Merry Christmas… My Dad, the Poker Face

By Susan DeBow

Merry Christmas… My Dad, the Poker Face

My dad used to have poker parties. Every couple of months he would pay my sisters and I a dollar to clean the basement so he and his cronies could sit at the round Formica top table, covered with a green cloth, and play One Eyed Jack, Man with the Ax, Pair of Deuces Takes All, Baseball, Night Baseball, High Is – Low If and Five Card Draw.

We’d clean off the knotty pine bar my grandfather built and play like barmaids as we swept and cleaned. It was a large basement with a black and red checked tile floor. We weren’t allowed to roller skate on the floor as Dad didn’t want any scuff marks. So, we improvised and slid around in our socks and used the steel support poles as dance partners. They poles didn’t have many moves, but they were dependable. And they were taller than I.

The night before the poker games was fun as we sat around the table counting the colored poker chips into stacks of twenty-five. The day of the party, soon before the poker players arrived, we would open the bags of potato chips and pretzels and cans of nuts and pour them into bowls and set them around the table. Of course, we’d snack on them, which was a real treat because potato chips and pretzels were not around our house very often as Mother was always on a diet. So we’d stuff our faces and make sure everything was set.

The one thing that was missing was TV trays. Dad didn’t like the fellas having to place their beer and Seven-Sevens on the poker table. If a drink spilled, the game was ruined. So he wanted TV trays so the drinks and snacks could be set around the table.

Mom thought this was an extravagance that wasn’t needed. Plus, it wasn’t in the budget.

That’s how it was in our house…if it wasn’t in the budget, it wasn’t purchased. You could put in on your Christmas list and see what happened. Sometimes that even happened with winter coats. We’d need a winter coat, but we’d have to wait until Christmas to see if Santa would bring it, or else we’d end up wearing the one from the sister ahead of us.

We weren’t poor. But in my mom’s mind we were. Dad had a good job at Chevrolet. He was the supervisor for the material and paint departments. And Mom worked, too, at the milk and ice cream store.

We were actually perceived as some of the richer ones in our town of 25,000 because we lived in a new house “on the hill.” At the top of the hill was an actual Indian mound. Being the practical people they were, the city named the street to our house, Indian Mound.

Another indication that we weren’t really poor was that we had a built-in swimming pool in our backyard. But, still, Mother would hold her purse strings very tightly, telling my sisters and I that we just didn’t have the money for things like shoes for a dance or sometimes, underwear. My sister, on occasion, even dived into the lost and found at school, looking for items that might fit her.

That’s what the depression did to my mom. She saw the Hurricane of 1928 wipe out her family’s fruit plantation in Florida. She could not get rid of the memory of her father going to the bank and finding them closed, and her broken family having to move back to Missouri where her father became an abusive alcoholic.

But Christmas was one time where money was spent. Not with abandon, but with enough frivolity to purchase dolls and carriages and ice skates throughout the years. Also, every year, hanging along the wooden valances on each side of the fireplace, were dresses that Mother would sew. I know I was supposed to be thrilled with those, but all I ever wanted was to go to a store and get to try on clothes and buy them like my friends did.

On Christmas mornings, Mother would get out the floodlights for the movie camera. The lights were huge, large enough to light up a Hollywood sound stage. We would squint into the lights, each giving an expression into the camera of supreme torture. “Smile,” Mother would say. And we would. With our eyes shut.

For Christmas, every year, Dad would buy Mom White Shoulders perfume. Her closet was stocked with enough of the stuff to perfume all of the old ladies at our church. He’d also get Mom something else, which was always a surprise.

Mom always gave my dad some shirts and ties and the standard boring items, but she, too, liked to surprise him with one gift that was special.

We each had our special gift that we had to open last. Mine was ice skates, blue ones with gray fur trim. All I wanted were white ones. But Mom wanted to make sure mine were special.

It was time for Dad to open his special gift; Mom, too. Dad opened his, and, voila, four faux wooden TV trays. Dad tried to put on his best poker face. But the look on his face was more like a cat who had just eaten the last salmon patty off the counter.

Mom, having asked for a new vacuum, tore into the large box that awaited her. Imagine her surprise when she opened up her new…TV trays! A set of four; black metal with a spray of colorful flowers. The look on my mother’s face was like she had gotten the Royal Flush. Complete with a bit of steam coming out of her ears.

Dad took Mom’s TV trays back to the store. When Mom took down the Christmas tree on New Year’s Day, she swept up the fallen dry pine needles with her new Hoover.

And for the January poker party, my sisters and I set the potato chips and pretzels and peanuts on the new TV trays. And Dad, smoking his cigar, presided over a new poker game called, Winner Takes All.

About this writer

  • Susan Hipkins DeBow Susan Hipkins DeBow is a writer and artist. A hobby of hers is watching Law and Order reruns and then going around telling people she wants to make a “collar on the perps,” and demands a “remand.” She got hooked on Law and Order reruns after seeing Seinfeld reruns 20 times. You can read Susan’s work and see her art, photography and miscellaneous miscellany at If you are nice, she’d like to be your friend on facebook. Go to her Facebook page, Ohio Writer Girl.

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