I started writing this story in the library of Ruffner Middle School in Roanoke while my English 7 class browsed for books, and I told the kids—when one asked what I was doing—that I was writing a story that would win a contest.
Sure enough it did. I entered "You Ain't Buck-Nekkid and You Got Enough to Eat" into the 1996 Lonesome Pine Short Story Contest and won first place. It's my favorite Christmas story of the few that I've written. And it's pure fiction—no events or characters are real.
You Ain’t Buck-Nekkid and You Got Enough to Eat
By Becky Mushko
In 1959 Bridger’s Fork Elementary School was caught between two ways of life. On one side were the kids whose daddies farmed these hollers like their daddies before them. On the other were the new kids who lived in the new housing development where the Bridger farm used to be. Their daddies had moved here to work in the new factory.
I was a farm kid, but my daddy worked part-time on the assembly line because farming didn’t pay enough to support our family. I kept quiet and sat in the back row, so those new kids didn’t much notice me, but I envied them. They wore store-bought finery instead of faded hand-me-downs, they danced to rock and roll music they heard on the radio, and they rode to school in fancy cars with big chrome bumpers.
Each morning as I walked over the rise that separated Daddy’s farm from the school grounds, I’d see those cars first thing. When I complained to Mama about our lack of the finer things of life, she had no sympathy for me.
“Count your blessings, Sophie,” she’d say. “You ain’t buck-nekkid and you got enough to eat.”
I’m ashamed to admit, I envied the new kids their mamas, too, with their nice clothes and red-painted fingernails and fancy hairdos with not a hair out of place. They were so different from Mama with her work-worn hands so badly chapped that strands of my hair caught in the cracks when she smoothed down my cowlick. Her fingernails were never polished, and her hair usually escaped her hair-pins and blew about her wind-reddened cheeks. Mama didn’t much care what she wore—usually an old shirt of Daddy’s and sometimes even his old shoes when she hoed her garden or plowed furrows with Jackson, our mule. I hated to admit that, much as I loved her, she shamed me. Why couldn’t she fix herself up?
I was further shamed that year—my last year at the elementary school before I’d join my older sisters in walking to the highway where we’d catch a bus before daylight in winter to take us to the high school in town—because Mama had volunteered to be a room mother.
In late November, Miss Lawler sent home a paper explaining what a room mother did. Mama sat at the kitchen table, studied it under the only electric light we had in the house, carefully tore a sheet from a tablet, slowly penciled an answer, and sealed it in a yellowed envelope. I hoped she’d written an apology for why she couldn’t do it.
Next day, I dutifully carried the envelope to school and, when no one was looking, slipped it onto Miss Lawler’s desk. That afternoon Miss Lawler handed me a sealed envelope to take home. “Thank your mother for graciously volunteering her time,” she said.
When I handed the letter to Mama, she didn’t open it in front of me, but took it into the back room where she went most evenings to work in secret. My sisters and I knew that she spent winter evenings making Christmas presents for us, so we were careful never to intrude upon Mama lest our stockings be empty.
During the next two weeks, a few more sealed notes passed back and forth between Mama and Miss Lawler. While I was curious, I had other things to think about. Mama and Daddy gave each of us, in turn, a calf to raise when Old Rhoady came fresh. After years of waiting, my turn finally came. Two days before school dismissed for Christmas, Old Rhoady presented me with a spotted calf. I longed to tell someone about my gift, but I knew none of the new kids would be impressed. What was a calf compared to the store-bought treasures they’d get?
The last day before Christmas vacation, Mama baked a big batch of cookies but said nothing about going to school. Instead, two city women came bearing cellophane-wrapped store-bought treats to give us a party. They looked so glamorous—just like I pictured movie stars would look—with their sparkly jewelry. I worried that Mama in her shapeless faded dress would suddenly appear, bearing home-made cookies and embarrassing me. But she never came.
