Just before Christmas in 1944, a letter arrived at our house in Philadelphia. The postmark was from Tuskegee, Alabama, so we all knew who it was from. We excitedly gathered around Mother as she opened it at the kitchen table.
My Dear Mother,
I did not get the leave I expected for Christmas. I will miss all of you. Please leave the Christmas tree up until I make it back. I hope to be home by March.
Love from your son,
I was 17 years old at the time. My heart sank. I felt a profound sadness that my favorite brother would not be home for Christmas. He was one of the Tuskegee Airmen and was responsible for maintaining the airplanes flying off to fight in World War II.
My mother, being the optimist she always was, said, “Well, it looks like we’ll get to have two Christmases this year!”
After Christmas, my sister and I worked together to make sure we kept that Christmas tree looking as pretty as possible. This was no easy feat.
By mid-January, the branches drooped so low to the ground that they became a sliding board for the decorations. Each day, ornaments would come crashing to the ground and there were brand new sprinklings of pine needles all over the wooden floor. My sister and I took turns sweeping them up. We repositioned the ornaments to the stronger branches on the tree, hoping they would stay on.
Each time we freshened that tree up, my sister and I were full of thoughts about Clifton and how happy we would be to see him again. It made us feel that he was close by, even though he was hundreds of miles away.
On March 5, the doorbell rang. We ran to the door and gave Clifton a big hug. As he hugged Mother, I could see him peek over her head at the Christmas tree.
“It’s beautiful,” he said. “Thank you.” Clifton opened his presents and told us all sorts of stories about his work in Tuskegee.
That night as we slept, we heard a crash in the living room. We all ran to see what had happened. The tree had toppled onto the sofa and there were needles and broken ornaments everywhere. We all had a good laugh. It was fortuitous Clifton got home when he did!