A Christmas Story
"In the Lean Years on Catalpa Creek"
by: Bobby McDonald
She sat at the window of the assisted living facility, with a new “Lady Antebellum” song playing over
the loud speaker, about love being everything in life, as she watched the snow fall outside the picture
window. Wrinkled and delicate hands, gnarled with arthritic pain, lay calmly in her lap, and she
stared out into the whiteness, with a smile on her face. The young attendant tapped her on the
shoulder and disturbed her thoughts, asking her if she needed anything or was ready to be moved
back to her room. “Miss Lollie, are you O.K.?” she asked. “Don't get too cold there beside the
The “perky” little attendant had no idea of the warm thoughts she had disturbed and the days of long
ago that were keeping her warm. “I'm O.K!” exclaimed Mrs. Smith. “You might give me that afghan,
to wrap in, but I'd like to stay here for a while longer, just to watch the beautiful snow!”
Lollie Smith had been a resident of the home for five years now, unable to take care of herself, in her
former rural home. But, these walls were only temporal. They couldn't “lock in” the mind's
ability to remember, share, and enjoy the memories of life.
And, every time it snowed, she was reminded of Thomas Clyde “Booger” Bowie. It had been what
some might call “love at first sight,” that cold, cold morning, back in 1939, in the heart of the Great
Depression. Lollie Beth was just 14 years old and walking the same route with her sister and
younger brother, to school at Catalpa Springs. The route was familiar and routine, on the two-mile
trek. They were joined by other children, the Longs....Mary, T.O., David and Sarah, who lived down the
lane, and the Hartfords...Sallie, Sunell, Rita, Albert, and little Christopher, who came from the east. But
on this bitterly cold morning, they were joined by an additional five children, the Bowies, who'd
moved into Grandpa's old sharecropper cabin, a mile to the west. That's when Lollie Beth first laid eyes
on Thomas Clyde Bowie....he was the eldest and protectively shepherded his younger sibling into the
group, headed for their first day of school at Catalpa Springs.
Grandpa and Daddy had talked about the Bowies, the night before at supper. They had said that they
would be moving into the old, dilapidated, shot-gun cabin, on the west side of the farm, and that
Mr. Thomas Bowie had lost his wife to tuberculosis, the past autumn, and had a “passel” of kids. But,
Lollie Beth had no idea what they looked like.
The Bowie kids were what Mama would call “a sight!” Only the two little ones even had a coat, and
they were pure rags. And, the entire lot just had that “unkempt” look of having no mother, clothes
poorly ironed and haphazardly mended. Lollie Beth was immediately drawn to Thomas Clyde, the
sixteen year old protector. He wore a thread-bare flannel shirt that looked like it was two sizes too
small, and gaped at the buttonholes, across his muscular chest. And, the patched overalls were faded
and struck him two-inches too short, exposing mismatched socks and rough and worn work shoes,
that had been “half-soled” with cardboard. His long blonde curls weren't slicked back with hair tonic,
but fell in disarray across his forehead, but they didn't cover the startling blue eyes that dared anyone
to mess with him or his siblings. Not knowing the strange group of kids or the reception they would
receive, Thomas Clyde had a somewhat “tough” attitude about him, honed from years of practice, as
the family moved from place to place, the children of sharecroppers. But, Lollie Beth had quickly seen
through the facade and saw a disturbing “lonesomeness” in the depth of those blue eyes, a longing to
belong, and a vulnerableness that wanted to be noticed, appreciated, and loved. That was what had
drawn her to Thomas Clyde Bowie, as he walked up, on the frozen red mud, followed by his younger
siblings, and introduced himself, warily!”
As the days and weeks of the bitter cold, December of '39 unfolded, Lollie Beth learned that there was
even more to Thomas Clyde Bowie. The family was just too poor to have decent clothes. Mr. Bowie
was attempting to pay-off hospital bills from his wife's illness, and a poor cotton crop over in the Union
Hill community had left the family almost destitute.
