A Christmas Lesson

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Exif_JPEG_PICTUREIn the U.K. they have a tradition of the “Nine Lessons and Carols” in church at Christmastime, where the lessons are readings from the New Testament, telling the biblical Christmas story. When I think of Christmas, though, my “lessons” are connected to my childhood and our family’s Christmas traditions. Now that both my parents have passed, their Christmas has faded, as distant to me now as a black and white movie of an era only heard about. My own practices have changed into something much more ecumenical, urban and modern, although I still cling to some of the old ways. I love to listen to the same Christmas music that played in our house when I was a girl, and to read Dickens and decorate a tree. I still like to make gifts and take care in wrapping them, but the month-long orgy of buying and wrapping and decorating and sending that dominated our household is no more. It is decades since I tried to bake the anise flavored cookies my mother always made, and our small holiday dinners bear little resemblance to the abundance of my parents’ table. I never throw huge Christmas parties as they did, and my city apartment cannot support the many wreaths and lights and candles that filled our rural home, inside and out.

It seemed a lot, but it all happened on a limited budget. We were encouraged to remember neighbors and relatives with small home-made gifts, hand delivered. We helped bake the cookies and decorate the tree with our construction paper chains, wrote our letters to Santa and put out the manger. Later on, if we brought home a stray kid or two from college, my mother made sure they too had a Christmas stocking filled with little gifts. Girlfriends, boyfriends and spouses came and went, all welcomed, all fed, all included.

My father was dedicated to his local Catholic church, and was one of the volunteers who put together and delivered a Christmas box to a local family in need. Where these names came from and who organized them, I do not know, but I do remember helping to put our boxes together. One or two cardboard cartons from the grocery store would sit on the kitchen counter. In would go the ingredients for a Christmas dinner, a frozen turkey, cans of pumpkin and corn, bread for stuffing, apples and potatoes, candy canes and chocolate Santas. Out of the closet would come a bag with small gifts, which we wrapped in paper and ribbon, socks and mittens and a doll, a truck, some crayons,….how did we know if there was a little girl, I asked, eyeing the doll. We know, said my father. Then, as both boxes seemed full and ready, my mother would say, wait, they need something for the table! Always the decorator, keen to share her skill with greens and ribbons and pine cones, she would take one of centerpieces she made and put it in on top, the final touch. Then we would climb the hill in the snow, for it was always snowy then, and put the boxes in the trunk of our enormous blue 1955 Buick. I always accompanied my father, while my mother stayed home with the little kids.

The year I was in the 4th grade, we left for our delivery and turned off the main road onto a long narrow dirt lane – I knew the place because we weren’t allowed to go there on our bikes. It got darker and lonelier the farther we went, several miles deep into trees and down into a hollow, near a swampy area at the end of a lake. There at the very end of the road stood a shack, surrounded by rusted cars and discarded pieces of unidentifiable metal, chairs, cans, junk. Is this the place, I asked? I was a little scared. Yes, said my father. We got out of the car and opened the trunk, and got our boxes – I carried the smaller one. We went to the door and knocked, and a lady with long greyish hair and sad eyes opened the door. Behind her were children, crowding around. She said thank you and took his box, and then one boy stepped forward to take the other box from me and suddenly I realized I knew him. It was a boy from my school, Ronnie Swineherd, who we called retarded because he was slow, a boy who always smelled bad and wore ratty clothes and had dirty fingernails. I could see he was shy and I was embarrassed. He took the box and they all said thank you and we left.

Ronnie Swineherd! As soon as we got in the car I started asking questions, why did they live there? Why was their house broken? Why were there old cars in the front? Why did Ronnie smell so bad? Up until that moment, at age 10, I thought we were poor. We did not have extra money for music lessons or fur boots or to have a horse. My grandma made my clothes, often derided by the neighbor girls who always had new things. I didn’t know that we were lucky in our stability. I didn’t know about fathers in prison and outdoor toilets and no running water. I didn’t know that children like me, children I knew were made to suffer because of the circumstances and mistakes of the adults in their lives. A few days later I received a Christmas card in the mail, lettered in pencil, with a thank you and my named misspelled, from Ronnie Swineherd. I felt bad. I was afraid he thought I wanted to be his girlfriend. I was afraid he would tell people. But I was also ashamed that I found out his secret, that I could take baths and he couldn’t, that I had toys, and food, and warmth, and that I laughed at him for smelling bad. Later that spring, when Mrs. Lang asked me to help Ronnie Swineherd with his fractions, I did, even though I still didn’t want to sit next to him. I understood then that he couldn’t help it.

A guy I knew in graduate school used to say, whenever we complained about being broke, “What if these are the seven fat years?” I smile about that now – I was luckier than I knew. That snowy Saturday delivering boxes with my father I learned about the immediacy of need and the blindness of plenty. I learned that even the smallest gesture can brighten misery, that awareness is lightened by understanding, and generosity can change a point of view and shape a world. Fifty years later, it has stayed with me, one of my Christmas lessons.

©Melody S. Owens, Poets Sinews, 2017. Reuse with permission.