Poinsettias and rolled cigarettes

The year I was 11, poinsettias were on sale at the Neligh Flower Shop for $7.21.

My mother was pregnant — again — for the seventh time, and she wasn’t feeling so good. I remember the price, because between the six existing children we only had $5.21. We needed two more dollars to buy this beautiful red and green plant for Mom for Christmas. A few babysitting jobs, a lost tooth from my brother Steve, and a snow-scooping job at Grandma’s — and we were there. We had the money.

Grandpa was taking the old green Plymouth to town and we asked if we could ride along. We had to buy the present.

So my brother, Terry, and I jumped in the seat behind the wrinkled old man and made the long 11-mile trek to town. And I mean long. Grandpa Andy only drove about 15 mph, so it took a very long time to get there. Over the snowy country roads, we sat next to each other in the back seat — with our frosty breath steaming up the windows. Grandpa didn’t believe in running the heater — he said it used up too much gas. Don’t worry, he could still see the road, he said as we entered the ditch more than once.

In our itchy stocking caps and parkas with fuzzy stuff framing our faces, we held our bits of cash and change in our mittened-hands, waiting to make our purchase.

Grandpa waited outside the little flower shop. I’ll never forget the smell of cinnamon and apples and flowers when we walked in. We put our money on the counter and told the lady we wanted to buy one of the poinsettias we saw advertised in the Neligh newspaper.

“The one for $7.21,” we said.

The lady, although very nice, slowly but tragically killed our Christmas cheer. Those poinsettias, she said, were all gone. The only ones that remained were the larger sizes, ranging in price from $12 to $19. Did we want one of those?

We looked at our little pile of money that represented so much work and a gift from the Tooth Fairy. We didn’t have enough.

“Do you have anything we can buy with that money?” my brother asked.

She showed us a nice pen and an empty basket. There was some plastic junk and a stuffed bear. But all we wanted was to give Mom one of those beautiful holiday plants she had never had before.

Knowing we lost the war, we scooped up our money and went back to Grandpa Andy. “Where’s the flowers?” he asked, while he rolled a cigarette from his can of Prince Albert he kept stashed under the seat.

We told him of our plight — didn’t have enough money. We didn’t know what to do.

“For God’s sakes,” he grumbled, and licked the paper before he stuck it together.

With his old arthritic hands — one holding the cigarette and the other reaching around to his overshoe — he presented to us the gift of a lifetime.

A $10 bill.

“Now hurry up, get your butts back in there, and get your mother something decent,” he said. “I’ve to get chicken feed before the joint closes.”

Our mouths dropped, our eyes jumped. Grandpa Andy was tight — not as tight as they come, his wife (our grandma) won the award in that category. His giving us money was amazing, but that he even had it on him was the biggest miracle of all.

Grandma Onie had serious control issues. She always sewed Grandpa’s pockets shut on all his clothes, to keep him from spending money and of course, carrying cigarettes.

But, now, he showed us his own secrets — he found a way to stash money in his buckle-up overshoes. Despite the effort he must have gone through to smuggle the cash, he was willing to help us out.

As we slid down the vinyl seat to go back inside the store, he winked at us through the rear-view window and smiled.

I’m not sure whether he smiled because he made us happy or because he had made us completely speechless with his cunning behavior. Either way, we happily marched back into the store.

My brother slapped the money on the counter and proudly announced he wanted “that one,” pointing to the most beautiful poinsettia either of us had ever seen.

The lady wrapped it in plastic while Grandpa honked the horn outside. We hurriedly ran to the car and carefully set the plant between us. After the bags of pellets were strategically placed around us, destined for the chicken coop, we were on our way.

With smoke swirling in the closed-up car and a strange sound coming from under the hood, we made our way back west, to the farm.

“Now, you kids don’t tell anyone about anything you saw today,” he said from the front.

“We won’t,” we swore. And we never did — well, until now.

That Christmas was a joyous one — we couldn’t wait to give Mom the priceless plant. Granted, no one told us that the severe cold from that ride home would turn some of the leaves black, or that hiding it in the back our cold closet would crush some of the branches and basically prohibit any sort of bloom.

But nevertheless, we proudly presented the mangled greenery to our mother. She cried. Maybe she cried because of her swollen ankles or the fact she couldn’t quite tell what it was supposed to be. But I know she cried because we paid attention when she said she wanted a “pretty poinsettia” for the table on Christmas Day.

Well, she got a poinsettia, anyway.

On Christmas Day, Andy and Onie were on hand to share the Christmas ham. Onie complained because somebody spilled potatoes while passing over that giant piece of greenery — but not Andy. He just smiled and looked at me and Terry.

“I think it’s a darn good looking plant,” he said. “Where’d you get it?”

Poinsettias, rolled cigarettes and $10 from a so-called “grumpy old man” with no pockets. It was a wonderful Christmas.





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