Thomas Clyde had proven to be an excellent basketball player for the Catalpa Springs Cougars. He was
practically unstoppable on the “outside,” where with his 6' 2” frame, he could shoot with complete
accuracy. And, Lollie Beth's cousin, over in the Union Hill community had written her that Thomas
Clyde was a talented guitar player, but had been forced to sell his favorite instrument, when his mother
had become fatally ill. That explained part of the defensiveness and tough demeanor, suspected Lollie
At Lollie Beth's secret prompting to her mother and grandmother, the ladies at the little, white
clapboard Catalpa Springs Church of Christ, had provided some extra clothes for the Bowie children
to keep warm, but either Thomas Clyde was too proud to wear a “hand-me-down” coat or there hadn't
been one large enough for him in the lot of clothing offered the family. Every morning, he came to
meet them, on the red clay road, clad in a too small flannel shirt, and his skin red from the bitter cold.
Lollie Beth felt ashamed to be outfitted in her own warm coat, knitted cap, and woolen scarf, and see
him suffering the harsh elements. A constant picture was in her mind of Thomas Clyde walking
slumped shouldered, cold, and the snow falling around him, on those cold mornings!
That's when the idea had come to her, to buy him a wool sweater and toboggan for Christmas, as the
holidays approached. She had some money saved in her top dresser drawer, that she'd “put back” from
cotton pickin' and knew that was the way to spend it. But, would Thomas Clyde accept the gift, if
she bought it? How was she to know?
As the days before Christmas dragged slowly by, Lollie Beth was in a turmoil about buying the boy
something for Christmas, but decided to befriend him at lunch, as she timidly approached the table
where everyone sat, making it a point to sit beside Thomas Clyde. The two, awkwardly at first, began
to talk about their classes, and she learned that he was struggling in grammar, a subject where she
excelled. And, after a few days of sitting beside each other, she learned even more about the young
man. His lunches consisted of a couple of hard-boiled eggs, and maybe a cold biscuit with a dab of
syrup. She knew he must be hungry. That's when she made it a point to include an apple or orange
in her lunch pail and secretly “be too full” to eat it, then offer it to him, on a daily basis. Thomas Clyde
seemed happy to accept the small token of friendship. And, their conversations eased into more of a
familiarity as they began discussing things on the road to school of a morning. Thomas Clyde usually
stayed late for basketball practice and didn't accompany them home of an afternoon. But, that's when
Lollie Beth began conversations with his nine year old sister, Amie Lou, learning even more about the
Amie Lou told her that “Pa” was a poor cook and they'd not canned near enough vegetable from the
garden, the summer before, with her mother sick. The family was subsiding on the sparse eggs from
the few laying hens, they had saved, cold water biscuits, and red beans. Lollie Beth thought of her own
home, almost overflowing with canned fruits and vegetables that she and her mother and grandmother
had canned the previous season. How could she manage to get food to the family without offending
That night at supper, Lollie Beth overheard her father and Grandpa talking about killing hogs, on the
the coming Saturday. She volunteered that possibly Mr. Bowie and Thomas Clyde might be of
assistance in the process, gaining some much needed meat for their table, in payment, and she
mentioned what she'd noticed at the school lunch table, that the Bowie children were eating, along with
Amie Lou's comments. Mama and Papa looked at one another, and she knew she had two more allies
in getting the Bowie family some groceries.
As she had hoped, Thomas Clyde and his father, along with 11 year old, Jimmy Dee Bowie, arrived at
the family home, long before daylight on Saturday morning, to assist with the day of killing hogs. A
flurry of activity for everyone, of scalding hog carcasses, quartering, salting, and processing meat into
sausages, prevented Lollie Beth from seeing much of Thomas Clyde, who remained close to the hog
pens, near the barn, but she did see him a time or two, when he brought fresh meat to the large kitchen
table, for the sausage grinding. He smiled briefly at her in recognition and set her heart “a-flutter!”
And, she was surprised when about four o'clock, and the sun was setting low, that Grandpa came in and
suggested that she go to the Bowie home and invite the other children to join them for a large supper,
in celebration of completing the meat processing task. If she had to do it one meal at a time, Lollie Beth
was determined that the Bowie family wouldn't go hungry!
