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Mama’s Paper Roses

We didn’t have much money, but my mother knew how to make Christmas special for my family nonetheless. She gave us hope.

A paper rose; Getty Imges

While I was growing up in Mobile, Alabama, my father was often out of work, and it was up to Mama to find a way to make ends meet. That wasn’t easy with five children to feed and clothe.

Yet somehow, miraculously, she always found a way. The Christmas I was six, my two older sisters had moved out, so it was just me, my big brother, Junior, and my baby sister at home. What money we had went for groceries, maybe a few simple presents, but we couldn’t possibly afford a tree. Daddy took us all out into the woods, where we picked a scruffy pine to drag inside. But what about decorations?

“I think I can find some,” Mama said softly. She opened a cabinet that held a collection of gold foil rings pulled off cigars. “I knew these would come in handy someday,” she said as she showed us how perfectly the rings fit over the tips of the tree branches. She made a garland out of colorful rags, tying the pieces together into a chain. Our tree was being transformed before our very eyes.

“A tree fit for a king,” Daddy declared when we were finished.

Then Mama explained how Jesus was a king, even though his parents didn’t have a lot of money. “But that’s impossible, Mama. Everybody knows a poor child can’t be king.”

“With God, Mitzi, all things are possible,” Mama said. “That’s what we remember each year when we celebrate Jesus’ birthday.” I looked at our tree and imagined the presents with our names on them that would be waiting for us kids Christmas morning. Maybe nothing fancy like a king would have, but wonderful presents just the same.

We found Mama stirring a pot at the stove the next morning. “What’s that, Mama?” I asked. “Breakfast?”

Mama shook her head. “It’s hot wax,” she said. “Now stand back.” Junior and I watched Mama take the pot off the burner. On the table were brightly colored crepe paper, some old hangers and a pair of sturdy scissors. “Watch,” Mama said. She plucked a bright pink sheet of crepe paper from the pile and cut out a funny-shaped piece that looked like a heart with a tail.

Then she untwisted the hanger and straightened it out. She took the scissors to that too, squeezing her hands hard to cut the wire in half. “This will be a stem,” she said. Mama’s fingers were red and pinched, but she went right to work, wrapping the tail part of the crepe paper around the stem. After she had four pieces wrapped around the wire, Mama curled the heart-shaped ends out at the top like petals.

Mama proudly held up what she had made. “A rose!” I gasped as she held the stem and dipped the paper flower in the hot wax so the bright rose shone like real petals sparkling with early-morning dew.

“Can we help you make another, Mama?” Junior asked.

“Of course,” said Mama. “How could I do it without your help?” All morning the three of us sat at the table making paper roses: pink, white, red and my favorite, bright yellow. Well, it was Mama who really did the work, but Junior and I picked out the colors and made Mama laugh while she wrapped and curled and dipped. By the middle of the afternoon bunches of roses lay across the table.

“It looks like a garden in the middle of winter!” I exclaimed. “What are we going to do with them all?”

Mama went to the closet and took out our coats. “I have a very special job for you,” she said, brushing our hair and making sure our hands were clean. Junior and I nodded solemnly. We could handle a special job! Mama explained how we were to go to people’s houses and ask if they would like to buy some roses.

“Sixty cents for a dozen, 30 cents for six,” Mama said. Junior and I repeated the price three times to be sure we got it right. “Now you two stick together, and don’t go inside anywhere,” Mama instructed as she buttoned up my coat. Her fingers were sore from cutting all of the wire to make the stems, and there were blisters on her hands from where the wax had splattered on her. “And don’t take anything besides the money.”

“Yes, Mama,” we promised as we stepped out the door. The wind was strong, but Junior and I wrapped our arms around the roses to keep them safe. We visited plenty of houses that day, and it seemed like everyone wanted Mama’s paper roses for Christmas.

“Just one more bunch, and we’ll have sold them all,” I told Junior proudly as we rang the doorbell at a large house with a big wreath on the door. A woman in an apron answered. “What beautiful roses!” she exclaimed. “Come inside and keep warm while I get my purse. Would you children like some cookies?”

“No, thank you, ma’am,” Junior said politely, just as Mama always taught us. “We’ll wait out here.” But when the lady was gone we peeked inside the open door. “Mitzi, look!” Junior whispered. In the corner of the hall was a tremendous fir tree covered in gold and silver balls and twinkling lights, with a glowing star on top. I’d never seen such a tree in all my life!

“It’s much fancier than ours,” I observed.

Junior nodded. “But I like ours better.”

I took one more look at the tree. “Yeah,” I agreed. “Our tree is special. It’s a tree fit for a king.”

On the way home Junior and I discussed what kind of presents the people in that house might be getting. “I’ll bet the kids get tons of presents,” Junior sighed. “Maybe even roller skates!” Roller skates! That was just about the biggest present we could imagine.

Mama was waiting with hot cocoa and blankets when we got home. “We were real careful with the money,” Junior told her as we pulled handfuls of nickels and dimes out of our pockets.

“You did a good job,” Mama said, helping us off with our coats. “I don’t know what I would do without you two.”

The next week Mama made lots more roses, and Junior and I sold every single one. “I’m going to miss going door to door,” I said as Junior and I went to bed on Christmas Eve. “But we’ll definitely have enough money for groceries now.”

Bright and early the next morning I bounded out of bed and down to our tree. Sure enough, Santa had left a present for each of us kids, even the baby. There were two wrapped packages just the same size, one with my name on it and one with Junior’s.

“What do you suppose those are?” Daddy asked. We carried the boxes to the middle of the room. They were surprisingly heavy. I shook mine a little and heard a thump from inside. What could it be? Junior and I tore off the wrapping paper.

I gasped. “Mama! Roller skates!”

Junior pulled his skates out of the box, turning them over in his hands like he was making sure they were real. “Let’s see them,” said Mama. We rushed to her side and held up the silver skates so Mama could spin the wheels with her hands, still cracked and blistered from making those paper roses.

“Santa brought us roller skates!” I said. I could still hardly believe it was true. But hadn’t Mama said at Christmastime anything was possible?

“Of course he did,” Mama said, sweeping us into a big hug. “Because you’re such a good boy and girl!”

It was years before I questioned where those roller skates really came from, or wondered just what Mama did with the money she worked so hard for that Christmas. Looking back, though, I think that was just the way Mama wanted it. On that magic morning, I knew without a doubt that all things are possible—that roses can bloom in wintertime and a poor child can be king.

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