Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Two Coats

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.

Respectfully Yours,


Tuesday, December 13, 2011


The Temple to Music
Roger Williams Park
Providence, Rhode Island

It's a beautiful place to walk, to watch the birds, or the changing seasons. Yet I've always felt it was missing something. Inside, the marble walls are engraved with the names of composers: the obvious, Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, plus others more marginal, and even a few I've never heard of.

Now that's fine, as far as it goes. Bach wrote some of the most beautiful music ever. Even so, the most recent name on the walls is Debussy. This morning, I finally did my bit to correct this.

There. Now isn't that better? I sure think so. Now, if only I had a nice chisel....

Respectfully Yours,


Friday, December 9, 2011

Chapter And Verse

December 2001. St. Mary's 7th Grade Catechism Class. The students grudgingly file in. Though the friendlier ones say hello, none of them are truly happy to see me. They are anxious to get this over with and return to their TVs and cell-phones. Christmas vacation is near. Their minds are on other things.

Silently, I take attendance from the front of the room. They look at me and look around nervously. He's smiling. Not good. He's in one of his moods again. Not good at all. I begin handing out paper.

You all know the Christmas story, right? Not the one about Ralphie and his B.B. gun, but the real Christmas story?

I receive the expected nods and mumbles. I direct their attention to a Nativity scene on the center table.

OK. Take the next half-hour or so and write it down. You can write it however you'd like. Spelling and grammar don't count, just include as many details as you can remember. If you get stuck, use the Nativity scene to help you. You can talk to the other people at your table if you like, but keep the noise down, and everybody has to hand in a finished story. Any questions?

There are none. They set to work. Thirty-odd minutes later, I call time. They hand in their work. Class continues.

The following Christmas narrative is compiled from their efforts. Every single line, save one, comes directly from one of their papers. All I have done is arrange them. Completely useless bonus blog points will be awarded to you if you can spot the one line I could not resist adding. It probably won't be difficult.

And now, enjoy the Christmas story according to St. Mary's 7th Grade Catechism Class, 2001.


1 Once upon a time there was a couple, Joseph and Mary.
2 The virgin Mary was appointed
3 By one of God's angels in a dream.
4 One night an angel came up to Mary
5 And told her she was going to have God's body
6 And she shall call him Jesus.
7 Mary had Jesus in her stomach.
8 Mary came to Joseph pregnant
9 And Joseph thought Mary was with another man.
10 He got mad then Mary explained
11 And Joseph started to understand.
12 Jesus was God's son but Joseph was Mary's wife.

13 Her and Joseph travel to Bethlaham.
14 They had to go back to Bethlaham so Joseph could register.
15 They traveled and traveled
16 Because the hotels would not accept pregnant women.
17 They finally found a place in the barn of an old farmer.
18 There were a lot of creatures there
19 Like sheep and goats and pigs.
20 E-I-E-I-O.

21 And Jesus was born.
22 Jesus had no crib or a bed.
23 Mary wrapped him in swadling clothes
24 And laid him in the manger.
25 It was a place where the cows ate hey.
26 While in the manger, the baby did not cry.
27 He was supposely born on December 25th but this is not a fact.

28 A shepard came bringing sheep's wool.
29 An Angle told the tree wize man a King has been born.
30 They are told by shepherd to follow the North Star.
31 The three wise kings came and folled the big star
32 To Bethlaham to the manger where he was born.
33 They brought Jesus gifs.
34 Gold, franksense, mur and other good stuff.
35 They went because they thought Jesus was the Savour.
36 They were happy to see the baby.

37 News spread that there was going to be a new king
38 Which made the present king furious.
39 Jesus was born on the stable on Christmas.
40 Then he died on the cross and took away all our sins.
41 And they lived happily ever after. Amen.


What can I say? It is so right, yet so very wrong. I was amazed that, for all their veneer of cool and sophistication, many of them began "once upon a time" and ended "happily ever after." I knew they were not as grown-up as they thought. Perhaps in their hearts, they knew that too. Strangely, this text speaks to us in its own way, and is worth its own meditations.

The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.

Respectfully Yours,


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Charlie's Gift

The music is the message. There is no other message.

John McLaughlin


Once you reach a certain age, the best Christmas gifts are never under the tree. I've already received mine: a beautiful five year-old boy who still believes in all the magic. I can look into his eyes and hear every Christmas I ever had, every wish I have for him, every dream I hope he has when I tuck him in on Christmas Eve.

Maybe you can hear it too? Listen.

Respectfully Yours,