Mother's Magic: Stretching a Christmas Dollar

Jerry Johnson and his mother Carrie Conley, at a StoryCorps booth in Detroit. i i

Jerry Johnson and his mother Carrie Conley, at a StoryCorps booth in Detroit. hide caption

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Jerry Johnson and his mother Carrie Conley, at a StoryCorps booth in Detroit.

Jerry Johnson and his mother Carrie Conley, at a StoryCorps booth in Detroit.

When Carrie Conley's husband left in the early 1960s, she started raising six children on her own. She took a job at a hospital, delivering meals to patients as what was called "a tray girl."

Jerry Johnson, the youngest child in the family, was 5 years old when his dad left. Speaking with his mother recently, Johnson heard his mother repeat the question she asked at that time.

"Lord, what am I going to do with all these kids, by myself?"

The answers came in the form of lima beans, black-eyed peas and low prices on chicken necks. "Something to boil for every day of the week," Conley said.

"I cannot remember one Christmas that I didn't feel like the luckiest kid in the world," Johnson said. "Even though now I realize, we had hardly anything in terms of money."

"How did you hold all that together?" he asked his mother.

Conley said she would save up her sick days at work, going in no matter how she felt. Then in December, the company would pay her for the unused sick days.

More help came in castoffs, when wealthy families would clean out their toy chests at Christmastime and take a load of toys to the Salvation Army. Conley would pick through them, finding the best ones for her children.

The result of those sacrifices: a big, happy Christmas for Conley and her kids.

"But I never did tell you it was a Santa Claus," Conley said, "because I said that I cannot give no man credit for what [I'm doing.]"

Johnson thanked his mom for her sacrifices, and for the good example she set for him and his siblings.

"I think it's helping us all be better parents," Johnson said.

"You know, my whole heart was my kids," Conley said." And the Lord blessed all of them. And I'm so grateful."

In 1975, Conley retired from Detroit's Outer Drive Hospital. Jerry was a sophomore in college at that time. He later graduated from Washington University Medical School and received a degree in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics.

Produced for 'Morning Edition' by Selly Thiam. The senior producer for StoryCorps is Michael Garofalo.

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