That fall, before it was discovered that the soles of both my shoes were worn clear through, I still went to Sunday school. And one time the Sunday school superintendent made a speech to all the classes. He said that these were hard times, and that many poor children weren't getting enough to eat. It was the first time that I had heard about it. He asked everybody to bring some food for the poor children next Sunday. I felt very sorry for the poor children.
Also, little envelopes were distributed to all the classes. Each little boy and girl was to bring money for the poor, next Sunday. The pretty Sunday-day school teacher explained that we were to write our names, or have our parents write them, up in the left-hand corner of the little envelopes. ... I told my mother all about it when I came home. And my mother gave me, the next Sunday, a small bag of potatoes to carry to Sunday school. I supposed the poor children's mothers would make potato soup out of them. ... Potato soup was good. My father, who was quite a joker, would always say, as if he were surprised, "Ah! I see we have some nourishing potato soup today!" It was so good that we had it every day. My father was at home all day long and everyday, now; and I like that. I had parents all to myself, too; the others were away. My oldest brother was in Quincy, and memory does not reveal where the others were: perhaps with relatives in the country.
Taking my small bag of potatoes to Sunday school, I looked around for the poor children; I was disappointed not to see them. I had heard about poor children in stories. But I was told just to put my contribution with the others on the big table in the side room.
I had brought with me the little yellow envelope, with some money in it for the poor children. My mother had put the money in it and sealed it up. She wouldn't tell me how much money she had put in it, but it fell like several dimes. Only she wouldn't let me write my name on the envelope. I had learned to write my name, and I was proud of being able to do it. But my mother said firmly, no, I must not write my name on the envelope; she didn't tell me why. On the way to Sunday school I had pressed the envelope against the coins until I could tell what they were; they weren't dimes but pennies.
When I handed in my envelope, my Sunday school teacher noticed that my name wasn't on it, and she gave me a pencil; I could write my own name, she said. So I did. But I was confused because my mother had said not to; and when I came home, I confessed what I had done. She looked distressed. "I told you not to!" she said. But she didn't explain why. ...
I didn't go back to school that fall. My mother said it was because I was sick. I did have a cold the week that school opened; I had been playing in the gutters and had got my feet wet, because there were holes in my shoes. My father cut insoles out of cardboard, and I wore those in my shoes. As long as I had to stay in the house anyway, they were all right.
I stayed cooped up in the house, without any companionship. We didn't take a Sunday paper any more.
There was a calendar in the kitchen. The red days were Sundays and holidays; and that red 25 was Christmas. I knew just when Christmas was going to be.
But there was something queer! My father and mother didn't say a word about Christmas. And once when I spoke of it, there was a strange, embarrassed silence; so I didn't say anything more about it. But I wondered, and was troubled. Why didn't they say anything about it? Was what I had said I wanted too expensive?
I wasn't arrogant and talkative now. I was silent and frightened. What was the matter? Why didn't my father and mother say anything about Christmas? As the day approached, my chest grew tighter with anxiety.
Now it was the day before Christmas. I couldn't be mistaken. But not a word about it from my father and mother. I waited in painful bewilderment all day. I had supper with them, and was allowed to sit up for an hour. I was waiting for them to say something. "It's time for you to go to bed," my mother said gently. I had to say something.
"This is Christmas Eve, isn't?" I asked, as if I didn't know.
My father and mother looked at one another. Then my mother looked away. Her face was pale and stony. My father cleared his throat, and his face took on a joking look. He pretended he hadn't known it was Christmas Eve, because he hadn't been reading the papers. He said he would go downtown and find out.
My mother got up and walked out of the room. I didn't want my father to have to keep on being funny about it, so I got up and went to bed. I went by myself without having a light. I undressed in the dark and crawled into bed.
I was numb. As if I had been hit by something. It was hard to breathe. I ached all through. I was stunned — with finding out the truth.
My body knew before my mind quite did. In a minute, when I could think, my mind would know. And as the pain in my body ebbed, the pain in my mind began. I knew. I couldn't put it into words yet. But I knew why I had taken only a little bag of potatoes to Sunday school that fall. I knew why there had been only pennies in my little yellow envelope. I knew why I hadn't gone to school that fall — why I hadn't any new shoes — why we had been living on potato soup all winter. All these things, and others, many others fitted themselves together in my mind, and meant something.
Then the words came into my mind and I whispered them into the darkness.
That was it. I was one of those children I had been sorry for, when I heard about them in Sunday school. My mother hadn't told me. My father was out of work, and we hadn't any money. That was why there wasn't going to be any Christmas at our house.
"We're poor!" There in bed in the dark, I whispered it over and over to myself. I was making myself get used to it.
It wasn't so bad, now that I knew, I just hadn't known! I had thought all sorts of foolish things: that I was going to Ann Arbor — going to be a lawyer — going to make speeches in the Square, going to be President. Now I know better.
I had wanted (something) for Christmas. I didn't want it, now. I didn't want anything.
I lay there in the dark, feeling the cold emotion of renunciation. (The tendrils of desire unfold their clasp on the outer world of objects, withdraw, shrivel up. Wishes shrivel, turn black, die. It is like that.)
It hurt. But nothing would ever hurt again. I would never let myself want anything again.
I lay there stretched out straight and stiff in the dark, my fists clenched hard upon Nothing. ...
In the morning it had been like a nightmare that is not clearly remembered — that one wishes to forget. Though I hadn't hung up any stocking there was one hanging at the foot of my bed. A bag of popcorn, and a lead pencil, for me. They had done the best they could; now they realized that I knew about Christmas. But they needn't have thought they had to. I didn't want anything.