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Gifts Long Remembered

Recollections of a Christmas past wrapped in the miracle of love.

By Kim L. Kruger

Among the many joys I look forward to each Christmas, none is more pleasant, if somewhat perilous, than the short walk to the end of my icy driveway to retrieve the daily contents of my cold, grey tin mailbox. Christmas

cards are what I'm hoping to find, one in particular in between the slick department store flyers, cheap bank calendars, and sundry outdoor catalogs. Typically it is not the first card to arrive, nor is it the last. Neither is it

that which is sent by my best friend in Kansas City, nor by my father and step-mother in rural Wisconsin. Rather, it is more often than not, a simple sentiment printed on inexpensive card stock and tucked in a plain white envelope that I'm anxious to receive. One that is always signed with heartfelt affection by my aunt and uncle that best reflects the spirit of the season, and recalls a miracle of love visited upon a young boy during the Yuletide season of 1971.

 

His name was Kacie, and I recall him reading O. Henry's "The Gift of The Magi" as he sat in his high school's nearly empty cafeteria which served as a study hall in the afternoons after lunch period. It was the last day of classes before school let out for the Christmas break. In some ways, Kacie felt a kinship with the story's two main characters, Jim and Della; from the sad state of their financial affairs to the couple's unconditional love for one another which gave them strength and carried their young relationship through poor, hard times, including Christmas. He'd read the story at least a dozen times before and it usually made him smile, for the tale of the poor couple's wayward attempts to buy gifts for one another was both humorous and heartfelt. But the reading of it would not cheer him this day. For the 14-year-old boy saw little hope that his mother could possibly get what he wanted most before December 24. As he sat brooding over his plight, the clanging of the dismissal bell followed by the thud of shoes storming from classrooms, jolted Kacie out of his daze. He gathered up his books and heaps of holiday homework and headed out of school amid a throng of excited classmates.

 

The mile and a half walk home passed too quickly and he wished he'd stopped in the back room of a nearby ice cream shop, his favorite haunt, to pass some time playing pinball with the two quarters he'd saved from his lunch money. But he hadn't detoured and so he soon found himself climbing the yellowed and cracked vinyl-covered stairs that creaked with every step, two flights up to his family's apartment. Like so many days before, he dreaded opening the door and entering the small, two bedroom, one bath flat that overlooked an old but popular donut dive and half a dozen other rental units like his own that housed the many low-income families he called neighbors. As he slowly turned the knob Kacie whispered under his breath the wish he'd made every day since the first of the month at this hour; that a hearty Scotch Pine would greet his sight, standing in a cleared corner of the dusty living room, waiting to be decorated in all of its holiday finery; its pleasingly sharp, prickly scent tickling his nostrils. But as the door swung wide and he lifted his head, his eyes and nose told him once again that his intuition had been right.

 

Now, a freshman in high school may no longer believe in Santa Claus, but the young man standing on the cool, hardwood floor of the apartment never once in his short life doubted the existence of the spirit of the Holy season; that same mystical embodiment that possessed the hearts of O. Henry's financially-lacking lovers. For in his mind it lived not only in a manger in Bethlehem but also in the tinsel and sundry trinkets that made up the traditional tree. Kacie, his older brother, and younger sister had endured many hard times since his parents' divorce seven years earlier; moving from dumpy apartments to dingy ones, often changing schools two, even three times a year. Eating margarine sandwiches and sleeping in their car in highway rest areas and waysides were all too common occurrences following the countless evictions for lack of rent. But somehow, at Christmas, his mother had always found a way to provide Kacie and his siblings with a roof over their heads, and a holiday tree beneath it.

