We were just rich enough that we were not poor. By strict economy, my parents managed to keep us all clothed, sheltered and fed. The clothes may not have always been the exact ones we wanted. My mother often concocted meals based on whatever was left in the pantry. We sometimes wished the roof over our heads was a bit bigger. We did not live a life free from want. Still, we were mostly free from need.
Our neighborhood was safe, at least compared to the next one over. I learned to watch my back but I never slept in the tub. That counts. My mother seems to remember the whole experience as being worse than it was. I'm not sure why. To me, it was just ordinary. All my friends lived similar lives. There was rarely extra but there was usually enough. I look back on it without nostalgia or resentment. It was what it was. Ordinary.
Sometimes it is strange what we remember. I liked Christmas as most children do. Still, much of my memory is a pine-scented blur of trees and lights, punctuated by random moments of clarity. You might think I would remember going to see Santa, setting out milk and cookies, waking up to find that one longed-for present under the tree, but I don't. This all happened, I'm sure of that. I remember that it happened, I just don't remember doing it.
There were presents, of course. I had toys. I just don't remember specifically asking for and receiving any. There is one toy I remember Santa bringing. It was a glorious red, pedal-powered fire engine with wooden ladders on the sides, a pull-string bell, and a working light. Even though I had just turned three, I remember waking to find that. I didn't ask for it, though. Santa had chosen it for me all by himself, with wisdom and love.
No, the gifts I remember make an odd assortment. A puzzle given to me by my great-aunt that came in a can, not a box. A football helmet that was far less protective than I had hoped for the incredibly violent version of the game played in my neighborhood. Neatly wrapped packages of clothing from my aunt, who always hid candies and other treats in the folds.
I always felt a little guilty about the clothes. They were obviously chosen with care. The adults made such a fuss over them. I should have been more grateful, yet I was not. Christmas was about toys and sweets. It was a divinely revealed rule of childhood. Children do not want clothes for Christmas.
My mother is a sensitive soul. Whatever charity is in my heart comes largely from her. She has always given herself to those who need her most: the poor, the troubled, the dying. She is not well-suited for this work. She cares far too deeply. She makes their grief her own. As a boy, I could always tell by her eyes when one of her patients had died. If it were my choice, I would have her teaching kindergarten, surrounded by light, joy, and laughing children. It is not my choice, though. She is called to something else.
One morning, my mother called my sisters and me to the kitchen table. She had a proposal for us. I know Who inspired it, though I'm not sure how. She asked us if we would try something different that Christmas; if we would give our presents to a more needy child. She left us to think it over. Now, even at that age, we knew there would still be presents for us that year, just perhaps one less. After a short debate, we decided that would be all right.
My mother contacted a friend from nursing school to arrange it. Sister Julie said she would find three children like us and send their Christmas wishes. One day, three cards arrived. I remember mine quite clearly. On the front was a picture of the Nativity. Inside, Sister Julie wrote that she had found a boy my age who needed a present this year. His name was Julian.
He wanted a coat.
There were no further instructions. He didn't want a New England Patriots coat. He didn't want a bomber jacket or a pea coat. Just a coat. A winter coat. Size 8.
My own coat was gray-green wool with wooden toggles. I loved the toggles. My grandmother had known I would love the toggles when she bought it for me. She said so. The coat was not new, but it had been chosen for me with love, and it was warm. Winter in New England is cold. It didn't take long for me to realize that any child who wanted a winter coat for Christmas didn't really want it, he needed it. Children do not want clothes for Christmas.
I don't remember much else about that Christmas. My mother bought a suitable coat and let me give it my approval. The coat was wrapped and delivered. Christmas came and went in a blur of trees and lights. I'm sure there were presents, though I don't remember what they were. Perhaps I appreciated the clothes a little more that year, though I couldn't swear to that. Children do not want clothes for Christmas.
My coat seemed a bit warmer that winter, though. Each time I put it on, I thought of Julian, and hoped he liked his coat as much as I liked mine. I hoped he was warm. I hoped he would not want clothes next Christmas. I hoped that his life could be ordinary too.
I don't remember what presents I got that year, but I know the gift I received. Whatever charity is in my heart came to me from my mother, right then. That was the gift that mattered. That gift I remember. I still think of Julian whenever I pull my coat around me on a cold winter day. I hope he is warm. And I pray for a day when no children ever want clothes for Christmas.