In the weeks leading up to Christmas 1954, the family leasing 121 Perry St. in east Huntington, West Virginia, was brimming with anticipation and excitement. In a home where a father’s heavy drinking and years-long molestation of his oldest child — unknown to the boy’s mother — had brought unhappiness, fear and pain, a much-needed gift was soon to arrive.
With two boys, 10 and 7, money was tight on their father’s salary as a refrigeration mechanic and what little their mother brought home from her late-night shifts working at the town’s huge Owens-Illinois glass factory. Bob Workman drank away far too much of those earnings.
It’s doubtful Betty and her struggling husband had planned to bring a third child into the difficult and often chaotic environment they lived daily. Their second child had been born almost seven and a half years earlier, so they couldn’t have been planning on a fifth mouth to feed.
And yet, on Dec. 19, sons Crys and Robin and their parents enthusiastically welcomed one — brown-eyed Teresa Ann, born at St. Mary’s Hospital a healthy 6 pounds, delivered by the same doctor who’d delivered Crys, the oldest, on Feb. 28, 1944.
Two days before Christmas, Betty brought baby Terry home, and her brothers fell in love.
“Our gift came a few days before Christmas in the form of a baby girl,” Crys remembers. “We all wanted to hold her and enjoy her peaceful disposition. Although I was only 10 years old, I remember a closeness that had been absent in our family. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the winter of our discontent was made a glorious summer by this little girl.”
Though I didn’t grow up in this family, it is mine.
I actually joined my first family twice. The first was a little over six years later, when I was born Feb. 28, 1961, to Betty, by then a single mother who had divorced her husband nearly two years earlier before a moment of “something” within a year resulted in my creation. I left the family through adoption three days after my birth, then left West Virginia before 1961 was out when my new family moved to Houston.
The second time I joined my birth family came 15 years ago, when I located and reached out with only hope to my three unknown, but as it would turn out, remarkable full siblings. When they took me in with no doubts, nothing but love and acceptance, we began forging the bonds we’d been deprived of the first 44 years of my life.
Last week, when our sister turned 66 and she, Crys and I had an hour-plus video call along with my wife Kay, I asked my siblings to share Christmas memories from their childhood with me, especially about Christmas with our mother Betty. Because of their age differences and that of our brother Robin — who was born in 1947 and passed away at age 61 in January 2009 — and due to their broken family, the three of them had few Christmases with both of our parents.
“That’s why I’ll always remember the first one,” Crys says of Christmas ’54. “I’ll never forget that.”
Unfortunately, Crys also recalls that the euphoria over baby Terry seemed to wear off after a time, because Bob was never able to overcome his alcoholism — which took a toll on his ability to hold down a job and, ultimately, to save the marriage.
“I enjoyed it while it lasted, but I was already jaded by events in the past,” Crys says. “Our father was soon back to his old habits and the reality was harsh. Our mother, however, made sure that our baby girl would grow in love and happiness.”
Crys is certain Betty, despite the financial hardship of a third child, was overjoyed to have a little girl after two boys.
I asked Crys and Terry if they thought Christmas was Betty’s favorite holiday. Crys said that because she always saw it as a holiday for kids and wanted it to be special for her children, that made it a big deal for her. But it wasn’t like the family had tons of money to spend on gifts. They moved around Huntington a lot, never owning, always renting.
“She never really wanted anything,” Crys says of Betty.
That doesn’t mean she didn’t like getting gifts, though.
“And when she got presents? She was excited — she was like a little kid when she’d open ’em up,” Terry says, a touch of glee in her voice.
From Terry’s birth until Crys graduated from high school in 1962, Betty had eight Christmases to spend with all three of her children — from 1954 to ’61. In September ’62, Crys joined the Air Force for a four-year stint, and after Robin graduated in 1965, he joined the Air Force a year later, just as Crys was finishing his tour.
So because of the way things worked out with my brothers’ years spent serving our country, Betty didn’t have all of her children with her at Christmas most of the 1960s. Terry does have a memory that Robin, who served a year in Vietnam from early 1968 to early ’69, came home for Christmas after boot camp before leaving for that terrible war.
“We walked over to Stewart’s Hot Dogs and then bought a Christmas tree,” Terry says, “and Robin carried it all the way home.”
