, we had moved out of the McDonough Housing Project. Our mother and father had bought a small house on the East Side of St. Paul. Built in 1895, 437 E. York Avenue was a shotgun house. It was 900 square feet. We had two-point-five bedrooms and a bathroom. In the wintertime, the old walls grew shiny with moisture because the badly installed electric floorboard heaters couldn’t keep the house dry. Stretches of mold grew, fierce and dark, from the floor and ceiling, jagged scarecrow hands reaching for each other. The house next door was abandoned, its snow-covered yard lumpy with long, uncut grass. There was a small, debilitated pine tree that looked like a twisted witch’s hat by its front walk.
For months, I got up at night to eye the tree through the side window of our house. The line of lilacs between our houses, bare branches covered by a layer of dry, icy snow, filtered my view of the tree, and made it look better beneath the moonlight than it did in the day. I came up with elaborate plans to go outside under the guise of night, to work by the light of the lonely Christmas moon. My thoughts took me places. I walked quietly into the kitchen. I opened the old metal drawer with its peeling white paint where my mother kept our sharp Hmong knives. I took the heavy steel knives and I felt their sharp edges with my fingers. I wondered how long it would take for me to chop down the pine tree. I wondered how it would be in the morning for my younger brothers and sisters to wake up to a Christmas tree of our own. I grew scared that my mother and father would be angry, tell me that I was a thief, force me to return the chopped tree to the barren yard, let me see it die, day by day, a victim of my desire for Christmas.
Becoming the gift-giver
In high school, Dawb and I started waking up late at night to wrap up our old stuffed animals, Oliver the Cat, an old Barbie doll, a package of stickers that we had never opened — for the younger kids. We didn’t have a tree, so we placed the wrapped gifts near the back door. We told the younger kids, Xue, Hlub, Shell and Taye, that Santa didn’t always travel by reindeer, and that he enjoyed long walks across the frozen stretches of night. We told them that from years of eating Christmas cookies (the kids watched the Christmas specials on television), Santa had grown too fat to fit into chimneys or windows; he traveled by door. We watched with pleasure at dawn, as each of the kids opened their gifts, pulled the toys close, and thanked us.
I was a senior in high school by the time I learned where the gifts in the clear plastic bags came from. A college recruiter who visited school had talked about how college admissions looked for well-rounded students with not only good grades, but strong community service records. I didn’t do any extracurricular activities. I didn’t participate in any sports. Each day after school, Dawb and I had to hurry home to take care of the younger kids, so that our mother and father could go to work. We had to take turns in order to survive in America, but Dawb, already a sophomore at Hamline University, wanted me to go to a “better” college. She had read somewhere that Carleton College was “the Harvard of the Midwest.” She wanted me to apply to Carleton, said that life was like a ladder: If she was going to be first tier, I’d better be the second. She urged me to do community service.
It was Christmas Day. My father got up early to drop me off at the McDonough Housing Project’s Community Center. I spent most of the morning sitting at a table, marking off the names of mothers waiting in line to enter the “gift” shop. It was after lunch. The snow was falling outside. The sky was heavy and gray. The line of mothers was long. It stretched out the door. I went to stand by the window to stretch. I saw a woman, the hood of her big jacket up over her bowed head, waiting in line. She carried a purse on her left shoulder. Her hands were in her pockets. She made me wonder where my mother was. A woman shifted from behind her. I recognized my aunt. The woman in the big jacket looked up as she stomped her feet, trying to dislodge the layering snow from her boots, and I saw my mother’s face — the lines heavy, her eyes sunken — a face I’ve always only ever known as beautiful.
All those many years ago, I had never asked where my mother had gone on Christmas Day. I had never asked where the gifts in the clear plastic bags had come from. In the moment of knowing, all I could do was fight the urge to open the heavy door, to run to her, pull her close, tell her we didn’t need gifts, tell her to leave the cold, to go home — that the children and my father, that we were all waiting for her, not Christmas.
Christmas is, and will always be, in my heart, my mother standing in the cold of Minnesota to make sure that my brothers and sisters and I could celebrate Christmas in America.
Kao Kalia Yang is the author of “The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir,” published by Coffee House Press. She is a graduate of Carleton College and Columbia University and lives in Minneapolis.