When Mother Was Eleven-Foot-Four by Jerry Camery-Hoggatt caught my eye when it was free for the Kindle app at the time. I didn’t realize it was a children’s book, but as I think C. S. Lewis said, the best children’s books are enjoyable to adults as well, and this one definitely is.
This is the story of the Christmas of 1963 for the author’s family. His mother was a tiny woman, only four-foot-eleven and about 100 lbs., but when she drew herself up to her full height, she seemed eleven-foot-four. One full-height moment was when she stared down a black-clad, tattooed biker who was making threats against her: “He blinked first.”
Mother loved everything about Christmas: the multitudes of ornaments, with a story behind every one, the symbols and meanings of everything they did for the season. She was romantic and extravagant, because she believed God was. Father was a realist because he believed God was. Father was a man of principle, inflexible because, after all, how can a man of principle compromise his principles? And some of his strongest principles revolved around Christmas: he felt it was too commercial and that Santa’s list-keeping of good boys and girls gave the wrong idea that gifts were earned. So every year they clashed over Christmas, ending with Father compromising for Mother…
…Until one Christmas, when everything changed. Poverty and grief hung heavily over the family, and it looked like there would be no Christmas celebrating. That’s when Mother’s boys learned what Christmas giving really meant, and learned that both parents were right.
I can’t tell you much more than that, because it’s a very short book, but it’s very sweet and not at all sappy like some of the made-for-TV Christmas movies. I especially loved the author’s last couple of pages of reflections.
I just discovered the hardback version, which is apparently out of print, but the glimpse of its illustrations made me seek out a used copy. I think this book is going to become a yearly tradition.
(Updated to add: there was one aspect of the story that bothered me that I couldn’t really put into words until a day or so after posting the review. Though traditions are important, I did have trouble with Mother in the story fighting with Father over them and then going beyond what he compromised to say she could do. It sounded like, with their two strong personalities and different views, this was a regular thing, not just at Christmas, which is probably what led to the father leaving (which is what caused the grief mention that one Christmas). The mother did say later that she wished she had done better by him, so maybe she realized that as well (though of course the fault for the marriage break-up wasn’t entirely hers). As this is a story from a child’s point of view about learning to give at Christmas, the author doesn’t go into analyzing all of that: he appropriately just mentions what is necessary to this particular story.)
(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)