Large pans of cornbread, fried sausage patties, green beans with grandma's special flavoring of bacon
grease, onions and tomatoes, and fried potatoes, graced the table in the home, that night for supper, and
you've never seen a group of people eat, like the Bowies. No one went away hungry, that night! Lollie
Beth smiled inwardly, when she slyly saw Thomas Clyde accept his third helping of Mama's famous
blackberry cobbler, that she served with fresh whipped cream!
While Lollie Beth and her sister helped with the supper dishes, the Bowie family was invited to join the
menfolk in the family room, next to the fireplace, and before the task was finished, she heard her
father's guitar being tuned and a soft and unfamiliar melody, being played. When she joined the family,
she noticed it wasn't her father playing the guitar, but Thomas Clyde, and he looked at her directly in
the eyes, as he continued strumming the instrument. She turned “beet” red, at being caught staring at
him! Grandpa brought down his own fiddle, and a night of musical entertainment was enjoyed by
Mr. Thomas Bowie announced at about 10:00 that the family needed to make their way home, and the
celebration was “broken-up,” as the family left with a large sack of pork, for their long day of hard
work. That's when Grandma extended an invitation to the Bowies to accompany the family to church
on Sunday, and come for dinner, the next day. Slowly, the Bowie family was being fed, in the “country
way,” and Lollie Beth was feeling better and better about the family's needs being sustained. But, she
still worried about a way to give Thomas Clyde a gift of warmth for Christmas!
Decision time came all too quickly, the next Saturday, when Lollie Beth and her family made their way
into the larger town of Sulphur Springs, to do the monthly shopping. Not really making up her mind for
sure, Lollie Beth retrieved the hidden, crisp currency, from her dresser and joined the family in their
automobile. Her mind raced the twelve miles to town, as she pondered the decision. But, when she
arrived in town, and saw a navy blue sweater and matching toboggan in the window of Bridges
Department Store, she knew what she was going to do. She purchased the items, along with the gifts
for her family, and hid them in the midst of her other purchases. She hid the sweater and toboggan in
her dresser, once arriving home.
The school Christmas play was on December 22nd, and the entire community made their way to
Catalpa Springs School, for the annual celebration. Lollie Beth had seen Thomas Clyde helping her
father cut wood on a couple of occasions, and knew he earned some extra money for Christmas.
Through his efforts, he had made certain that his younger siblings had been included in the gifts
beneath the school tree, and faked indifference, along with some of the older community boys, at being
too old for a gift. Lollie Beth noticed the absence of a gift for him and longed to have given him the
gift she knew was in her dresser drawer, but didn't want to embarrass him before his peers. Following a
“stunning” performance of some Christmas carols, performed by Thomas Clyde, using the guitar he
had borrowed from her father, she did “rake up” the courage to secretly ask him to meet her on
Christmas Eve, near the small Catalpa Creek, that separated their two homes. “I have a book that you
need to read, that will help you with some of your grammar,” she told him, as they agreed to meet at
2:00, on the 24th.
Lollie Beth secretly wrapped the gift in some bright paper, and hid it in a pillow case, beneath her bed.
And following lunch, on Christmas Eve, she made the excuse of “going for a walk, as she gathered her
courage and went to her bedroom to retrieve the gift. Wrapped-up to ward off the bitter cold, she made
her way across the fields to the creek, and found Thomas Clyde waiting for her beside the creek. And,
before she could “back out,” she presented him with the book and the package. “What is this?” he
asked, when she gave him the present.
“It's something that I wanted to give you, after seeing how much you give to others,” she explained.
To her surprise, Thomas Clyde tore open the package and looked at the navy blue sweater and
toboggan and smiled! He accepted the gift and moments later, pulled it over his head and tucked the
sweater into his overalls. Then, he pulled the woolen toboggan over his yellow curls and joked that
“she must be tired of seeing his hair in his eyes!” He had accepted the token of her affection, in the
spirit she had given it!
With the cold wind blowing, and the snow flakes falling, Thomas Clyde gave Lollie Beth her first kiss,
beside the small Catalpa Creek, and to this day, every time it snowed, she thought of Thomas Clyde
Bowie, and that memorable Christmas of 1939!
“Miss Lollie, we need to get you back to your room, before you catch a death of cold!” exclaimed the
nursing attendant, as she shook her awake. “You've been dosing here in your warm cocoon for too
long looking at that snow fall!”