This would’ve been Christmas of ’67, and that would’ve been about a mile walk in East Huntington, where Betty and Terry — who turned 13 that month — were living in an apartment on Third Avenue. At the time, Crys, who’d been back from the Air Force a little over a year, was working full-time at WSAZ-TV and attending Marshall University, majoring in English.
When mother and daughter were living in that apartment, Terry was the designated tree-trimmer — by choice.
“Christmas was always near my birthday and I loved decorating the tree,” she says.
After Robin got out of the Air Force, where he’d been stationed at Eglin Air Force Base near Fort Walton Beach, Fla., he stayed in the area, marrying a young woman he met there. When Crys graduated from Marshall in 1972, he and his new wife moved to Colorado, where he’d been stationed. The year after Terry graduated from high school in ’73, she moved to Colorado as well — and she and Crys and their families have lived there ever since.
Over the years, Betty’s children and daughters- and son-in-law visited her, bringing the grandchildren, sometimes at Christmas. But she never had all of her children together again for Christmas, which is bound to be why one of her dearest friends and colleagues at Stevens Drugstore told me when I spoke to her in 2011 that Betty would get emotional whenever she heard “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.”
Betty, who spent nearly three decades as a drugstore clerk, was known for being kind and gracious to everyone — it’s no wonder she was a customer service ace. But she also had a reputation for her beautiful singing voice, which her children have always admired and appreciated. Betty performed with bands from the ’40s to the ’60s.
“I can remember her singing Christmas carols,” says Crys, who also has memories from his early childhood of when Betty and Bob performed with a dance band while they and the boys lived in West Logan, West Virginia, in the late ’40s and early ’50s.
Crys has memories of Christmas in West Logan, too, when he was between 5 and 7 years old. He recalls getting an American Flyer train set and Lincoln Logs, which was a huge deal for a kid whose dad couldn’t have earned much at the Borden’s facility in town.
“And the cool thing about the train was you could put a little pellet gun in the smoke stack and it would actually smoke as it was going around the track,” he says. “I thought that was the coolest thing ever.”
Late in her life, before she died of lung cancer five days before Christmas 1992, Betty recorded a cassette on which she sang with Christmas LP selections, including several by Willie Nelson. Even approaching 70, her voice was still amazing. (Here’s a link to those recordings, and to some priceless recordings of Betty and Bob performing in Logan: https://clyp.it/user/kjbqzyf0)
Another special Christmas memory for my long-lost sister was her first — and only — bike. Our maternal great-aunt Vic (Victoria) and great-uncle Walter bought her one for Christmas ’61 — late the year I was born and adopted, and months before Crys graduated from Huntington East and soon enlisted for Air Force duty. My birth family was living on First Avenue, and Terry still has a knee scar from falling as Crys taught his 7-year-old sister to ride her new bike.
During the 1960s, when Betty was supporting Terry and herself on her clerk’s salary, she dated a man named James Gregory for a few years. He was very kind to them, giving Betty money to help her buy things she needed and items for Terry — including Christmas gifts.
“So I had some really nice things and I know there’s no way she could have afforded it,” Terry says. “When I wanted Shindig (go-go) boots, we bought them; when I wanted candy-red apple shoes like (a friend) had, Mother bought them for me.”
Cancer took Mr. Gregory at 49 in 1970. Terry always wondered why our mother never married him. But there may be a good reason: His obituary that I found lists a wife as one of his survivors. It’s possible Betty never knew, at least while he was living. It’s a relationship I’ve tried to learn more about, without much luck. In 1971, weeks before she turned 50, Betty did remarry, to a man 17 years her junior — and, regrettably, like my birth father, an alcoholic.
As with every memory that comes my way — from my siblings, through a photograph, a document or someone else who knew one of my birth family members — these Christmas reminiscences are yet more pieces of my family history to treasure. I can’t possibly learn it all, but as long as my loved ones are willing to keep sharing with their curious little brother, I’ll keep asking.
I could never adequately thank them for opening windows to their past that I never got to be a part of. But I have, repeatedly, and they know how much I love them. And I know the love is mutual.
Merry Christmas to you all and your loved ones with you, apart because of the pandemic and other reasons, and those departed. And may 2021 be less stressful and less painful for us all.