It is 1966 and my friends Alison and Sally and I are comparing Christmas lists.
Theirs includes the popular new board games Mousetrap and Green Ghost, a cricket bat, a pant suit and a Hula Hoop.
Mine? Well, I don’t have one.
I know Santa Claus doesn’t have any money for ordinary things, let alone Christmas. The $20 housekeeping that is left for under the sugar bowl on payday is testament to that.
On Christmas morning, we compare our loot. Mine is laid out carefully on my bed – a pair of summer “shorty” pyjamas, a string of cow bells from the new Indian shop, a small watercolour paint set in a tin box from the local newsagent and a packet of mints.
“How come you don’t get much,” eight-year-old Sally, inquires, looking puzzled.
I don’t know what to say. Sally still believes in Father Christmas and knows nothing of the wrench that Christmas causes mothers with no money.
I don’t resent the fact that I don’t get a sack full of the latest toys. I know the real cost of my gifts and feel guilty and grateful.
I am reminded of this when I walk down Orchard Rd in Singapore this week, which is ablaze with Christmas decorations and trees and pulsating with local and international shoppers.
I wish I could tell my mother now that her gifts mean more to me than all the things I can easily afford now.
Throughout my childhood she worked part-time at whatever jobs she could fit in with our school hours – cleaning, working in a button factory and the local milk bar among them – which was difficult for her as she was a very proud woman who had aspired to much more.
It was not just a Christmas that we struggled – most of our possessions during the rest of the year came from opportunity shops – or “op shops” as they were known then.
Mum was a snob about everything except op-shops, – the favourite retail outlet of collectors and the poor. (It makes me smile now to see them relabelled “vintage”)
In our early years in Mentone, most of our clothes came from the appropriately named S.O.S (Southern Opportunity Shop), along with most of our household ornaments and furniture, when it was available.
When it wasn’t, Mum improvised. The “desk” in our bedroom in our old weatherboard house in Mentone was an old wooden door, complete with doorknob, that she had painted sky blue and balanced on two columns of old bricks.
My grandmother used to always say that my mother could make a home out a tin shed.
There were fewer opshops in the new suburb of Mulgrave, where Alison and Sally became my constant companions, and even less money as we had swapped our old weatherboard house in Mentone for The Ashley, a new A. V. Jennings brick chocolate brown brick veneer that had smaller rooms and a bigger mortgage.
Like many of their generation, my parents had bought a dream in the hope of a new beginning.
In the end, the debts outnumbered the dreams and we moved to Parkdale, where my parents bought what they could afford – an old house that had been formerly owned by an old lady and her two mentally-disabled adult children, and which had to be fumigated to rid it of the smell of urine and faeces before we moved in. A Californian bungalow, it proudly supported the name “Wavertree” in its veranda. We quickly dubbed it “Lavatory”.
By the time we moved to Parkdale I was 14 and Christmas was when you got some of the long-awaited clothes you needed to get you through the rest of the year.
Before you think I am making a virtue of poverty, let me reassure you. This is not a story about being “poor but happy”. We were poor and unhappy for much of the time, not just because we were poor, but it didn’t help.
There is no virtue in poverty, which puts pressure on relationships and leaves children in particular exposed if they are unable to participate in the same way as their peers.
This exposure is made even more obvious at Christmas.
Along with the problem of kids having too much, there is the problem of kids who have too little, not just at Christmas but every day.
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