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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

A middle-age Christmas, at last

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Some Christmases stand out above the rest, don't you think?

When I was two years old, for instance, and my recently transplanted southern Ohio parents and I lived in Pelham Manor, a pleasant wartime New York suburb, I got on Christmas morning a black cocker spaniel puppy named Tony.

My father, an aspiring young lawyer who was about to land a good executive job with American Oil Company, had fallen in love with photography as a hobby, so, to this day, I have several black-and-white photos of Tony and me under the Christmas tree, and of my lovely young mother taking a nap in front of their console radio in the living room. I think I remember that Christmas especially for the gift of Tony, whose silky fur I think I can still feel, and for the sense of love and safety, which, to me, was that day almost palpable. That was Christmas morning, 1942, and that night a Pelham Manor police officer knocked at the front door warning us to douse all our lights, no matter how dim, because Japanese warplanes might be flying overhead on the lookout for an American target to bomb.

I think that by five years later, the A-bomb dropped, and the American industrial machine back in high gear, but now for peacetime purposes only, I'd come to believe Christmas was a day specifically designed to shower me with things, even things I'd not had the wits to want the other 364 days of the year. By that time, my small family had moved to a large house in New Rochelle, another suburb even farther from New York. I now had an 11-month-old blond sister, Beverly, and our Christmas tree took up a smaller percentage of the immense living room than had the earlier one.

When I came down the stairs that Christmas morning, 1947, I saw surrounding the tree a few big Lionel cardboard cartons that, when I hurriedly ripped them open, proved to contain: an oversize black-plastic transformer shaped to resemble a professional locomotive engineer's throttle; roughly a hundred lengths of track; a commuter-style rail-side station with a few waiting commuters dressed in suit and tie; 10 various freight-train cars, including a box car, a gondola, and a crane car.

Later that day, my father took me to the big, empty basement playroom, where a standard-size slab of plywood was resting on a pair of sawhorses. When he set up the tracks, plugged in the transformer, and set the heavy-as-lead locomotive, tender, and a few freight cars in motion, I was only slightly surprised to hear the locomotive hoot and see its smoke stack belch small puffs of white smoke. Days later, my father constructed a small overhead bridge from which dangled four strands of heavy leather shoelaces These strands, my father told me, were meant to gently strike the head of men who had chosen to "ride the rails" and had forgotten that a dangerous bridge or tunnel loomed ahead nearby on the track.

That was the Christmas my mother told me my father was lavishing expensive gifts on me, because, when he was my age, out in rural Ohio, his parents couldn't afford to give him any such thing., and so he was happy to finally be able to lavish costly gifts on his son. I remember only that I didnét quite understand what my mother was telling me. After all, my friend Neddy Bellamy, who lived in the house across the back yard, had got a Daisy lever-action B-B rifle, and I, too, had wanted one, but didn't get it. Wasn't I, too, "deprived?" It wasn't until, as a young teenager in the mid-1950s, I held down a full-time summer job in the City and had to budget my meager $55 weekly salary carefully to be able to pay for weekday lunches, daily transportation, and birthday and Christmas gifts that I began to believe there was more to Christmas than getting some expensive gifts. First off, adults had selected the gifts I got for Christmas, and how could they possibly know what a kid so much younger than they really wanted? Second, I knew from experience that I'd soon grow bored with the gifts they'd bought me, the more costly the sooner bored. Now, for the first time I could relieve my uncomplaining father of the responsibility of paying for my daily train rides into and out of New York City.

That Christmas, I bought my mother a tiny wood model of an ill-clad peasant walking beside a small horse-drawn cart. It was marked "Made in Occupied Japan," and I bought it for somewhat less than half a dollar in the Larchmont dime store. For my music-loving father I bought a 600-page biography of Beethoven I'd found on a 42nd Street Doubleday book store "Special Bargain" table for $2.98.

For my eight-year-old sister Beverly I think, in retrospect, I may have carried my impulse for giving a tad too far. For Wood Shop class at Barnard Elementary, I built from soft balsa wood a toy clown and a twelve-inch-long set of parallel bars along which he could be set tumbling head over heels. Not content with this alone, however, I set about typing a long, loving letter to Beverly from Santa, signing it and sealing it into a business-size envelope, return-addressing it Mr. Santa Claus, North Pole, and affixing to the envelope some foreign stamps, which I then used a ball point pen to cancel with wiggly parallel lines. On Christmas morning, after we four had opened all our presents, there was a long pause while Mom went to our kitchen and prepared the noon meal. Only decades later did my mother tell me how my sister discovered there was no Santa Claus. Beverly asked my mother who had sent the package with the clown and long letter.

"Well, that was Santa Claus at the North Pole," my mother replied.

"You're sure it came from Santa, Mom?" my sister said again, just to make sure. "At the North Pole?" "That's where Santa sends all his letters and presents from, darling," my mother repeated. "Do you have a question about that?" "Well, I've seen those stamps before that Santa used to mail his letter to me, and they're not from the North Pole; they're from the Cameroons, in Africa, and I've seen them before in Chuckie's stamp album. Chuckie lied to me about Santa, didn't he? There's no such thing as Santa Claus, is there, Mom?" I don't remember how my mother said she replied to her daughter's queries that come, sooner or later, to all American fathers and mothers. I do know that, to balance that personal sense of loss, there came to me that day a more than equal sense of gratification at being able to spread some happiness and love of my own, no matter how little it cost.