 

The Christmas of 1971, he realized with resignation, would be different. That year his mother was having an especially difficult time trying to make sure her offspring had the basic necessities of life, despite working two full-time waitress jobs and banquets on weekends when she could get them. And when she worked Kacie knew she suffered, for she hobbled around serving conventioneers and businessmen on an ankle that had never healed properly after catching a spiked heel in a metal grate and severely twisting it a decade earlier. The fact the ankle had actually been fractured was his mother's best-kept secret for many years afterward, although she never could conceal the limp that accompanied her every step until her dying day. Too poor to see a doctor and risk being laid up and out of work for an extended period of time, she simply wrapped the ankle in an ace bandage and rested it for a day.

 

To say money was tight, well, the 40-year-old single mother of three always seemed to be digging and scraping the bottom of a bulky purse bulging with papers, searching for enough pennies, nickels and dimes to buy a gallon of gas for "Betsy," the name fondly given to the family's beat-up, pea green, '65 Chevy wagon. Sometimes his mother came across a wrinkled and worn greenback that had gotten lost in the untidy mass of receipts, rent notices and unopened utility bills; a lucky find and enough to buy a pack of cigarettes for the nicotine fix that went along with the smokes to keep her from going crazy with worry and anxiety. At home in the apartment's kitchen, styrofoam carry-out food containers were more likely to be seen on the worn Formica counters than heaping bags of groceries; mostly burgers and fries from the restaurants where she worked, sometimes out of convenience but mostly due to necessity. Although Kacie and his sister seemed not to mind the short order meals, the make-shift dinners saddened their mother, for she rarely got a chance to sit down with them to eat what she brought home, often having to rush back to work to pull the second-half of a double shift. When she did get a few minutes to visit with them she often broke down and cried, telling them through her tears how sorry she was for not being a better mother. Kacie of course knew better, and all she had to do was hug him close to her heart and whisper how she loved him for Kacie to know that no matter how poor they might be, he would never lack for the soul-nourishing love and devotion his mother gave him daily.

 

If somebody had said their plight couldn't have gotten much worse, they'd have been sadly surprised. For that same year Kacie's older brother decided he'd had enough of Army life and personally terminated his military career without informing his commanding officer. With no other place to run he returned home to Wisconsin to live with them in their already cramped apartment. Strung out on drugs and with no prospects for entering the civilian job market, the brother became abusive, usually verbally, sometimes physically. At those times his anger could only be quelled by the meager amount of tip money his mother reluctantly gave over to him if for no other reason than to get him away from their living quarters for a while and spare Kacie and his sister from further anguish and violent outbursts.

 

Such were the realities of his family's situation as the young man pondered the fast approaching special day. He knew of course there would be no presents or bright packages to open December 25 and naturally it pained him. Millions of children the world over awaken Christmas morn with misplaced prayers that the toys and treasures they've wished and waited an entire year for will greet their still sleepy eyes as they rush from their bedrooms to look under the tree. He reasoned he could live without the material playthings, but not without a tree. Not without hundreds of strands of tinsel dangling from the sticky, sappy branches, or the strings of multi-colored bubble lights that formed fountains of dancing water as electricity magically heated the tubes of liquid, not without the dozens of delicate glass balls, and the wooden ornaments his siblings and parents had painted together in happier times. And not without the fragile Angel, adorned in her dress of satin and silk that yellowed a bit more each year, as she watched over them from the topmost spike of pine. It was a treasured collection of holiday artifacts their mother had refused to concede when the material possessions were divided by divorce, yet somehow had not found their way with the family goods during the most recent of the many moves they were forced to make following the separation.