After we listened to Christmas music on the record player, Miss Lawler told us to bundle up in our coats and go with her for a special treat. We cut across the schoolyard and started up the path to the rise. Oh, no—we’d pass right by my house! Shame as hot as Mama’s cookstove burned within me. What if those kids saw where I lived and realized how poor I was? When Miss Lawler turned onto our path and started down, I thought I’d surely die.
Mama came out of the house to meet us, but at least she had on her Sunday coat and her hair was combed. She winked at me, told us all “Howdy!” and led us to the barn. What was she thinking of?
She motioned for everyone to sit on bales of hay. Then she picked up her grandma’s dulcimer that was lying atop a bale.
“Sophie, honey,” she said to me, “you run up to the house and bring down that plate of oatmeal cookies from the warmin’ oven.”
I did as I was told. I could hear her starting to play and sing “Away in a Manger” as I hurried to the house. When I returned, she was asking, “Do y’all know what a manger is?” Most of the kids shook their heads. “Well,” she said, “after we eat us a cookie and drink some cider, we’ll see one.”
Miss Lawler produced some paper cups and Mama fetched a jug of cider from the shed. Everyone ate their cookies and drank their cider. Some took seconds. One of the city mothers even asked Mama for her oatmeal cookie recipe.
“Sophie,” said Mama when we’d finished, “take your friends over to Rhoady’s stall and show them what a manger is for.”
I wanted to tell Mama I wasn’t near good enough to be their friend—but I didn’t. Red-faced, I led them to the stall and forked some hay into the manger for Rhoady. “This is a manager,” I said. Cows eat from it.
“Oooh!” said the kids.“Lookit the baby calf!” said one girl.
“She’s mine,” I admitted.
They all wanted to pet it, so I put a strap around Rhoady’s neck and held her while each one came in and stroked the calf. Several told me how fortunate I was to have my very own calf.
“My folks won’t even let me have a dog,” said one boy. I suddenly felt sorry for him.
Mama, who’d been standing behind the group, spoke up. “Come Christmas, we think about the miracle of the Christ child’s birth in a manger like this one,” she said, “but they’s miracles happen ever’ day. How many of you seen ’em?” Everyone stopped petting my calf, but no one answered.
“Look yonder at that bare field.” Mama pointed through the barn door. “It don’t look like much in winter, but that field produced the oats that made the oatmeal that made the cookies y’all et. Ain’t that a miracle? And look at all them bare trees up there.” Mama pointed at our orchard half-way up the rise. “They’s just as bare and dead-lookin’ as can be now, but come spring, they’ll have the prettiest pink blossoms, and then they’ll bear fruit that’ll ripen in summer’s heat, and we’ll pick ’em in the fall and press out cider. Ain’t that a miracle how the Lord provides?”
Nobody answered out loud, but they all nodded. “Class, we’ve got to be going back now,” Miss Lawler said. “You thank Mrs. Draper for all she’s done.”
“It ain’t nothing,” Mama said. “Y’all wait a minute.” She went into the shed again and came back with a basket. “I got another miracle for you to take with you. Did you know they’s music in them bare trees?” She handed each child a whistle she’d carved from branches pruned from the apple trees. Now I realized what she’d been doing every evening in the back room.
Everyone thanked her without being told this time. Some of the kids said this was the best school party they’d ever had. A few told me how lucky I was. They left, tooting their whistles, while they walked along the path.
As I stood beside Mama in the yard and watched them disappear over the rise, I realized I was indeed blessed. I had things—miracles!—that the other kids envied. And I wasn’t buck-nekkid and I had enough to eat.
In a slightly different version, “You Ain’t Buck-Nekkid and You Got Enough to Eat” won the 1996 Lonesome Pine Short Story Contest and the Juvenile Fiction Division of the 1998 Women in the Arts Contest. It has been previously published in Blue Ridge Traditions; Spring Fantasy 1998; Fit to Print: The 1998 Sampler of The Valley Writers Club; The Girl Who Raced Mules & Other Stories (Infinity Publishing, 2003); and Where There’s A Will (Infinity Publishing, 2005)