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After her mother's funeral, the undertaker drives Ellen and her father home. Immediately afterward, Ellen's father takes his keys, drives off in his truck, and does not return until the following night. Ellen stays home and eats the food that the women from the church have made for her and her father. She does not use a plate or utensils but eats straight from the bowls in which the food has been delivered.
Ellen rifles through her mother's dresser and pulls out some of her clothes to wear to school, since she and her mother are roughly the same size. Ellen notes that her own body is oddly-shaped, for her head is a bit too large for her body, though she is certain that when she forms a chest and hips—for which she has been waiting for quite awhile—her physique will be proportional. She has outgrown all of her own clothes, with the exception of a few pairs of socks, and she enjoys wearing her mother's clothing.
Ellen's teachers are all curious to hear about her mother's death. One teacher follows her into the library and probes Ellen for the story of her mother's death, though the teacher already knows. She is fond of this particular teacher who lets her scratch her back during rest time. Afterward, Ellen enjoys how her fingers smell of the teacher's powder.
Starletta, who, according to Ellen, is not as smart as she is herself, but is more fun, is sitting on the steps after school. The girls decide to walk home together instead of taking the bus. When Ellen arrives home, it is dark already, and she sees that her father has turned the lights on inside. She enters the house without speaking to him, as she does whenever he is home with her. If she can, she goes outside to keep safely away from him.
Since his wife's death, Ellen's father has done nothing more than drink and sleep. One night, his two brothers, Ellis and Rudolph come over and find him passed out in the yard. Ellis and Rudolph put him to bed and return the next day to ask that he sign all of his possessions over to them. Ellen reports that after her father signs the papers, he brags that he is now a "free man" and can finally relax. Each month, one of the brothers leaves an envelope of cash money in the mailbox, and Ellen makes a point of getting to it before her father can. She budgets the money herself, dividing it up for separate bill payments and other necessities. She gives what remains to her father, which he uses to buy alcohol.
The hardest part about her situation, Ellen says, is the food. Her father will only eat at a diner in town or will not eat at all. Ellen refuses to be seen with him in public and must survive on frozen dinners that she buys for herself at the grocery store. When it gets cold, an inevitability that Ellen dreads, Starletta's father takes the girls into town to buy them warm winter coats. It is too cold for Ellen to play with Starletta outside in the ditches, so she concocts a game of her own, creating families and their fully supplied houses from mail-order catalogs. When she tires of the catalogs, Ellen joins the Girl Scouts. She forges her father's signature so that she may have the most badges. But by Christmas, Ellen has tired of the scouts too.
Ellen is glad that she does not believe in Santa Claus, as she does not like to rely on wishes or dreams. Although she does not believe in Santa, Ellen thinks she deserves a little something, so she goes to the "colored store" with Starletta on Christmas Eve and buys herself a few small gifts and paper with which to wrap them. She also buys a spoon rest as a gift for Starletta's parents. Ellen remembers, matter-of-factly, that every year on Christmas Eve her mama's mama has an indulgent turkey dinner, though she has not been invited. When she returns home, Ellen wraps the gifts she has bought for herself and wonders if she should wrap some for her father. She decides not to, as she does not have enough paper. He doesn't return home that night, anyway. When Ellen has wrapped her gifts, she hides them and is very surprised when she finds them the next morning "in the spirit of Christmas."
Although Ellen does not report shedding tears over her mother's death, her sorrow is evident. In wearing her clothing, Ellen carries a piece of her mother with her, a constant, on-her-person reminder of her mother's presence. However, Ellen does not wear her mother's clothes solely out of nostalgic desire, but she also wears them out of necessity, for she has completely run out of her own clothes—evidence of the neglect she must endure. Ellen is acutely self-aware, as she is when she looks in the mirror while wearing her mother's clothes. Even at the age of ten, she criticizes her physique, noting her oddlyshaped head and disproportional body. Ellen feels abnormal, which, to a large extent, she is, as her domestic life leaves her with no other choice. But, just as she has faith that she will someday find a loving family and a happy home, Ellen assures herself that with "a chest and hips," for which she has been "waiting for some time," she will grow to be attractive. Ellen's faith in herself is undying, for despite her many hardships, she is ever confident that she will escape the trauma of her childhood and live happily, though she knows not where, nor with whom.
In the meantime, though, while she waits for this happy home and loving family to take her in, Ellen amuses herself by creating this idealized image of family on her own. She constructs the family and the home she so desires with the figures she finds in the mail order catalogs, and, when her hope for such a family is no longer fulfilled by this stretch of her imagination, Ellen moves on to join the Girl Scouts, a temporary, quasi-family for her to act as a member. But neither the catalog families nor the Girl Scouts can provide Ellen with the love or attention she needs and wants from her own, actual family. Ellen finds the "real" affection she seeks anywhere she can (for example, in the affection she feels for the teacher who lets her rub her back during nap time). Understandably, Ellen enjoys the physical tenderness of rubbing her teacher's back, as she can find it from no other source. This teacher also acts as somewhat of a living substitute for Ellen's deceased mother, exuding a maternal femininity and warmth that before Ellen could see only in her mother and now can find nowhere.
Ellen, in a sense, takes on the role of her mother, adopting the responsibilities her father neglects. Ellen's father does not parent her, but, rather, Ellen serves as a parent to him: budgeting, paying the bills, caring for herself, cooking dinner, grocery shopping, and performing other household chores. Clearly, Ellen is an extraordinary ten year old, who endures in spite of struggle. There is no doubt that Ellen loathes her father, namely for allowing her mother to die, though she is not vengeful and still cares for him as she would herself. This selflessness, so evident in her relationship with her father, reappears later in the novel when Ellen must care for her mama's mama, who has fallen ill.
Unlike most other ten year olds, Ellen does not believe in Santa Claus, and is glad not to, as she knows that relying on fantasies and hopes will most likely lead to disappointment and pain. Ellen has seen enough disappointment and pain and does not wish to bring more upon herself. Presumably, Ellen knows that there is no Santa Claus because, in Christmases past, she has received nothing. However, Ellen's undying optimism and hope prevail, as always, when she buys herself a few small gifts and then wraps and hides them, so that she may be surprised "in the spirit of Christmas" when she finds them the next morning. Selflessly, she even considers wrapping a gift or two for her father, who does not even return home that evening from his drinking binge. This scene is undoubtedly one of the most poignant in the book, juxtaposing Ellen's hopefulness with her brutally sad domestic situation.