I’m sitting here remembering some of the many Christmases I have seen in my 79 years, and I don’t mind telling you it’s a worthwhile thing to do.
Is there any holiday to match Christmas? I think not. As troubled as this nation is at times, we always find renewed hope in a holiday filled with good will and love, with giving and receiving, with the coming together of families, with the coming together of America as a single people in a nation founded on the belief that we are all free to practice our beliefs openly, honestly, and with reverence for the beliefs of others.
I pray it will always be that way.
I can’t say with any certainty why some Christmases past stand out so strongly, or why it is that I could think all day and night and not remember a thing about so many others. But for one Christmas I know the answer. And it’s an important answer, not just for me, but for you, because it stands for all that is right about our nation, our people, and our cherished beliefs.
I’ll tell you about it.
I have no specific recollection of the year, but I can recall certain elements of that Christmas which place it in 1939. That would have been our second Christmas without Daddy, you see. And because of certain things I remember going about it — a certain hesitation, an air of uncertainty in the air, questions asked and answered — I can piece it all together as Christmas 1939.
I was the youngest, just 7, and left out of any serious matters. Bill, 19, Frankie 16, and Mom handled everything, always shielding me from worry, though I never knew it. Daddy was two years in his grave by then. I had never really known him, though Mom never tired of telling me how he and I used to go to the movies while he was unable to talk because of a stroke, and I would stand on tiptoe and say, “One child and one adult, please.”
I know now because I have pieced it together, but did not know back then, that there had been a year with no Christmas at all, the year Bill and Frank had to drop out of school. The year the furnace froze and burst for lack of coal. That was 1938, the year before. They often spoke of 1938. Now I know why.
I can remember all the discussions about what to do and how to do it as the Christmas tree was brought in, set up, decorated, and lighted. I can see now why there was so much talk, though it went right over my head at the time. Our Christmas decorations were down in the cellar in boxes, packed away two years earlier by a pair of hands that were no longer there to bring them back up.
It must have been hard for Bill and Frankie to take over that job amid memories of Christmas past. But they did it, and did it well, poor guys.
They bore the brunt of everything, while I, the dumb little kid, just lived — as kids do — from day to day.
I remember a lot of discussion as the tree went up, comments like, “Does it go like this? How does this work? Where’s the part that goes into this?” But the tree, hung with ornaments and lights dating back to 1918, the year Mom and Daddy married, was beautiful when it was finished. The ornaments, each an individual treasure unwrapped with loving care, glowed softly in the light of brightly colored bulbs, while tinsel which had been meticulously gathered off the tree two years before, boxed up, and stored, was taken out and carefully rehung, to glitter brightly from each branch.
That was a whole week before Christmas, and every evening, for an hour or so before we went to bed, the tree was lighted, and we all sat in its glow, listening to the radio and warmed by a little kerosene heater that took the place of the broken furnace.
I don’t know what that week was like for Mom, Bill and Frankie, but for me it was magic, a week I will never forgot.
And then, Christmas morning! And what a morning!
I didn’t think about it then, but I do now. The only presents I remember were mine. I can see the tree and see the few things under it — all mine.
That whole morning revolved around me. Bill was there watching me and helping, and Frankie, and Mom of course. Everyone watched and talked as I went over to the tree and saw three great presents, and I’m sure that if Bill and Frankie were still here to verify it, they would tell me what I already know — there were no other presents. Just the ones for the kid.
First came a football, a real leather one. We had footballs in the neighborhood, but they were unlike anything people ever see today — cheap plastic things that were too light, too pointed on each end, and hard to throw correctly. But this was real leather. I still had it 17 years later when I went into the Air Force.
Then came a tricycle. A very large tricycle. Not bright and shiny, but nicely repainted with some kind of green paint. I’m not sure how I know it, but I know that Frankie was responsible for that paint job, and no doubt for finding the trike somewhere too.
Anyway, I was thrilled. A trike! All my own! It was one of only three on the block and soon became a neighborhood treasure.
But then came the best present of all. A month or two before, Frankie had come home from the Victory Theater and told us about “the best movie ever made.” I will never forget how he described it, how real it all seemed, how he told about soldiers being killed and being put back in the firing ports on the walls of Fort Zinderneuf to keep the Arab attackers from knowing how few men were left alive. The movie was “Beau Geste,” starring Gary Cooper, Ray Milland and Robert Preston. I saw it 10 years later.
But think of it! I had a real cardboard model of the fort, with a turret, and crenelated walls, and a towering gate with a drawbridge. And six lead soldiers to man it! I played with that fort all that day. And for years afterward. It was beyond a doubt the best present I received in my entire childhood.
Except for one.
God bless them all. I can hardly wait to rejoin them, to hug them one and all, to see their smiling faces again, to thank them for all the things they did — all the wonderful selfless things.
And to tell them that the kid tried his best to live a life that made all the wonderful things they did worthwhile.