T

here simply would be no tree. His mother was too proud a person to ask for the small amount of money needed to buy one and at least a modicum of ornaments and lights to decorate it. Nor would she accept cash from friends or relatives who offered it unconditionally. Not even his Aunt Marlene and Uncle Larry could convince her to let them help. Of all her former in-laws on her ex-husband's side of the family, she'd stayed closest to them, perhaps because of the strength and support she provided them as they helplessly watched their willowy, 11-year old daughter with big freckles and blue eyes slowly succumb to stomach cancer. That winter Kacie's mother visited her young niece, Christie, at St. Mary's hospital nearly every night after work, often sacrificing her only free time with Kacie and his sister to comfort their sick cousin with her soothing voice and wonderful storytelling. But neither of them begrudged Christie those precious few hours with their mom, for although they were too young to understand the nature of the murderous disease that afflicted her, they were well-versed in their mother's compassion and kindness to others even to poor strangers whose lot in life wasn't nearly as desperate as their own. It was a lesson Kacie and his sister would put into practice as adults, and one for which his aunt and uncle would forever be grateful. "She and the kids would be fine", Kacie's mother told her one-time in-laws when they stopped in for a cup of coffee at the restaurant where she worked two days before the holiday. "And besides", she said, "we'll get a tree tomorrow when all the lots are giving them away for free." The in-laws only smiled and nodded politely, even though his mother knew the statement lacked conviction.

And so it was that on Christmas Eve they climbed into "Betsy" to make the annual trip to his grandparents' home to celebrate the special occasion with his cousins and aunts, and uncles on his mother's side of the family. The old station wagon's tires made new tracks in the fresh snow as it chugged down the nearly deserted streets. Big, heavy flakes had been falling since sundown and Kacie felt he could almost hear them light upon the ground, in spite of the car's wheezing engine, on this quiet and holiest night of the year. The ride was a short one and it lifted Kacie's spirits a bit as the wagon turned into the driveway. The yellow glow from the large picture window radiated as warmly as a cottage in a Kincaid painting, and as they walked up to the back door of the small, white rambler the sounds of laughter mingled with holiday music drifted from within voices straining to stay in tune with Gene Autry's timeless rendition of "Rudolph."

 

The aromas of smoked ham, potato pancakes, home baked rolls and mince and pumpkin pies mingled in the air of the home's tiny kitchen and pushed from his mind temporarily his gloomy thoughts of a treeless Christmas. His grandmother, like all grand mama's, was a wonderful cook, and he knew her Norwegian heritage gave her the culinary edge over all others when it came to traditional holiday fare, even the smelly, if savory, baked cod the Norse people called Lutefisk. For there were plenty of other palate pleasing dishes and desserts to be devoured, including rosettes still hot from the grease and sprinkled with powdered sugar, and Lefse, the crepe-like flat bread made from potatoes and flour, cooked on a griddle, then slathered with butter, sugar, and cinnamon and rolled into tubes to be eaten with the fingers. He basked in the succulent smells and good cheer of the food and his large family, not wanting to miss a second even while his subconscious ticked off the minutes to their imminent departure and return to a cold apartment devoid of the light and joys of Christmas.

By 11 o'clock all of the presents had been passed and the packages opened. Kacie and his sister gathered their few gifts, sweaters and socks mostly, said their goodbyes with strong hugs and warm kisses, and piled into "Betsy" for the trip home. Their mother quietly imploring God to help keep the "old gal" running until they made it back to the apartment. The prayer was a common one and answered more often than not in the affirmative, as it would be that night. But aside from his mother speaking with their Maker there was little in the way of conversation during the slow drive through the deepening snow, and the silence spoke what they could not do aloud; their hearts heavy with the gloom of the darkened apartment that lay ahead.

After what seemed the longest 15-minute drive of his life, his mother wheeled the coughing and clattering wagon up to the curb outside their complex and clicked off the headlights. Aside from a few picture windows framed with strings of fading colored lights, their building was cast in shadow, its outlines barely visible through the large white downy flakes that swirled slowly through the night air.

 

A burned-out bulb in the apartment building's foyer left them in near darkness as they climbed the creaking stairs once more to their apartment. As they reached the top step his mother stopped suddenly and drew in a sharp breath. The door to the flat was open a crack when it shouldn't have been, just enough for them to see a sliver of glowing, reddish light emanating from within. Fearing someone had broken into their living quarters or that something might be burning, Kacie's mother whispered to them to stay where they were, then quietly opened the door and stepped inside, softly closing it behind her. Kacie's heart raced as he clenched his sister's hand and the pounding in his chest and ears made it difficult to hear what might be happening inside. Eventually, he made out the muffled sound of his mother sobbing. Fearing she was in some type of trouble, he let go of his sister's hand and rushed into the apartment.

 

He saw his mother standing in the middle of the living room, her figure silhouetted by the glowing light they'd seen outside the door; and then he saw its source. Standing in the corner of the apartment, just as he'd imagined it so many times before, was a Christmas tree. Not the hearty Scotch pine whose scent prickled the nostrils, but an artificial seven-footer. No tinsel dangled from its limbs; nor glass balls, bubble lights, or wooden ornaments. And no delicate angel in a shiny, satin dress sat on its highest spike. It was adorned top to bottom only with strings of tiny red twinkle lights, and white ribbons trimmed in tiny green pine trees. It was the antithesis of Kacie's fondest imaginings of a Christmas tree, and yet years later he would recall its every detail more than any living tree he would remember in his lifetime.

 

As his sister entered the room, Kacie's mother turned to them and hugged their faces to hers. He felt her warm tears of happiness mingling with his own, wetting his cheeks as he gazed upon the tree. There was no evidence of who it was that had left them this wonderful gift, yet his mother knew in her heart and mind that it could only have been the two people she maintained a special bond with despite the divorce. The three of them stood there for time unmarked, wrapped in each other's arms and basking in the tree's warm light. Eventually they turned on a lamp to settle in for the remainder of the evening, only to discover more surprises left behind in the kitchen by their Christmas benefactors. On the counter were several bags of groceries stuffed with all the fixings for a proper turkey dinner, with a hefty bird sitting on an otherwise empty shelf in the refrigerator. The lingering scent of two freshly baked mince pies sat on the small stove top, too irresistible to wait for the next day to sample; Kacie's mother gladly allowed them each a hefty slice each before bedtime. Later, as he slipped beneath the covers, the apartment suddenly filled with darkness once more as his mother unplugged the strands of lights encircling the tree. Kacie heard her close her bedroom door, but within minutes it reopened and he heard the soft pad of stockinged feet making their way back to the living room. At once the shadows fled and the entire apartment once again radiated with the soft red light of Christmas. The young man's face broke into a contented smile as he curled beneath his comforter, watching the precious glow until his heavy lids finally ushered him off to sleep.
Postscript

 

During the Christmas season of 2000 as I sat writing cards to friends and family, I sent a note along with the one destined for my Aunt Marlene and Uncle Larry, asking them to tell me about the night they made a Christmas miracle happen for a young boy and his family. A few days later when their card to me arrived, included was a note from Auntie. Not to be deterred by their former sister-in-law's refusal to let them make a nice Christmas for her family, she told me how she and Uncle Larry had hatched a plan to surprise the family, then waited until they drove away on Christmas Eve to put it into action.

 

From her narrative I picture the scenes unfolding as if I were there, starting with Uncle Larry fishing a screwdriver out of the trunk of his car and jimmying the cheap apartment door lock by slipping it into the door jam and depressing the slanted shank of the deadbolt. I sense their excitement and glee as they bring in the tree and begin assembling it. A bottle of wine is opened and they toast the season, and then begin singing carols. They laugh like teenagers and share a few kisses while stringing the lights on the bendable branches. All too soon they've finished. Their only regret is not being able to stay to see the faces they know will soon be filled with joy and happiness. They slip quietly out of the apartment and close the door behind them, but fail to notice that it doesn't latch shut.

 

As I look back at Kacie and his very special Christmas in 1971, I realize with a pang of sadness that the day will come when the cards I collect from my mailbox will no longer include a plain, white envelope with the simple greeting inside, one signed with love and affection by an aunt and uncle who became a young boy's own version of the Magi; those wise men who first invented the art of gift-giving many years ago in a crowded manger, in Bethlehem. But their gifts of kindness and compassion, as well as a mother's unflinching love and devotion to her cherished offspring, will long be remembered. And the soft red glow from a tree never imagined shall warm my heart, forever.

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